Explore some of Washington State's most dramatic coastline and incredible vistas at Cape Disappointment.
Cape Disappointment is 3 hours south of Seattle, and is where the famous Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804 -1806 first reached the Pacific Ocean.
Cape Disappointment was named a few years earlier by British fur trader John Muir, when he missed the entrance to the Columbia River during a winter storm in 1788.
It has awe-inspiring scenery, with two lighthouses, spectacular bluffs, and meadows full of native plants. There's also a visitor center, general store, and old military fortresses to explore.
10 best things to do at Cape Disappointment
1. Climb to the top of stunning North Head Lighthouse.
The North Head Lighthouse was completed in 1898, to warn mariners approaching from the north of the treacherous waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. The entrance of the Columbia River was known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, claiming more than 2,000 shipwrecks, and the shifting sandbars made a crossing from the Pacific Ocean to the Columbia River extremely dangerous.
The North Head Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment is open for tours, and you can climb the 69 stairs to the lantern room for superb views. (Note that children under 7 years of age aren't permitted to climb the stairs).
On a clear day, the North Head Lighthouse has spectacular views of Benson Beach and the Columbia River, all the way down to the Oregon Coastal Range.
The long fingers of the rocky North and South Jetties at Cape Disappointment are also visible from this viewpoint. These jetties were constructed to provide safe harbor for ships entering the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, by leveling out the dangerous sand bars. The North Jetty on the Washington State side is 2.5 miles long, and the South Jetty on the Oregon side extends 6.6 miles.
North Head Lighthouse is an easy 10-minute walk from the parking lot, past the two Lighthouse Keeper's dwellings that are available as vacation rentals.
2. Walk out to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.
The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the northwest coast of the United States, constructed in 1856, forty years before the North Head Lighthouse. There were complaints that the lighthouse was not visible by ships approaching from the north, so the newer North Head Lighthouse was constructed in 1898 to address this issue.
It's a 25-minute walk from the parking lot at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. The walk can be physically taxing, and winds through lush coastal forest past a cove, with a final ascent to the lighthouse. Once there, the lighthouse is not open for tours, instead managed by the US Coast Guard Station who respond to 300-400 distress calls in this area each year. The viewing platform on the lighthouse is used for the US Coast Guard to monitor ocean conditions.
If you're not up for a vigorous walk, then the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse can also be viewed from the observation deck at the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center.
This is a view of the rocky North Jetty from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, with Benson Beach behind it.
The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is also visible from Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment. During winter storms, photographers congregate here to catch the perfect photo of the wild surf pounding Waikiki Beach, with the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the background.
3. Explore the enchanting Dead Man's Cove.
The enchanting Dead Man's Cove is accessed on the trail to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. This picturesque cove has a sad history, as many bodies washed up here after shipwrecks.
The short path down to the cove is very challenging, but worth the effort. There's no formal stairway, so visitors are forced to scramble down steep sections of the pathway and step over logs to get to the sand. Definitely not recommended for little kids.
The calmer waters of Dead Man's Cove offer a brief respite from the wild beaches of the Pacific Ocean. The log-strewn cove is a place for quiet reflection, hemmed in by 120 foot basalt cliffs.
There's an unusual rocky outcrop in the center of the cove, adding to the dramatic beauty of this cove.
4. Learn about the famous Lewis and Clark expedition at the Interpretative Center.
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is accessed from the same parking lot as the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. It's a five minute walk up the path to the Interpretative Center, with a few switchbacks along the way. Check hours & fees.
The Interpretive Center chronicles the travels of Lewis and Clark on their 1803 to 1806 expedition from St Louis, Missouri, to the entrance of the Columbia River. The objective was to explore lands west of the Mississippi River, including the Louisiana Purchase of territory from France in 1803, and the Pacific Northwest.
The engaging exhibits include many original quotes from the explorers' journals, paintings, artifacts, and maps, and the film presentation provides an excellent overview of this dangerous journey.
There's an overlook outside the interpretive center, with breathtaking views of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.
5. Explore tunnels and bunkers at Fort Canby at Cape Disappointment.
Fort Canby is located just before the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, built by the US Army in the mid 19th century to protect the entrance to the Columbia River. Troops bravely manned Fort Canby until the end of WWII.
Spend some time exploring the fascinating, well preserved tunnels and bunkers at Fort Canby.
6. See the raging surf at Benson Beach as it collides into North Jetty at Cape Disappointment.
Benson Beach is bordered by the 2.5 mile North Jetty on its southern end. It's accessed by taking the turn-off to North Jetty Road near the General Store.
The first parking lot on North Jetty Road provides superb views across the water to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Continue driving along North Jetty Road to the next parking lot at Benson Beach, to observe the North Head Lighthouse (pictured).
The North Jetty has panoramic views of Cape Disappointment, including the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. This jetty should be avoided during rough seas.
The North Jetty is a study in contrasts, from the calmer waters on its southern side, to the turbulent waves on its northern side. You'll be transfixed by the sheer force and scale of the breaking waves on the northern side. On a colder day the scene is almost surreal as the waves and currents collide with each other. Exercise extreme caution when visiting this area.
This is another view of North Jetty jutting out into the Pacific Ocean, with Benson Beach to the right. After the North Jetty was constructed in 1914, the currents shifted, creating 600 acres of new land previously submerged by ocean.
7. Spend a beach day at Waikiki Beach.
North Jetty is also adjacent to Waikiki Beach at Cape Disappointment. This beach is a big hit with visitors, popular for sunbathing and hanging out. Unlike its namesake in Hawaii, the waters are perishing cold with dangerous currents and no lifeguards, so not recommended for swimming.
8. Walk out to Beards Hollow.
Beards Hollow is another stunning beach at Cape Disappointment. Beards Hollows was named after Captain Beard, when his body washed up on these shores after his bark, the Vandalia, struck Cape Disappointment and sunk on its way from San Francisco in 1853.
This quieter beach has superb photo opportunities, with sheer cliffs and dramatic rock formations, and continues east to merge with the tourist town of Long Beach.
There are lots of tidepools to explore at Beards Hollow, where the Chinook Indians once gathered shells and sealife for food and decorative purposes.
A flat path leads from the Beards Hollow parking lot, across the wetlands out to the beach. This is a gorgeous 20-minute walk, with a charming creek and lots of native foliage such as reedgrass, sword fern and salmonberry. This coastal forest wetland has an incredible ecosystem.
Another path leads up to the Beards Hollow Overlook, with panoramic views of the beach.
9. Go camping or stay overnight in the Lighthouse Keepers Quarters at Cape Disappointment.
Make a campsite, yurt or cabin reservation at Cape Disappointment State Park. There are three cabins on the shores of Lake O'Neil that can sleep up to six people, within walking distance of Waikiki Beach and the general store. The campsites and yurts and also within walking distance of the ocean.
10. Enjoy a meal at nearby Ilwaco.
The Salt Hotel pub one-mile away at Ilwaco Harbor is also a lovely place for a meal, with a fully renovated interior and gorgeous waterfront views. Ilwaco is the closest town to Cape Disappointment.
Which parking lot should I use when visiting Cape Disappointment?
- North Head Lighthouse Road parking lot accesses North Head Lighthouse.
- Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center parking lot accesses the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center, Fort Canby, Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, and Dead Mans Cove.
- North Jetty Road parking lot accesses North Jetty, Benson Beach, and Waikiki Beach.
- Beards Hollow Beach parking lot accesses Beards Hollow.
Do I need a Discover Pass?
A Discover Pass is required to enter Washington State Parks. There's either an annual or daily pass.
Fun things to do near Cape Disappointment.
The seaside township of Long Beach is just 5 miles north of Cape Disappointment. Historic Fort Columbia is 11 miles east of Cape Disappointment with officer's quarters and gun batteries to explore.