Visit the breathtaking North Head Lighthouse in Washington State, near the roughest sea in the world.
The North Head Lighthouse is at Cape Disappointment on the Washington side of the Columbia River. It's 3 hours from Seattle, and 2 hours from Portland.
The North Head Lighthouse was completed in 1898, to warn ships approaching from the north of the treacherous waters at the entrance of the Columbia River. The entrance to the Columbia River was once known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, due to shifting sandbars that resulted in over 2,000 shipwrecks.
The North Head Lighthouse has the best views in Cape Disappointment State Park, and from this windswept promontory you can see sweeping vistas all the way down to the Oregon Coast.
Check hours & admission for lighthouse tours (kids under 7 can't climb the tower). A Discovery Pass is required to visit all Washington State Parks.
10 best things to do at North Head Lighthouse
1. Take the breathtaking trail to North Head Lighthouse.
Drive to the parking lot at North Head Lighthouse Road, then take the 10-minute walk along the headland out to the North Head Lighthouse.
The gravel path loops around North Head, with a few sets of steps along the way.
The striking form of the lighthouse gradually comes into view along the path, as you progress further along the promontory.
The return path is narrower, with a few more stairs.
2. Stand at the windswept overlook at North Head Lighthouse.
There's nothing more exhilarating than standing at the windswept overlook at North Head Lighthouse. This majestic lighthouse stands 65-feet tall on the edge of a cliff, and can be seen at a distance of 26 nautical miles out at sea. Thankfully a fence has been erected to protect visitors from the 120 foot drop at the cliff's edge.
This is one of the windiest places in America, and in the dead of winter it's not unheard of to get winds in excess of 120 miles an hour. Prepare for some wild weather if you visit North Head Lighthouse in fall or winter.
The North Head Lighthouse is still an active navigational aid for fishing vessels and freighters, entering the dangerous mouth of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean. It oversees one of America's most important shipping lanes, transporting billions of dollars worth of cargo each year.
Brutal storms have taken a toll on North Head Lighthouse. North Head Lighthouse was in bad shape a few years ago, before $2 million was spent between 2015 to 2019 on a project to repair it (see photo below). The red roofing has now been replaced by a black roof, to replicate what the lighthouse first looked like in 1898.
3. Savor incredible views down the Oregon Coastline.
Enjoy glorious views from the North Head Lighthouse, looking south towards the jagged ridgeline of the Oregon Coast Range. This incredible view is awe inspiring, and will leave you humbled by the majesty of the Pacific Ocean.
The turbulent waters of Benson Beach are visible in the foreground, until it dead-ends at the North Jetty. The waters on the other side of the rocky North Jetty are smooth, providing safe passage for ships at the entrance of the Columbia River.
The rocky fingers of both the North and South jetties were built between 1895 to 1914 to create a safer passage for ships entering the Columbia River, by leveling out the sand bars.
4. Learn how most of this land was underwater before 1914.
Most of the land you can see south of the North Head Lighthouse was underwater before the North Jetty was constructed in 1914. This includes the present day campground! The construction of the North Jetty in 1914 changed the ocean currents, creating 600 acres of new land around Benson Beach.
5. Climb 69 steps to the top of North Head Lighthouse.
Guided tours take you 69 steps to the lantern room at North Head Lighthouse!
Lighthouse Keepers once carried gallons of heavy oil up these same steps, working exhausting 8 hour shifts with two assistants. Once in the lantern room, they trimmed the five wicks to ensure they burned evenly, and constantly polished the lenses to keep them clear.
Lighthouse Keepers were under tremendous pressure to keep the light running 365 days a year, to prevent any shipwrecks.
6. Learn the tragic story about a Lighthouse Keeper's wife.
Visitors are intrigued by the tragic story of the first Lighthouse Keeper at North Head Lighthouse, who remained at the lighthouse for 25 years until his retirement.
Alexander Pesonen, a Finnish immigrant, was posted at the North Head Lighthouse in 1898. He went on to marry Mary Watson from Ireland in 1900. Alexander had previously worked on the infamous Terrible Tilly lighthouse, on a small rock off the coast of Cannon Beach, in one of the most dangerous locations in America.
Over the decades, Mary Watson struggled with the isolation of the North Head Lighthouse, and in 1923 was eventually hospitalized for depression in Portland. She returned to the North Head Lighthouse in good spirits, buoyed by the prospect that her husband's retirement was only months away. However a day later, on June 9, 1923, Mary jumped to her death from the cliffs near the North Head Lighthouse. Her body was recovered by an Assistant Lighthouse Keeper at great risk to himself. They say that Mary Watson still haunts the lighthouse.
The howling winds that whip the North Head Lighthouse certainly add credence to the ghost story around Mary Watson.
7. Stop by the gift shop at North Head Lighthouse.
There's a cute gift shop housed inside an old barn, just steps from the parking lot. Pick up some North Head Lighthouse themed gifts here, and learn more about Cape Disappointment State Park.
8. Experience a thrilling overnight stay at the Lighthouse Keepers house.
Stay overnight in the Lighthouse Keepers quarters, to get a feel for the life of a 19th century keeper! Three residences are available as vacation rentals, and can accommodate up to six people.
Choose from the duplex that housed the two Assistant Lighthouse Keepers, or the Head Lighthouse Keepers home.
Here's a closer look at the Assistant Lighthouse Keepers duplex.
This is the Head Lighthouse Keepers residence, relatively unchanged from when it was first built.
9. Drive down to wild Benson Beach to look back up at North Head Lighthouse.
Benson Beach is popular for long walks, providing distant vistas of the North Head Lighthouse. The south end of the beach is flanked by the 2.5 mile long North Jetty. Remember, all of this beach was underwater before the jetties were constructed in 1914!
10. Explore other cool attractions at Cape Disappointment.
Learn about the Top 10 Attractions at Cape Disappointment. See two lighthouses, the excellent Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, Fort Canby, and dramatic beaches like Benson Beach, Waikiki Beach and Beard's Hollow.
The enchanting Dead Man's Cove is a must-see, on a trail out to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Bodies washed up here from shipwrecks.
This is the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, accessed by a 20 minute walk from the same parking lot that serves the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The lighthouse is not open for tours, but the grounds have gorgeous views up the coast, past the enchanting Dead Man's Cove. The Coast Guard uses the viewing platform to monitor ocean conditions.
The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was built over forty years before the North Head Lighthouse, in 1856. Over the years there were numerous complaints that the light was not visible from ships approaching from the north, therefore in 1898 the North Head Lighthouse was constructed 2 miles up the coast to address this issue.
Waikiki Beach is the most popular beach at Cape Disappointment. It's a big attraction on warmer days, when beachgoers frolic in the surf, or sunbathe on the golden sands. The water is freezing with dangerous currents, so it's not recommended for swimming.
Take the lovely 20 minute walk through coastal wetlands to Beards Hollow. This quieter beach has tidepools, and continues east towards the tourist town of Long Beach.
Camping at Cape Disappointment
Stay at the Lighthouse Keepers Quarters near North Head Lighthouse, or book a campsite at Cape Disappointment.
If you wish to stay in a coastal town with more amenities, try the Adrift Inn at nearby Long Beach.
Other cool things to do in the area
Visit the historic seaport town of Astoria with attractions like an excellent Maritime Museum, historic Flavel House museum, the Astoria Column, Oregon Film Museum and waterfront restaurants. Fort Clatsop is nearby, visited by famous explorers Lewis and Clark during their 1805-1806 expedition. Fort Stevens has fascinating military batteries to explore and a shipwreck.
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