Cape Disappointment State Park, located in southwest Washington, has miles of paved and unpaved trails. For Memorial Day Weekend, I decided to hit those trails!
A trip to Long Beach meant this large state park was only a few minutes away. The park, named for a thwarted attempt at finding the Columbia River, has a campground, two lighthouses, and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in addition to the hiking trails.
We started at the northern tip of the park, parking for the North Head Lighthouse, North Head, and Bell’s Overlook trails. The parking lot here was large, but on a holiday weekend we figured it would fill up quickly. The quick path to the Bell’s Overlook was paved, with a wooden platform at the end showcasing stunning cliff side coastal views. Along the way we passed an old water tower and remnants of a gun battery that used to be here. Similar to Fort Casey, this park used to be a fort, meant to look out for any potential incoming Japanese attacks during WWII. The short path (around 0.6 miles round trip) offered a glimpse into history, but also a breathtaking view.
As we approached the parking lot, we hung a right to take a gravel path down to the North Head Lighthouse. It’s only about another quarter-mile from here to get to the lighthouse, which was undergoing some renovations but is expected to be back open by this month. The lighthouse is being restored to its former colors and appearance. While a short trek, you do go down a bit into a gully that you will have to return up, but I’d still call this hike ‘easy’ for all ages.
You can also from this area hike the North Head Trail. This trail is the most trail-like of the three–1.5 miles each way, and in places it was very narrow and overgrown with greenery. It can be very muddy depending on the time of year as well. We opted to only do a portion of it, as it cuts across the park to an area we were driving to anyways. This trail would be great if you want to add mileage on or are getting dropped off at the parking lot and picked up later at the McKenzie Head parking area.
Next, we headed to the southern tip of the park for the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. This lot is much smaller and we got one of the last remaining parking spots (upon return, the lot was beyond full). From here, it is an up-and down trip to the lighthouse (dirt path) or interpretive center (a short but steep uphill paved path). After the climb up, you descend down on the path to the lighthouse, getting to what to me is the quintessential image from this park, Deadman’s Cove. While we were there, the cove was closed due to a nesting seal pup (squee!!) so we weren’t able to get to the cove, but it still was breathtaking from afar.
You re-join pavement here for an uphill jaunt to the lighthouse. We began hearing sea lions bark to the south of us, and heard bald eagles screeching above us. For how close to town we were, it was one of the most audible trails I had ever been on for wildlife! The lighthouse is at the end of this trail, and it is a functioning lighthouse staffed by Coast Guard members. Do not pound on the door and disturb the Coast Guard members, but if the door is open they are willing to answer questions. You can actually see the interpretive center on a bluff just north of here, but will need to double-back to reach it. It’s about 1.2 miles RT to the lighthouse and back from where we parked (WTA says 0.6?), but we decided to round the interpretive center and see more gun batteries and barracks on our way back.
The cliff with the interpretive center had tons of cormorants below, and the cliff sides were streaked with guano below the grass and wildflowers. The smell was not enough to detract from the view though! The center behind us charges $5 admission, and is a great site to learn more about the end of Lewis & Clark’s journey west. We carefully navigated the paved switchbacks to our car and hit the road for our next hike.
For the Coastal Forest Loop trail, first make sure to swing by the park office for the map that explains what the corresponding signs on the trail represent. From there, don’t follow the road all the way to the boat launch! Park in the gravel lot to the north as soon as you turn onto Fort Canby Road. Once you park you’ll hit the trail, climbing a bit before reaching the ‘loop’ part. As the trail is narrow, heed the signs to go counter-clockwise around, as passing could be difficult. You have a few options for a shorter loop or longer loop, wanting to earn our beers here, we went for the longer loop. As thrilling as the green canopy was above us, make sure to keep your eyes on the trail here–there were banana slugs everywhere!
If you want more mileage, keep right at the next fork for the full loop. This loop had us jutting out on a spit, with eagles still soaring above us. The view from here was amazing, with a large field to the north that would have been prime for deer at dawn or dusk. In mid-afternoon, it was seabirds everywhere. We finished our loop through the mossy green trees and ferns, while avoiding the mud. The trail only had a small amount of mud despite recent rains, which was nice.
While those three areas I described were all pretty, they are not an exhaustive list of trails in the park! Consider walking around Waikiki Beach (betcha didn’t know there’s one in Washington!) or, if staying in Long Beach, biking the paved 7-mile Discovery Trail from Long Beach to the south tip of the park. There’s tons to see here, and with Washington weather, the views can change as dramatically as the weather.
Distance: Choose your own adventure, trails vary from 0.2 one-way to 7.0 miles one-way
Elevation: Varied depending on trail
Parking: Discover Pass (multiple kiosks for purchase of a day pass or annual Discover Pass are at the park)
Bathrooms: Flushing toilets spread out throughout the park
Best Beer Bet: North Jetty Brewing is the closest brewery to the park and has very tasty beer, if visiting from the south I’d also recommend Fort George or Buoy Brewing in Astoria.