Ilwaco harbor. Photo by Debbie Stone

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Don’t be fooled by the name. I guarantee there’s nothing disappointing about Cape Disappointment State Park. This glorious swath of land is a paradise of lighthouses atop windswept cliffs, breathtaking views, rugged beaches to explore, old-growth forests to wander and plenty of colorful Northwest history. 

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Cape Disappointment State Park: One Washington’s Most Popular Parks

Cape Disappointment is located about 4.5 hours from Seattle and 2.5 hours from Portland on iconic Long Beach Peninsula, where the Pacific Ocean meets the mighty Columbia River. Named for British Captain John Meares’ first thwarted voyage to find the Columbia, the Cape is one of Washington’s favorite state parks. 

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Old schoolhouse in Oysterville. Photo by Debbie Stone
Old schoolhouse in Oysterville. Photo by Debbie Stone

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse 

Two historic lighthouses stand stalwart and sentinel-like in the park. These jewels crown the area, offering glorious vistas from every corner. And even when Mother Nature decides not to cooperate, the spectacle is still magical enhanced by a wonderfully wild ingredient. 

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was lit in 1856, making it the first in the Pacific Northwest. It’s still in use today, though fully automated now. The lighthouse is accessible via a trail starting at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. 

Journey with Lewis and Clark on Their Momentous Journey 

A must for visitors, the Center is full of interactive, informative exhibits. A series of mural-sized timeline panels guide you through the westward journey of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. There are also paintings, photos and the words of the Corps members to describe their arduous 18-month, 3,700-mile trek from St. Louis, which concluded at Cape Disappointment in 1805.

Other exhibits focus on local maritime and military history. A glassed-in observation deck offers dramatic views of the river, headlands and ocean. 

North Head Lighthouse. Photo by Debbie Stone
North Head Lighthouse. Photo by Debbie Stone

North Head Lighthouse 

North Head Lighthouse is perched on a headland surrounded by the ocean. It was put into service in 1898 after it was determined a second lighthouse was needed in the area. This was due to the number of shipwrecks in this particularly treacherous body of water, aptly named the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” 

Today, North Head Lighthouse continues to be a navigation aide though an automated beacon has replaced the lighthouse keepers who once tended its flame. On a clear day, you can see Long Beach Peninsula, Columbia River Bar and the northern coast of Oregon.

And you can even stay in the century-old lighthouse keeper’s quarters, as Washington State Parks has renovated them into vacation rentals. They provide a cozy refuge from the harsh elements of one of the windiest spots in the country. Expect to experience wind speeds that regularly reach more than 100 mph.

Outdoor art Long Beach. Photo by Debbie Stone
Outdoor art Long Beach. Photo by Debbie Stone

Hike the Trails, Then Head to the Beaches

The park has over eight miles of hiking trails which lead you through different ecosystems, from coastal forests to saltwater marsh and grassy dunes. Ancient Sitka spruce and huge hemlock trees emit a prehistoric aura in this quintessential Northwest environment.

Beachgoers will enjoy Waikiki Beach and Benson Beach. Eerily named after a Hawaiian soldier’s body washed up here, Waikiki is a scenic little spot tucked between two cliffs. It’s a favorite of surfers, but it’s also popular with sunbathers, who enjoy its protected cove.

And if you happen to be around during a storm or when the King Tides occur, you’ll love the epic waves crashing on the rocks!

Benson, the most southern beach is a two-mile beauty, bookended by North Head Lighthouse on one end and North Jetty on the other. Tails on the north end wind through old sea-stacks, where there are interesting rock formation and caves. Take care when walking the North Jetty, as the further out you go, the more dangerous it becomes.

Explore Little Ilwaco

Cape Disappointment is just one of many gems on Long Beach Peninsula. The small communities spread throughout the region each have their own special identity. In Ilwaco, for example, you’ll find a working port with a full-service marina, boatyard and waterfront promenade perfect for strolling, especially at sunset. 

Learn about the area’s history at the award-winning Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, where exhibits delve into the Chinook People, the fishing, cranberry and logging industries and the railroad that once ran through Ilwaco, carrying freight and passengers.

The mezzanine level is devoted to French adventurer Gerard d’Aboville, who rowed solo across the Pacific from Japan to Ilwaco back in 1991. A model of his vessel is on view and you can read all about his harrowing trip. 

Continue On to Tony Seaview

In nearby Seaview, the vibe is more classy. Turn-of-the-century Victorian homes dot the streets, many marked with dates signifying their historic pedigree. The town was originally a summer vacation retreat for wealthy Portlanders.

The popular Discovery Trail runs through the area, an 8.5-mile footpath that is arguably the most scenic pathway on the Washington Coast. It boasts views of the ocean, grassy dunes and the North Head Lighthouse. Know that when you walk, run or ride your bike along this trail you’ll be retracing the route taken by Lewis and Clark in 1805. 

Entrance to beach in Long Beach. Photo by Debbie Stone
Entrance to beach in Long Beach. Photo by Debbie Stone

Discover Long Beach’s Claims to Fame

Perhaps the most well-known community on the peninsula is Long Beach. Famous for its annual kite festival, the town has always been a vacation destination since its founding in 1880. The typical beach fare of go-carts, video arcades, horse rentals and proverbial fudge shops attract families, but others gravitate towards the art galleries, eclectic shops and restaurants.

Everyone, though, makes their way to the boardwalk. This two plus mile paved path is a point of pride for the town and has been voted one of the top ten best boardwalks in the country. As you walk or cycle along it, you’ll have the ocean on one side and the bay on the other.

The above mentioned Discovery Trail actually runs under and alongside the boardwalk. During the Washington State International Kite Festival, this is the place to be as you watch kites take flight, filling the sky with a potpourri of dazzling hues and shapes.

Check Out the World Kite Museum

If you want to take a deep dive into the kite scene, stop in at the World Kite Museum. Here you’ll learn about the art, science and history of kites with a variety of exhibits and videos. You’ll see kites from around the world, from bygone eras and from the present and future, where the kite is a “green” source of power.

The Museum’s Hall of Fame pays tribute to outstanding individuals who have been involved in the multicultural phenomenon of kites. Each member is recognized by a plaque.

Long Beach also has its quirky, eccentric side. The self-proclaimed World’s Largest Frying Pan acknowledges the town’s yearly Razor Clam Festival. Created in 1941 under the direction of the chamber of commerce, the pan is 14 feet long and 9 feet 6 inches wide. However, it’s actually not the World’s Largest, as other towns have surpassed its size over the years. Despite this reality, it entices throngs of selfie-driven visitors.

For bizarre oddities and sideshow remnants, you’ll need to head to Marsh’s Free Museum. This attraction on the town’s main street is a cavernous souvenir and gift shop, jammed with oodles of gawk able things, along with Test-Your-Love-Power coin operated machines and vintage mechanical contraptions.  

Experience the Quiet Side of the Peninsula

At the north end of the peninsula, peace reigns supreme. Described as “a step away from the crowds,” five villages comprise this locale: Oysterville, Surfside, Ocean Park, Klipsan Beach and Nahcotta. Amid them are vintage homes and gardens, art galleries and studios, antique shops, cafes and coffeehouses, and picturesque lodgings.

Oysterville Is a Flash from the Past

Oysterville, in my opinion, is the most interesting. Eight houses, a church, cannery and one-room schoolhouse in this tiny hamlet are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the buildings date back to the 19th century. The homes have been lovingly restored and as you walk through this idyllic community, you’ll feel like you’re on a movie backlot. 

The town has a rich history beginning with the Chinook Peoples, who came to the area for centuries to harvest the oyster beds. In the mid-1800s, the California Gold Rush brought settlers of European descent to the region and the oyster industry took off. People converged on the tide flats, and dwellings, hotels, saloons, stores and shops sprung up to support the population boom.

Fortunes eventually took a turn downward because of a decline in the oyster population. This was primarily due to weather catastrophes which damaged the ecology of the flats, along with overharvesting. And the Great Depression put the final nail in the coffin. 

Get Your Fill in Oysterville

If you want to get oysters in Oysterville, don’t despair though, as you can find them at Oysterville Sea Farms. The company was founded to generate revenue for the restoration and preservation of the last oyster cannery in the pristine Willapa Bay area, ensuring that the “Oyster” in Oysterville lives on. Oyster lovers take note: one in every four oysters consumed in the U.S. comes from Willapa Bay, so chances are you’ve eaten one of them!

At the Sea Farms, you can get fresh clams and oysters daily, or grab a few oyster shooters and shrimp cocktails and munch on them on the deck overlooking Willapa Bay. There are also condiments, spices and breading available to buy and take home to create your seafood feast. 

Seafood Lovers Will Be in Heaven

Finding fresh seafood is never an issue on Long Beach Peninsula. And as a pescatarian, I was in heaven during my trip. Restaurants abound, offering everything from the fresh fish of the day prepared multiple ways to sea scallops, calamari, prawns, steamer clams, oysters, fish and chips and chowders galore.

For that special dinner, head to MyCovio’s in Ocean Park, a small, intimate, but lively place, as people animatedly chat amongst themselves – much of the conversation about the incredible quality of their food. Watch Chef Paul perform culinary magic in the open kitchen, as you dine on Italian inspired food. 

Originally from The Netherlands, Chef Paul paid his dues at many restaurants before opening and successfully running his own establishments in Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, WA. He fell in love with the Peninsula after going to Willapa Bay for oysters and eventually opened MyCovio’s. 

The restaurant’s compact menu features several traditional Italian dishes like lasagna, chicken cacciatore, fettuccine Alfredo and spaghetti with clams, along with a rib eye and cioppino. 

My companion and I split the Charred Romaine Heart Salad with maple syrup caramelized chanterelles, whipped ricotta cream and Dungeness crab meat. An incredible meld of flavors and textures! 

I had the spaghetti with clams and my companion, the lasagna. Both entrees were sublime. We weren’t sure we had room for dessert, but when we respectively saw Lemon/Coconut Cake and Tiramisu on the menu, it was a no brainer. We waddled out of there, completely and utterly sated!

When it comes to chowder, the Salt Pub in Ilwaco can’t be beat. I swooned over my bowlful of in-shell whole steamer clams, roasted corn and red potatoes. And my accompanying salmon and chips were also divine. My companion had the salmon cioppino over polenta. He wiped his bowl clean with a slice of garlic toast. You’ll dine with a front seat view of Ilwaco Harbor, either inside or out on the patio, at this convivial spot frequented by locals and visitors alike.

Down the street from the Salt Pub is Waterline Pub, another of my favorite spots. Located inside At The Helm Hotel, the fare here is a combo of land and sea specialties. I had a cup of creamy Dungeness crab bisque followed by Lao’s Fish Tacos, featuring fresh ling cod. I also got a taste or two of my companion’s yummy NW Fork & Knife Melt, a gooey concoction of Dungeness crab and baby shrimp, jack cheese and tomato melted to perfection. 

At The Helm room. Photo by Debbie Stone
At The Helm room. Photo by Debbie Stone

Choose At The Helm Hotel for Unpretentious Luxury

As I had opted to make At The Helm Hotel home base during my stay on the peninsula, having dinner at Waterline was quite convenient. We simply walked downstairs!

The hotel is steps away from the Port of Ilwaco. It’s a handsome building constructed of reclaimed lumber, with a modern design and maritime-themed decor. Rooms are spacious and airy with plenty of natural light, several with water views, and each named after various fishing vessels. 

The amenities are numerous, starting with a glass of beer or wine upon check-in. Extra cozy bathrobes, extra comfy beds with premium linens, spacious bathrooms with eco-friendly bath products, 50 inch flat-screen TV, zero water filtering system and a complementary – yes, complementary – snack basket are all included. Plus, you’ll get a hot breakfast delivered to your room each morning. Think French toast with berries or a tasty breakfast sandwich on an English muffin. It’s luxury without the pretense. How refreshing!

www.visitlongbeachpeninsula.com 

www.atthehelmhotel.com 

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Author Bio: Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries spanning all seven continents, and her stories appear in numerous print and digital publications. 

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