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Cape Disappointment

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Easy (to lighthouse)
1.2 miles round trip
200 feet elevation gain

Easy (Coastal Forest Trail)
1.4-mile loop
100 feet elevation gain 

Left: Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition reached this dramatic coastal headland after trekking nearly 3000 miles. Today the hike is shorter and features several added attractions—a lighthouse, an artillery bunker, and a museum.

For the easiest route to the views at “Cape D” (as the locals call this headland), start at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. To get there from Astoria, take Highway 101 north across the bridge and west 11 miles to Ilwaco. At the traffic light in the center of town go straight on Loop 100, following signs for Cape Disappointment for 3.4 miles. At the crossroads for the park’s boat launch go straight another half mile to the Interpretive Center’s parking turnaround. 

At the far right end of the parking lot, climb the paved trail 300 yards to the Interpretive Center. On the way you’ll pass the concrete ruins of Battery Harvey Allen, a bunker that housed three 6-inch guns from 1906 until after World War II. Explorable passageways and storage rooms remain. The Interpretive Center itself features walk-through exhibits of photographs, artifacts, and journal entries from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Hours are 9am to 6pm daily in summer (winters Tue-Sat 9-5 and Sun 12-5). It’s $8 for adults, but kids under 16 are free. 

When you leave the museum, walk to the ocean viewpoint and turn left along the bluff’s rim to find the trail to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. After 0.3 mile you’ll pass a viewpoint of Dead Man’s Cove, a picturesque chasm in the cape’s cliffs where a shipwreck casualty once washed ashore. The hidden beach here has been closed by the Coast Guard, so continue straight until you can turn right on a concrete pathway that skirts the cove’s clifftops for 0.3 mile to the lighthouse.

The oldest lighthouse still in use on the West Coast, this 53-foot brick tower was built in 1856 to cut the appalling frequency of shipwrecks on the Columbia River bar, the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” In fact, the ship that originally tried to bring materials for a lighthouse here in 1853 sank with its cargo 2 miles offshore on Peacock Spit.

When you return to your car you’ll only have logged 1.2 miles. If this sounds short for a day’s outing, you might prefer starting the hike at a trailhead that’s slightly farther away, where you’ll also be able to add a loop through old-growth woods on the Coastal Forest Trail.

To find this alternate trailhead, drive as to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, but when you reach the crossroads in Cape Disappointment State Park turn left toward the boat launch and immediately park in the shuttle bus parking area on the left, opposite the Fort Canby Store. From here the lighthouse is a 1.4-mile hike away. Simply cross the road, walk along the campground entrance road past the fee booth, and turn left at a sign for the Cape Disappointment Trail. This path climbs steeply to fabulous headland meadows full of browsing deer and viewpoints before delivering you to the usual route to the lighthouse.

If you still have energy after your lighthouse hike, spend it on a 1.4-mile loop along the Coastal Forest Trail. This path begins at the northwest corner of the shuttle bus parking lot where you parked your car, marked with a sign by the paved road. Keep right at all junctions to explore this jungly rainforest’s trail network. Along the way, 10-foot-thick spruces twist contorted branches above a carpet of wild lily-of-the-valley. Viewpoints overlook tidal flats, craggy islets, and the Ilwaco boat channel.

This chapter taken from the book 100 Hikes/Travel Guide: Oregon Coast & Coast Range.

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