GEMS OF OUR WASHINGTON STATE PARKS

This is the fourth park profile in our series on Washington state parks, in observance of the park system’s centennial. Find more park stories at seattletimes.com/travel

Great park. Bad name.

Cape Disappointment State Park gets its nonalluring name from an 18th-century English explorer who, sailing past what’s now Washington’s southwest tip at the mouth of the Columbia River, missed the river’s entrance. The explorer, John Meares, was disappointed; hence the name he bestowed upon the cape during his 1788 voyage.

Yet the 1,882-acre park that now embraces the rugged cape is anything but disappointing. Instead, Cape Disappointment is a got-it-all park and one of the most popular in the state.

What makes it a gem

The park, which faces both the Pacific Ocean and the mouth of the Columbia River, has driftwood-tangled ocean beaches; sheltered bays and wetlands; excellent short hiking trails through spruce forests; two historic lighthouses and a big (and busy) campground by the wild Benson Beach.

It’s also rich in history. Explorers Lewis and Clark, in their 4,000-mile journey across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, roamed the Columbia and what’s now parkland in 1805. The park’s Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, nestled atop a waterfront cliff, gives an excellent overview of the explorers’ groundbreaking journey and especially their time here where the Columbia and the Pacific meet.

What you won’t find everywhere

Few parks in the world have even one lighthouse. Cape Disappointment has two lighthouses to guide ships in the turbulent ocean waters (thank you, North Head Lighthouse) and through/past the mouth of the Columbia (thank you, Cape Disappointment Lighthouse).

Only the 115-year-old N
orth Head Lighthouse, perched atop a seaside cliff, is open to visitors. Volunteers lead tours (May 1 to Aug. 31, noon to 4 p.m., $2.50, no children under 7). Climb the steep and rusting staircase that spirals inside the dank tower and emerge at the lighthouse’s glassed-in top chamber to a world of 360-degree views with a small modern light that signals mariners.

Waves thud almost 200 feet below the lighthouse. Cormorants cruise by on the wind. Cargo ships navigate carefully near the Columbia’s mouth in what’s known as the “graveyard of the Pacific,” thanks to the clash of currents, waves and wind.

North Head lighthouse is reached via a gentle quarter-mile trail from the parking lot. On a sunny June afternoon I walked the path and stopped to chat with park visitor Keith Briggs. He had started to climb down the steep bluff to fish for sea perch from the rocks below, something the 79-year-old Idahoan has done for decades in his regular trips to Cape Disappointment.

This time Briggs turned back; it was too steep and slippery and he didn’t want to slip and splatter onto the rocks (park rangers discourage visitors from going off-trail for just such reasons). Carrying a sturdy walking stick and fishing pole, he backtracked along the trail. “Back to the wife,” he said with a chuckle.

Not to be missed

• Take a walk on B
enson Beach (get to it from the campground or from the North Jetty, a 1.5-mile-long breakwater that juts into the sea by the mouth of the Columbia). The two-mile-long beach is a wild, wave-pounded stretch of sand and driftwood where plovers and other shorebirds skitter at the tideline.

It’s a perfect place to clear your mind and escape from daily life. And the birds, and you, will not have to get out of the way of vehicles driving along the beach because that’s forbidden here, unlike at neighboring Long Beach where SUVs and pickups play in the sand.

• For something completely different, walk the McKenzie Head Trail in the heart of the park. McKenzie Head is a thickly forested knob that juts about 200 feet above a lagoon. When the park’s better-known places are busy, it’s tranquil here.

The quarter-mile trail leads from a small dirt parking lot to a flat top with wide views of the sea and park headlands and — a great reward for kids who are reluctant hikers — the spooky remains of an old World War II gun battery.

Bring a flashlight and poke around the dark underground-storage rooms; outside are circular concrete gun mounts (the guns long gone) that were part of the wartime protection of the mouth of the Columbia River, a valuable shipping route. (What’s now parkland also was armed earlier, in the 1860s, with cannons to protect the Columbia entrance. It was called Fort Canby, which also became the park’s early name.)

McKenzie Head has a much-earlier history, too. Native peoples roamed this area and explorer William Clark climbed it and camped nearby in 1805, writing of it in his diary.

Stay in one of the park’s former lightkeeper’s houses near the North Head Lighthouse. Now turned into attractively furnished vacation rentals, each of the three Victorian-era residences has three bedrooms, full kitchen and living room — and the lighthouse is practically at your doorstep.

The only drawback is the price, but each unit does sleep six and a park ranger said some discounts are on the way. For now the head lighthouse keeper’s house (a stand-alone house with ocean view) is $437 a night from April 1-Oct. 31 and $328-$393 the rest of the year. The duplex Assistant Lighthouse Keepers’ Residences are $308 a night in the high season, $231-$277 in the offseason; see parks.wa.gov/vacationhouses.

For a much cheaper stay in the park, head to the park’s campground. There are more than 200 campsites (some with full hookups for RVs), 14 yurts and three one-room camping cabins. Fees range from $23 a night for a standard campsite to $37 for a campsite with full utilities. Yurts or cabins, which can sleep five or six, with a heater and electric light, are $74 a night in the summer season. Campground reservations: secure.camis.com/WA.

Outside the park, the community of Ilwaco is five minutes away and offers limited lodging. Or find dozens of choices to the north along the Long Beach peninsula, including hotels, cottages and B&Bs. See accommodations listings for both communities at funbeach.com.

Just for fun

Live musi
c: Enjoy free outdoors concerts by the park’s Waikiki Beach on some summertime Saturday nights. Coming up: July 13 — Little Beirut (pop, indie rock). July 27 — The Resolectrics (rock, classic R&B, folk). Aug. 10 — Sugarcane (Bluegrass, blues, funk, Caribbean). Aug. 24 — The Ben Rice Band (Rockabilly, country).

Paint in the park: In honor of this year’s centennial of Washington State Parks, Plein Air Washington is holding “paint-outs” in parks around the state, including Aug. 9-11 at Cape Disappointment; pleinairwashington.com.

Join the rangers:

Park rangers offer interpretive walks and talks through the summer, including daily campfire talks at the campground by Benson Beach;
parks.wa.gov/parks (select Cape Disappointment and scroll down to Events).

Kristin Jackson: kjackson@seattletimes. Blogging at blogs.seattletimes.com/northwesttraveler/ Twitter: @NWTravelers.