Trip reports

Hike, bike, camp: Long Beach Peninsula (Part 1)

Driftwood on the beach at Cape Disappointment State Park

“Weekend weather sure looks good,” I texted Mr. Adventure. “Wanna go camping?”

“Convince me it won’t rain,” he replied.

After debating various destinations, we settled on the Long Beach Peninsula in the Washington’s southwest corner. I spent a lot of time on the peninsula from 2004-2006, when I was field coordinator for the state’s Lewis and Clark Bicentennial commemoration. Feeling a little nostalgic for those exciting times, we thought it would be fun to see what’s changed.

In our ongoing attempt to make adventuring easier, we have our equipment organized in the garage. We grabbed the “Tent Camping” and “Camping Kitchen” boxes, along with the giant REI Base Camp 6 tent we’d purchased for our 2014 national parks road trip, sleeping gear, cooler, and some firewood. Duffel bags on top of the gear pile, bikes loaded on the back of the car, and off we went.

Our goal was Cape Disappointment State Park, one of the crown jewels of our state park system. Nearly 2,000 acres of ocean beach, primitive forest, wetland, freshwater lakes, and rocky headlands at the mouth of the Columbia River combine to make a park that is both picturesque and exceptionally historic.

Take the name. I’ve always liked the descriptive labels the early seafaring explorers attached to the Northwest coast. In 1788, English explorer John Meares searched for a river-fed bay that Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta had described 13 years earlier. Like many others before and after him, Captain Meares hoped to find the fabled Northwest Passage that would facilitate water commerce across North America. Alas, he couldn’t find the bay Heceta had charted, and he named the north cape Cape Disappointment.

A mere four years later, Captain Robert Gray found the bay and the Columbia River, which he named after his ship Columbia Rediviva. Of course, the native peoples of the Northwest coast, including the Chinook and Clatsop, had lived on the bay and river for millennia by the time maritime explorers finally figured it out, and they had names for the geographic features that reflected their experiences. For better or worse, Gray’s name has stuck.

When Lewis and Clark reached the mouth of the Columbia in November 1805, William Clark exulted, “Ocian in view! O! the joy.” That exclamation probably marked the high point of the next five months, during which the explorers spent the winter at Fort Clatsop under almost unceasing rain. The expedition recorded only 12 days without rain, and only six of those were clear. Congress designated Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon side of the river, a national memorial in 1958. In 2004, Congress expanded the park to include a number of Lewis and Clark sites on both sides of the Columbia and renamed it Lewis and Clark National Historical Park.

One of Cape Disappointment State Park’s attractions is the excellent Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, built atop a 200-foot-high cliff with grand views of the mouth of the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. While the explorers take center stage, the interpretive center also has a terrific exhibit about local maritime and military history. In fact, the center is built adjacent to military installations that date to 1862, when the Army installed cannons to protect the mouth of the Columbia River. Later additions became Fort Canby and, upriver a few miles, Fort Columbia, now a separate state park.

Cape D lighthouse and Oregon headlands across the Columbia River
View of Cape D’s striking black-and-white lighthouse from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, with Oregon headlands visible across the mouth of the Columbia River. (Lauren Danner photo)

I knew all of that awaited, but I wasn’t sure we’d get a campsite. It was a fee-free weekend, the weather was surprisingly good, and surely others would be as eager as we were to enjoy the outdoors. Cape D, as it’s known around here, has more than 200 campsites in two areas, one on the ocean and the other on freshwater O’Neil Lake. Although a few loops were still closed, we nabbed a terrific spot on the ocean, sheltered by Sitka spruce trees and piles of driftwood, right next to the path to the beach.

After some discussion about how the rain fly worked (hey, it’s been a while since we used the tent), we were set up and ready to explore.

One of the infrastructure improvements the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial made possible is the eight-mile Discovery Trail, which follows Captain Clark’s route from the expedition’s campsite near present-day Ilwaco to the ocean and up the beach for several miles. It’s paved, mostly flat, and weaves through forest, wetlands, and dunes. Ample interpretation and public art encourage a leisurely pace. The last section of the trail was paved in 2010, completing a much-loved local recreation gem.

Driftwood sculpture on the Discovery Trail
Driftwood sculpture along the Discovery Trail, Long Beach Peninsula. (Lauren Danner photo)
Captain Clark and sturgeon on Discovery Trail
A bronze version of William Clark looks at a giant sturgeon he found washed up on the beach. He wrote, “I arose early this morning from under a wet blanket caused by a Shower of rain which fell in the latter part of the last night…I set out with a view to proceed near the Coast.” (Lauren Danner photo)
Headlands of Cape Disappointment and Discovery Trail
Although sand accretion has made the beach much wider than it would have been when Lewis and Clark were here, the Discovery Trail follows the route of a well-used Indian trail through the dunes. The explorers were not bushwhacking through the dune grasses. The headlands of Cape D are in the distance. (Lauren Danner photo)

Back at camp, we debated going to one of the peninsula’s many excellent restaurants for a seafood dinner. A friend says that the Long Beach Peninsula has more good dining per square mile than many big cities, and I agree. But this time, lethargy and the promise of a pretty sunset won out, and we cooked Polish sausage and sauerkraut on our trusty Coleman camp stove.

Then it was up to the beach to watch the sunset. We don’t get a lot of reliably good sunsets in Washington. It’s too rainy most of the time, and in the summer when it’s clear, the clouds that make truly spectacular sunsets typically aren’t there. This is not a complaint. Rather, it means that when we do get a stunner of a sunset we’re especially grateful for it.

Sun setting on basalt at Cape Disappointment
Setting sunlight on basalt. Our campsite was just on the other side of the dip to the right of the picture. To get a sense of scale, find the people sitting on the driftwood on the lower left. (Lauren Danner photo)
Basalt headlands and black sand at Cape Disappointment
Time and tide pound against the basalt headlands at Cape Disappointment, forming black-floored nooks and niches to explore — while keeping an eye on the tide, of course. (Mr. Adventure photo)

This evening’s show was good. Not jaw-dropping, but lovely and full of promise for the rest of spring and summer. We walked along the black sand beach, created by grains eroding off the basalt headlands, and took shelter behind some driftwood as the ground cooled and the wind picked up. An eagle flew low overhead, considering whether an off-leash dog running by itself was worth pursuing. Deciding against it, the bird cruised on the thermals toward its aerie in the Sitka spruce forest.

Sunset at Cape Disappointment
The sun drops behind a basalt outcropping on its way below the Pacific horizon. (Lauren Danner photo)
Flying a kite at sunset on the beach at Cape Disappointment
Plenty of folks were enjoying the beach at sunset, including this kite-flying couple. Flying kites is a popular activity on the Long Beach Peninsula, and the annual Kite Festival attracts thousands of visitors. (Lauren Danner)
North Head lighthouse from black sand beach
View of North Head lighthouse from driftwood piles on black sand beach. (Lauren Danner photo)

After a lingering last look, Mr. Adventure headed further up the beach for a walk while I went back to the campsite to build a campfire. This is something for which I have zero talent, so after a futile attempt, I waited for the master fire-builder to return. His campfire caught quickly and burned brightly. We huddled close to it, craning our necks to watch the stars come out. Mr. Adventure spotted a meteor streaking dramatically across the sky. When the fire finally died down, we climbed into our sleeping bags and fell asleep to the sound of the waves.

Next up, Part 2 of our Long Beach Peninsula trip, in which we spot salmon swimming in trees. I am not making this up.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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7 thoughts on “Hike, bike, camp: Long Beach Peninsula (Part 1)

  1. It’s been a long time since I visited Camp D. You’re inspiring me to check out the (relatively) new path along the coast! The three hours of clear, sunny skies we’ve had today are a siren call to travel.

    1. It was so fun to recall all the fun times we’ve had there with you and the kids–like the cranberry farm!

  2. My family and I spend a week here every year! It’s my favorite place in the world. If you hike back into the trees, behind the driftwood pile at the end of the beach, the ground is decaying and wood from an old ship is emerging. I haven’t been able to find out any more about it though.

    1. That sounds so cool! I’ll look for it next time we’re down–although climbing over those piles of driftwood logs can be challenging!

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