English fur trader John Meares was mistaken as he stood on the northern shore of the mouth of the Columbia River in July 1788. He was in search of the great river, but what appeared before him seemed to be a large bay, so he named the high bluff above the Columbia’s mouth, “Cape Disappointment.”
When you visit Cape Disappointment State Park today, you certainly won’t be disappointed in what you find. It’s an amazing park that’s home to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
Perched on a cliff 200 feet above the pounding Pacific surf, the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center shares the story of the Corps of Discovery’s journey, focusing particularly on their Pacific Coast stay during the winter of 1805-1806. A series of mural-size timeline panels guide visitors through the westward journey of the Expedition using sketches, paintings, photographs, and the words of the journal writers.
It’s a wonderful stop for families with numerous interactive exhibits. Children can try to pack a canoe without tipping it, follow a treasure hunt, and check out what the Corps ate on their journey. The center features a short film presentation, a nicely outfitted gift shop, and a glassed-in observation deck with fabulous views of the river, headlands, and ocean. Additional displays focus on local maritime and military history.
During winter and spring, trained volunteers come to the center to help visitors spot migrating Gray Whales. You can also learn about the nearby North Head and Cape Disappointment Lighthouses. The lighthouses both function to protect mariners from the rough and ever-changing Columbia River Bar in the treacherous area known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast.
Cape Disappointment was armed with smoothbore cannons to protect the mouth of the Columbia during the Civil War. In 1875, the area was expanded to become Fort Canby which remained in use through the end of World War II. Today, near the visitor center, you can explore the remains of the military bunkers and defense batteries.
Be sure to set aside time to hike through an old-growth forest or around fresh-water ponds, saltwater marshes, and ocean tidelands. The beaches are perfect for kite-flying, sand-castle building, or simply walking and exploring. Camping, picnicking, clamming, boating, fishing, crabbing, and bird watching are also fun activities within the park.
Cape Disappointment State Park is open year-round for camping and day use, 8 a.m. to dusk. A Washington State Park Discover Pass is required. The hours of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center vary by season.