During winter storms — or cold-season sun breaks — Cape Disappointment State Park offers some of the best viewpoints on the Washington coast.
ILWACO, Pacific County — If you’re a glutton for winter storms, and peering down from cliff tops into chasms of lashing saltwater makes you really feel alive; or if you simply love gazing out on a seascape of dimpled waves and watery blue sky swept clean by a howling nor’wester — Cape Disappointment is plainly misnamed.
“Cape D,” as locals call it, is no disappointment to the winter thrill-seeker.
“This is one of those places where, when you get a good, solid winter storm, it can remind you of how small you are!” says Stephen Wood, a park ranger and interpreter at Cape Disappointment State Park.
But it’s not a small place. The 1,900-acre park edging the fishing village of Ilwaco, at the mouth of the Columbia River, includes two of the state’s most scenic lighthouses, two miles of ocean beach, a hidden niche called Deadman’s Cove, and a surfer’s hangout called — no kidding — Waikiki Beach (more about that in a moment).
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There’s a campground with winter-friendly cabins and yurts, plus six miles of hiking trails winding up and down rocky ramparts, through coastal bogs and past lichen-bearded Sitka spruces.
For seascape junkies, viewpoints range from one of the planet’s more dramatically situated (and ADA accessible) cliff-top visitor centers — for out-of-the-weather comfort — to bracingly exposed spots where a stormy day guarantees salt spray in your face and wild wind in your hair.
Whether it’s for stormwatching or that treasured sunny winter day, here’s a Top 5 list of Cape D’s ocean viewpoints:
1 Lewis and Clark
In this vicinity the Lewis and Clark expedition first touched a Pacific Ocean beach in 1805, and high atop a cliff above the surf here is perhaps the nation’s best museum dedicated to the Corps of Discovery. (Cape Disappointment is a unit of the Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks.)
But before or after your tour of the family-friendly interactive exhibits ($2.50-$5 admission), don’t miss the eye-popping view from the big windows in the center’s lobby.
You can also take a gander through outdoor-viewing scopes as you look down at the Columbia River bar, known as “The Graveyard of the Pacific” for the number of shipwrecks it has seen. Here, ocean winds and waves collide head-on with outflowing currents from the Great River of the West.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spy an oceangoing freighter battling its way inbound. Or you might be there on a day when the neighboring Coast Guard station is practicing rescues with helicopters and specialized boats.
Every December and March, this is one of the viewing stations for a program called “Whale Watching Spoken Here” because it’s such a good viewpoint for spotting gray whales that migrate between Alaska and Mexico.
Park ranger Wood compares the weather here to Dr. Jekyll — pleasant, in summer — and Mr. Hyde, the personality in winter, when this exposed perch can get 100 mph winds and the view below is of 20-foot waves.
But he says it’s also not uncommon to see storm-washed blue sky and calm seas 24 hours after a winter squall.
2 Cape D Lighthouse
From the interpretive center, hike ¾-mile up and down through salal and snowberries, past the Coast Guard station and up a paved driveway, to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, the main light that guides ships from around the globe into the Columbia River.
The black-and-white striped lighthouse, put into service in 1856, is the oldest lighthouse in operation on the West Coast. From here, enjoy closer views of the river bar, looking across to the wave-bashed south jetty and upriver to Astoria, Ore., and its soaring highway bridge over the river.
3 North Head Lighthouse
The North Head Lighthouse compound, circa 1898, is said to be the most intact such reservation in the Pacific Northwest.
“Everything is there, from the keeper’s houses to the barn, chicken coop and carriage houses,” Wood says.
Life was strictly regimented in the old days of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, as evidenced in the keeper’s quarters, where the head keeper had six candles in his chandelier, the first assistant had five and the second assistant four. Visitors can get a real feel for those days; the restored quarters are all offered for nightly rentals.
For the brave of heart, North Head is where to get that full-on, storm-in-the-face experience, along with peeks downward at caroming waves in rocky niches below.
From a parking lot, it’s about a ¼-mile stroll to the lighthouse on a gently sloping path. Volunteers conduct lighthouse tours; call the park office to check on schedules.
4 Bell’s View Trail
This 0.4-mile trail, starting at the North Head parking lot, ends at a wooden viewing deck, completed in 2011, on a high perch that offers a rare northward panorama of the seemingly endless beach and white combers shaping the aptly named Long Beach Peninsula. On a cold, very clear day, you can even glimpse the snowcapped Olympic Mountains from here.
Named for the Pacific County commissioner who founded the park in 1937, Bell’s View looks straight down on Fishing Rocks, bordering Beard’s Hollow beach. Watch for belly-surfing sea lions. “I’ve seen them sliding down the face of a wave, barking!” Wood recounts.
5 Waikiki Beach
Stories vary as to how this decidedly untropical spot came to have a beach named after the more famous one in Honolulu. The most-told seems to be that Hawaiian laborers came with fur trappers to found Astoria in the early 19th century, and some who drowned were laid to rest at this beach.
Surfers ride waves here. Visitors can park just off the driftwood-strewn sand and watch from their car, with dramatic views of the Cape D lighthouse and wave-bombarded cliffs.
“Here’s where to see those explosions of surf!” Wood advises.
When the rain’s blowing sideways, hole up for the night in one of the state park’s cabins or yurts, the lightkeeper’s quarters, or a cozy inn converted from an old church in nearby Ilwaco.
Have a good seafood dinner at one of the restaurants at the marina. Get a good night’s sleep. Then give yourself another day to explore Cape D.
Is a storm predicted? You won’t be disappointed.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com