Best Hiking Trails at Cape Disappointment

A close up of a rock mountain

Don’t be fooled by the name; there’s absolutely nothing disappointing about Cape Disappointment State Park, named by Captain John Meares after a failed attempt to find passage past the dangerous Columbia River sand bar in 1788. Because of the treacherous conditions claiming the vessels of many a mariner, the river mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean was known as “the graveyard of the Pacific.” This was also where the Lewis and Clark Expedition finished their 18-month, 3,700-mile trek from St. Louis and finally laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean.

Now, Cape Disappointment encompasses a gorgeous swathe along the Long Beach Peninsula, overlooking that same river-mouth so steeped in Pacific Northwest lore. With historic lighthouses and vacation homes, trails through quintessential Pacific Northwest coastal forest, pristine beaches and places to camp, it’s no wonder this park is so popular with history buffs and nature-lovers alike.

Getting Started

A person standing next to a body of water

Cape Disappointment is located on the southwest tip of Washington state, approximately 4 hours from Seattle and 2.5 from Portland, Oregon. If you’re visiting in the summer or over holidays, make sure to reserve your campsite in advance, or you may have to find lodging outside the park in one of the various seaside towns.

Don’t miss the fantastic Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Loop Trail, a great jaunt through the woods for all ages. If you’re looking to swim, kids and adults alike will love Waikiki Beach

From late December to early January, and March through May, head to the park’s higher grounds and keep a lookout for Pacific gray whales heading to and from their breeding grounds off Mexico. On the return journey north to their Arctic feeding grounds, this part of the Pacific coastline becomes a veritable marine highway for the large mammals with calves in tow, wowing visitors who dare to venture out into the wet coastal winter weather.

Find more information on the park, here.

When to Go

A path with trees on the side of a hill

Enjoy this beautiful beachfront park year-round, though the warmest and driest months to visit are June-September. Winter visitors may be rewarded with whale sightings.

Hike Description

Cape Disappointment is the southernmost point on Washington’s Pacific coastline and is near the place where Captain William Clark first sighted the ocean in November, 1805. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was constructed in 1856 to warn ships of the dangerous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River. This hike will take you over a headland which once hosted the gun batteries of Fort Canby (the area was originally named Fort Canby State Park), built during the Civil War, and now the site of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (separate entry fee). The trail then dips to skirt an active Coast Guard station and the overlook above picturesque Dead Man’s Cove before rising to the lighthouse with its views over the mouth of the Columbia and south to Tillamook Head and Saddle Mountain. This is a good whale-watching spot in season. In addition to being a Washington state park, the area is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

From the Waikiki Beach Trailhead, first take two short trails that were designed by artist Maya Lin as part of her Confluence Project for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. Both lead from near the information kiosk near the restroom. The first is a “boardwalk” that basically forms a to-scale record of the explorers’ journey. Quotes from their journals decorate the slabs, which lead to little Waikiki Beach, a favorite spot for novice surfers. The second trail leads along the base of a grassy bluff past an amphitheater to a circle of cedar snags and a stump. Homage is paid along the way to Mother Nature’s mentoring of the local Chinook Indians.

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