Cape Disappointment is one of Washington’s favorite state parks. With two functioning lighthouses, a gorgeous beach, fantastic camping, miles of hiking trails, and plenty of recreational activities, Cape Disappointment will not disappoint you.
Cape Disappointment State Park is southwest of Ilwaco, Washington where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. It features 2,023 acres of diverse landscapes. Visitors can hike through peaceful forests beside freshwater lakes. Saltwater and freshwater marshes and oceanside tidelands are home to diverse bird populations. Cape Disappointment State Park is rich in Northwest history. A visit to this park will be a day to remember.
Cape Disappointment State Park History
Named by fur-trader Captain John Meares when he disappointingly failed to find the mouth of the Columbia River in 1788. The area was first mapped by the Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta decades earlier. Heceta named the cape Cavo De San Roque.
He described it as the “mouth of some great river or some passage to another sea.” When he failed to find that great passageway himself, Capt. Meares wrote, “we can now with safety assert, that no such river exists as laid down in the Spanish charts”. He then bestowed the enduring name “Cape Disappointment”.
The Lewis and Clark expedition ended their 18-month long journey at Cape Disappointment in 1805. The awesome view of the ocean was the focal point of their triumph. Clark was pleased that his men appeared “much satisfied with their trip beholding with astonishment the high waves dashing against the rocks and this immense ocean.”
A post established here during the American Civil War protected the mouth of the Columbia from Confederate raiders or foreign fleets. In 1864 this post expanded to become Fort Disappointment. Some civil-war era fortifications and gun batteries still exist around the park.
In October 1856, the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was put into service as the primary navigation aid at the mouth of the Columbia River. However, ships continued to run aground and it was determined a second lighthouse was needed on the northwestern spur of Cape Disappointment, commonly referred to as the North Head. The North Head Lighthouse was then added on May 16, 1898 to further aid navigation around the “Graveyard of the Pacific”. Over 250 ships have sunk after running aground on its shifting sands.
Renamed Fort Canby in 1875, the fort continued to expand through WWII. In the 1930s, the Civil Conservation Corps restored much of the fort, adding hiking trails and campsites. Decommissioned in the early 1950s, it was turned over to the state for a state park.
Getting to Cape Disappointment State Park
Cape Disappointment is two miles south of Ilwaco. From Kelso, take Ocean Beach Highway to the tiny town of Naselle. From there, take a left onto SR 401, drive 12 miles to a junction with Highway 101. Make a left onto Highway 101, go over the Astoria Bridge, and continue for 11 miles to the town of Ilwaco. At the stoplight (the only one in town) take the SR 100 and follow signs for the park.
Cape Disappointment State Park Facilities and Fees
Cape Disappointment is a 2,023-acre camping and hiking park on the Long Beach Peninsula. It is on the Pacific Ocean and looks into the mouth of the great Columbia River. The park offers RV parking, primitive campsites, yurts, cabins, and unique vacation homes to meet any traveler’s lodging desires.
Access the park with your Discover Pass which covers park admission and parking fees. For your convenience, this park has automated pay stations for visitors to buy a one-day or annual Discover Pass.
Things to Do at Disappointment State Park
- Beaches: Hike along Benson Beach with the North Head Lighthouse in view. Spend the afternoon building sandcastles and driftwood forts. Stay to watch the sunset into the Pacific Ocean.
- Trails: Twelve miles of trails wind through old-growth forests and civil war fortress remains. Hike the Bell’s Trail for a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. For those wanting a more robust hiking adventure, take the North Head Trail. It’s a bit more challenging and ends at the remains of a civil war gun battery.
- History: Visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center to learn more about their journey and the maritime history of the Peninsula. Remains of the civil war era Fort Canby are throughout the park. In front of the Interpretive Center is Gun Battery Harvey Allen.
- Lighthouses: Cape Disappointment has two working lighthouses. The North Head Lighthouse is an easier hike and is usually open for tours. The wide flat trail offers a bumpy but wheelchair-accessible ride to the lighthouse. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is best viewed from the Interpretive Center. Follow the gravel trail right up to the lighthouse and the astonishing view hundreds of feet above the surf.
- Artwork: Tucked away in Cape Disappointment Park are original works of art by Maya Lin. Lin is best known for designing the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. Her artwork commemorates stories and songs of the Chinook people. As well as excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark.The location of the Maya Lin artwork is on the park map.
Cape Disappointment State Park is home to a wide selection of trails, whether you are looking for elevation gain or a paved outing. The short hike to the North Head Lighthouse provides a nice wheelchair-accessible outing down a wide gravel path. Explore the lighthouse grounds and when you head back to the parking area, look to your left for the Bell’s Overlook Trail. Add the 0.3 miles long Bell’s Overlook Trail for a fantastic vista.
This trail was the first protected area of Cape Disappointment State Park. Originally designated a county park, the trail passes an old water tower (origin unknown), old gun batteries and lookouts, and ends at a boardwalk overlook of the Pacific ocean.
Along the way, you will enjoy a hike through lush coastal forest complete with informational postings about Cape Disappointment’s role in weather prediction, martial protection, and local history.
Summertime at Cape Disappointment offers fishing, beach activities, crabbing, boating, and exploring the beachside cliffs.
- Boating: The park is ready to handle your boating needs thanks to a boat launch ramp located at Baker Bay. The ramp gives you access to the mouth of the Columbia River to enjoy a day of boating/fishing on the river. For the more experienced boater, head out to the sea. The park’s 135-foot dock is available for use during your visit. If you plan on taking a boat out, you will need to have a daily launch permit that you can buy at the park office.
- Fishing: The park offers both salt and freshwater fishing. You may fish from the shoreline or take a boat out on the water. If you plan on boating, make sure you have the proper boating license and daily launch permit. With your Washington state valid fishing license, you can take home salmon, steelhead, halibut, or Dungeness crab. If you do not own fishing gear, you can find bait and rods in the store in the park.
Biking Through Cape Disappointment State Park
The roads in the park are well maintained. We recommend you use your bicycle or walk to get around the park. For those seeking a rigorous mountain biking trail, we recommend Cape Disappointment to Breaker’s Trail. A 17.3 mile moderate-intensity trail for the avid mountain biker. Ask the park personnel for more information.
- Bird watching: The park is a great place to observe the many different types of birds that call the park home. You will see a wide variety of sea and land birds. On most days the winter wren, red crossbills, and fox swallows can be observed going about their day. Bring your binoculars and a snack as you walk the trails looking for the yellowthroats and song swallows. This park is a great place for birdwatching.
- Wildlife Viewing: Along with a wide variety of bird species, the Cape Disappointment State Park is home to many other animals. In the wooded areas of the park, it is common to see black-tailed deer, and sometimes a bear can head to the beach to look for food. If you visit the park at the end of December or early in January, you may also get to see some magnificent gray whales during their migration. For whale-watching, the North Head cliff is the best vantage point.
Cape Disappointment State Park is one of the few state parks that offer metal detection as a recreational activity. With about 236 acres of beach reserved for metal detection, it is a wonderful way to spend the day. Bring your own device. You are allowed to keep whatever you find.
During your visit to Cape Disappointment State Park, there are plenty of great options available for a picnic. For a beachside picnic, you can’t beat throwing out a blanket at either Benson Beach or Waikiki Beach and watching the waves crash into the shore. There are also 20 picnic tables scattered throughout the park. The picnic tables are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Cape Disappointment State Park has 137 standard campsites, 50 full-hookup sites, 18 partial-hookup sites with water and electricity, five primitive hiker/biker campsites (first come, first served), 14 yurts, three cabins, one dump station, eight restrooms (2 ADA), and 14 showers (4 ADA). Maximum site length is 45 feet. Camping is available year-round.
If you do not have an RV or camping gear, be sure to check out the park’s varied offerings. The yurts at Cape Disappointment are all within walking distance to the beach. Each yurt is 16 feet in diameter by 10-feet high. Furnished with bunk beds that sleep 3, a full-size futon, floor lamp, small end table, and a heater. Outside is a picnic table, fire pit, and a deck that is ADA accessible. All yurts have a heater but visitors should bring a blanket as the evenings can be cool.
The three cabins are tucked into an alder forest on the shore of Lake O’Neil. Each cabin is 13 x 13-feet in size and has a 6-foot covered front porch, electric heat, lights, and locking doors. Outside is a picnic table and a fire pit with a grate. Bathrooms and showers are close by.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center celebrates the significant milestone of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that ended in 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia River. The center has numerous interactive educational opportunities and offers tours, souvenirs, and a detailed history of their journey. There is a small fee associated with viewing the center, but children under 7 are free.
Each year the park opens its trails and backcountry in early-November and closes in late-April for winter recreation activities. You are required to buy a Sno-Park permit to use the designated area, which is different from the normal park pass. Sno-Park offers cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, dog sledding, tubing, and playing in the snow.
The Sno-Park is perfect for all ages to enjoy the winter weather. It is recommended that you bundle up and take necessary precautions when traversing the snowy backcountry. Keep an eye on the weather and be sure to watch out for the occasional avalanche.
Exploring Cape Disappointment State Park With Children
The park is family and pet-friendly with many parts disability accessible. The hike from the parking lot to the North Head Lighthouse is easily navigated by the smallest visitors. Head to the beach for sandcastle building and exploration. Bring your kite for kite-flying on the beach.
The windy Pacific Ocean makes it a fun time for all ages. If your fishing skills failed to provide dinner, there is a great pizza place right at the entrance to the park. Complete the day with homemade ice cream before heading back to camp.
Vendors in Cape Disappointment State Park
The park store offers gifts, ice, wood, fishing gear, and other camping essentials. Within the park store, you will find a café offering summer foods, including artisan pizza, salads, sandwiches, and local seafood. Delivery to your campsite is available.
Weather Conditions at Cape Disappointment State Park
In summer, you should be careful of fog as Cape Disappointment has an average of 106 days of heavy fog each year. The park may close at any time due to inclement weather, or if there is a strong snow storm scheduled to hit the area. If you travel in winter, make sure your vehicle has four-wheel drive and keep an eye on the lookout for avalanche warnings.
Cape Disappointment State Park Fast Facts
- The Peninsula with 28 miles of unbroken sandy shoreline comprises the largest stretch of beach in America.
- The North Head Lighthouse is the oldest in America still in continuous use.
- Exhibits at the park’s Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center tell the tale of the duo’s 8,000-mile round-trip expedition. Displays include artwork, journal entries, and numerous other items which bring life to the historical journey.
- The park has three lighthouse keepers houses available for rent.