The southwest corner of Washington is a crossroads of land and sea, of human history and untamed nature. Visitors can explore the same rugged beaches and forest trails trod by generations of Native Americans, the Lewis and Clark expedition and World War II soldiers.
Just as fall was putting a slight chill into the air, I crammed as much history and hiking into one weekend that I possibly could. It turns out there’s plenty to do where the West’s biggest river meets the world’s mightiest ocean.
CAPE DISAPPOINTMENT STATE PARK
No Washington state park packs more scenery and history into one place than Cape Disappointment State Park. That’s why it’s the busiest park in the system. If you want to spend the night – even this time of year – you’ll want to make reservations.
“People arrive after Labor Day and expect us to have plenty of open spaces. But we are often full through the end of October,” one exasperated park employee told me.
So what makes the park so popular? Two cliff side lighthouses, miles of beaches and hiking trails, old-growth forests, war bunkers, a Coast Guard training center, a museum and the chance to walk where Captain William Clark did.
Disappointing? Hardly. Blame English explorer John Meares for that whiny moniker after he missed the entrance to the Columbia River in 1788.
One of my favorite places to start a trip at the park is Beard’s Hollow. From there, the Discovery Trail leads east to Ilwaco over rolling hills or north to the ocean through a narrow canyon and on to Long Beach. During my visit, a black bear lumbered across the road just as I arrived.
If you head west and uphill from Beard’s Hollow, you’ll pass through mature trees swathed in moss and lichen to North Head Lighthouse. If you’re not up for the 1-mile climb, a side road leads to a parking lot for a short walk to the lighthouse. The 70-foot-tall structure is a not-to-be-missed spot at the park, perched 200 feet above the crashing Pacific Ocean. The tower is now closed to entry while glass is being replaced, but it might reopen in mid-October. Hours vary by season.
One of my most enduring memories of the park is a windy winter day when I stood in the glassed-in tower and watched large chunks of sea foam whipped up from the ocean float around me.
On the river side of the park is the maybe-you-can-miss-it Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Smaller and lower than North Head, it’s still a nice 1.2-mile hike up from the U.S. Coast Guard station. The 1856 tower is the oldest functioning lighthouse on the West Coast.
There isn’t much cave exploring on the coast, but the next best thing can be found on top of McKenzie Head where a large World War II bunker and gun complex from Fort Canby still stands. On my recent visit, a park visitor urged me not to take the short climb up to the promontory where the windowless structure is buried. “There’s people in there. I just got pranked,” he told me.
I set my camera’s strobe on “stun” and headed up anyway. Though I flashed every dark room I walked into, I didn’t find any pranksters.
Built on top of another World War II bunker and perched on a cliff above the mouth of the Columbia River is the park’s Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. It tells the story of the Corps of Discovery’s entire journey but focuses on their Pacific Coast winter.
But why should visitors come here when they can just head down to where the Corps spent the winter at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon side of the river?
“Two entirely different experiences,” Stephen Wood tells me. Wood is an interpretive specialist at the park and says their museum, refurbished in 2004, tells a broader story of both the expedition and the history of Fort Canby. The museum also contains actual Lewis and Clark artifacts. And kids can giggle at Clark’s spelling (“Ocian in view”).
Plus, the views are incomparable – even more so with winter approaching.
“If you want to see why they call it the graveyard of the Pacific, come out here in the winter and watch the storms from the comfort of our galleries,” Wood said.
Down near stunning Waikiki Beach and the overrated Maya Lin Confluence Project is a sight I’d never seen in a state park before: a pizza joint. Jim Chrietzberg runs Serious Pizza Plus with his wife, Chi. It’s the first of its kind in a Washington state park, he told me. He built the small concession out of an old bus shelter, complete with a wood-burning oven.
The $7-$25 pizzas (depending on size and ingredients) share a menu with steamer clams, grilled oysters and sandwiches. The couple will keep the concession open as long as good weather lasts and yes, they deliver to campsites.
THE COLUMBIA PACIFIC HERITAGE MUSEUM
Ilwaco knows fish. The one-stoplight town is dominated by its port filled with commercial and charter boats. But it has all the amenities a traveler needs, including lodging, restaurants, shops and art galleries. It also is home to The Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum.
At the surprisingly large museum, there’s a display on Chinook culture, including the wellspring of that tribe’s troubles with federal recognition: the unratified Tansy Point Treaty of 1851. A small carved canoe by recently deceased tribal elder George Lagergren takes center stage.
One display shows the now-defunct practice of using horses to haul in seine nets. Another shows the evolution of life vests. The earliest, from 1904 and covered in cork, proved to drown as many as it saved.
The largest artifact at the museum is an 1889 Pullman passenger coach from the narrow gage “Clamshell Railroad” that traveled between Ilwaco and points north on the Long Beach Peninsula and east along the river until 1930.
LEWIS AND CLARK NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
When the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition was nearing a few years ago, the National Park Service got busy sprucing up its various sites in anticipation of large crowds. The crowds didn’t materialize, but the many sites in Southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon associated with the Corps of Discovery are better for it.
One of the chief changes was a rebranding of disparate sites administered by a variety of government agencies as one national park.
Just east of the Astoria-Megler Bridge is Clark’s Dismal Nitch. It’s really just a glorified WSDOT rest stop with informational displays. On a sunny day, it’s a nice spot to enjoy the river. But don’t miss it if you’re there in a storm. Clark gave the spot its name because his team spent six miserable days there in November 1805, lashed by rain and crashing waves. You can think about that from the comfort of your car.
The newest and most attractive addition to the national park group is the recently opened Middle Village/Station Camp Park just west of the Astoria-Megler Bridge. Boardwalks and trails meander through the riverside site. Displays tell the history of this Chinook trading village site.
This also is where the Corps camped after their Dismal Nitch misery. It’s where they voted on whether to spend the winter on the north or south side of the river. The vote is famous for giving the future state of Oregon bragging rights. But it’s equally significant because the captains made a point of including all of their party in the crucial decision – including their female Shoshone guide Sacagawea and Clark’s African American slave York.
Though Cape Disappointment State Park, the Discovery Trail and the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center are under the umbrella of the National Park, they are still state sites and require visitors to have a Discover Pass or pay a state day-use fee.
FORT COLUMBIA STATE PARK
Have you ever wanted to rent out an old military fort protected by gigantic cannons? Here’s your chance. Fort Columbia guarded its namesake river from 1896-1947 and became a state park in 1950.
Today, the 593-acre day-use park has more than a mile of shoreline, five miles of hiking trails and a small village of yellow wood-framed military buildings. An interpretive center (housed in the fort’s barracks) focuses on Chinook culture and fort history, but it’s closed indefinitely because of budget cuts. The commanding officer’s quarters is a museum (closed as well), but the former hospital and steward’s house are both available as vacation rentals.
Picnic tables are perfect for checking out the sweeping views of the mouth of the Columbia River.
KNAPPTON COVE HERITAGE CENTER
The last stop on my historical tour was the quirkiest. And that’s not just because the Knappton Cove Heritage Center commemorates its time as a U.S. Public Health Quarantine Station, but because the museum itself has an ad hoc, homemade feel about it.
From 1899-1938, the facility screened thousands of immigrants for smallpox, cholera, typhoid, plague and other communicable diseases as the huddled masses arrived from Europe, Asia and South America via ship on the Columbia River. Several buildings at the site survive, but it’s the 20-bed “pest house” that was turned into a museum by Nancy Bell Anderson. Her family has owned the property since the 1950s when it was a fishing camp.
The museum is a mix of its days as both a hospital and fishing camp. It’s chock-a-block full of displays and ephemera.
“It’s a story that other museums can’t tell,” Anderson tells me. “It’s the real thing, not a replica.” As far as she knows, it’s the only historical quarantine station still existing on the West Coast.
If you think that the threats the station maintained vigilance for are gone, consider this: Modern quarantine stations still exist. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintains a network around the country, including one in Seattle.
At Knappton Cove, artifacts, photos and displays tell the story of the station. One-hundred-year-old enema cans line a bathroom wall. A still-functioning wooden toilet resides in another. Yes, Anderson will let you use it.
The center, which has operated as a nonprofit since 2005, markets itself as “the Columbia River’s Ellis Island.” Anderson hopes to one day have a registry of the 100,000 immigrants who passed through its doors.
WHERE TO EAT
Ilwaco has a number of eateries at its port or just nearby that take advantage of the town’s bounty from the sea.
The Sea Hag Bar and Grill looked full of character but I headed to Pelicano Restaurant, where a seasonally changing menu is heavy with wild seafood. I found the Dungeness crab cakes packed with meat but over-salted for my taste. A lemony Catalan seafood stew was brimming with a variety of fresh seafood.
At nearby Tuscany Cafe, local seafood is incorporated into traditional Italian recipes. An antipasto plate was pedestrian in its composition but the house salad seemed like its own farmers’ market. The fettuccine Alfredo burst with cheese and a net’s worth of fresh shrimp, scallops, clams and firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8541