Lighthouses stand sentinel atop windswept cliffs, sea smells waft up through the air and waves collide with a crash where the Pacific Ocean meets the Columbia River below
Names of places can be evocative so when I discovered that on our road trip to the very north-western point of Oregon we’d be close to Cape Disappointment and the close-by Dismal Nitch. Where did these names derive from?
Let’s start with Cape Disappoint. In 1788 English fur trader John Meares travelled up the coast in search of the entrance of the Colombia River. In those days the river was known as the San Roque, named by the Spanish explorer Bruno de Heceta (Hezeta) who had been asked by the King of Spain to explore the coastline north of California. Apparently, he was the first European to land in what is now the State of Washington. Of course, the First Nations people (the Chinooks) were already there and knew well the river, which they called Yakaitl-Wimahl. Now generally us Brits are usually pretty good at exploring and sailing but Meares’ genes must have gone awry because he could not find the entrance to the river, which has to be said is massive, and instead found himself in a little inlet which basically is a dead-end. Now, obviously, he was not too happy which caused him to write, “We can now with safety assert, that no such river as that of St. Roc exists, as laid down in the Spanish charts”. If only he’d checked over his left shoulder on his way out of the inlet he might have noticed the big river passing by! Anyway, so as not to leave totally empty-handed he had managed to spot the 700-foot basalt column sticking out of the sea, a well-known landmark even then, to which he applied his best sarcastic wit (another British trait) and named the place Cape Disappointment. Perhaps he should have called it Cape Loser or something similar!
Dismal Nitch, despite sounding like something out of 1950s Horror B-Film is actually a site of great accomplishment, not failure. This little cove on the banks of the Colombia River, opposite the city of Astoria, Oregon was the last place the renowned explorers Meriwether Clark and William Lewis camped, in early 1805, before they first spied the Pacific Ocean after their epic journey across the county to chart and claim the Western Territory for the United States. Sadly, today it is nothing more than a lay-by with toilets, so most people probably are more interested in emptying their bladder than checking up on their American history. Anyway, I liked the name even if the place was a bit disappointing.
1. DISMAL NITCH
Cape Disappointment is blessed with two lighthouses. The North Head lighthouse was put into as the primary navigation into the Colombia River from the Ocean to stop ships running aground in what was known as the ‘Pacific Graveyard’. Sadly, this was not enough so a second lighthouse had to be put in.
Both lighthouses are no longer in service but it is possible to get up close and personal to the North Head lighthouse and even go in and climb to the lightroom – but we went during the Covid-19 pandemic so it was closed to the public. The second lighthouse is closed to the public as the access to it is very sketchy due to erosion.
3. WAIKIKI BEACH & BENSON BEACH
It takes a degree of humour to call a beach on the Washington State Pacific coast Waikiki, but it does have a certain charm if not the guarantee of good weather. There is no way to describe this beach as long and sweeping instead it is a little bay that does a great job of collecting driftwood including whole trees that have tumbled into the sea. It is also a great place to birdwatch at the cliffs that overlook this micro-beach a home to numerous nesting seabirds. You also get some great views of the Cape Disappointment Head lighthouse. Well worth spending a few minutes here to explore this beach.
Benson Beach is more of your traditional beach. It is easily accessible from the main campgrounds or if you are not camping you can go down to the North Jetty Road that leads from Waikiki Beach. There is quite a lot of parking there (it does fill up quickly on busy days) with a path that leads onto the beach. Only a brave person would expose their body on this beach but is great for taking a walk along and playing in the waves (or the sand if you are younger or so inclined).
4. LEWIS & CLARK INTERPRETATION CENTRE
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is located approximately two miles from the North Head Lighthouse. It sits high up on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. A focused interpretation of the Expedition’s discoveries and experiences along the Columbia River with special attention given to the Corp’s arrival at the mouth of the Columbia River and their overland journey to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. There are other exhibits about the are including some about the history of the lighthouses. Sadly, when we visited the centre was closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
All was not lost because right behind the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is Fort Canby, a 19th-century coastal fortification built to defend the Columbia during the Civil War. Fort Canby is named for Civil War general Edward Canby, who helped defeat the Confederates at the Battle of Glorieta Pass in New Mexico.
Fort Columbia, about six miles upriver on the eastern end of Baker Bay, and Fort Stevens, on the Oregon side, completed the installations at the mouth of the river. Both are also now state parks. Constructed in 1863, more than 80 troops took up posts at Fort Canby the next year. The fort continued to expand, with several gun batteries built over the next eight decades.
Planning your visit
Cape Disappointment is two miles south of Ilwaco. From Kelso, take Ocean Beach Highway to the tiny town of Naselle. Here, make a left onto SR 401, driving for 12 miles to a junction of Highway 101, where a left turn would take you over the Astoria Bridge. Drive straight through this intersection, continuing on Hwy 101 for 11 miles to the city of Ilwaco and the junction of SR 100.
From Portland/Vancouver: Follow Highway 30 to Astoria, then merge onto Highway 101 north, crossing the Astoria-Megler bridge. Turn left once over the bridge and head for Ilwaco. Once you get to Ilwaco head west from the stoplight (only one in town) following the signs to Cape Disappointment State Park.
Best time to visit Cape Disappointment
July and August are the most reliably rainless months, and consequently, this is the most popular time to visit. It is during these months that the sun is seen most often and rain is almost unheard of (though not unknown)
Eating and drinking in Astoria
For small-town Astoria is blessed with a lot of breweries and pubs. The Fort George Brewery and Pub is located in downtown Astoria. It has a large indoor seating and outdoors for the summer. We like our dark beers and they had a couple on tap, even in the summer when breweries tend to focus on lighter beers. Their main menu consists of a lot of pizzas which generally is not great for us as we’re vegan, but they did have vegan cheese and were able to ‘veganize’ a pizza for us.
The Buoy Beer Company brewery sits down on the Astoria waterfront. It has more of an industrial feel to it than the Fort George brewery but does offer the beauty of outdoor seating with views of the Columbia River. We tried their porter, which was very nice. The menu again was regular fare, but the options were limited for vegans and vegetarians.
Not too far from the Buoy Brewery is the Astoria Brewing Company which is Astoria oldest microbrewery. There is outside seating that has views of the Columbia River. We chose not to eat here (apart from a bowl of fries) as the vegan options again were not great. Instead, we focussed on the beers, choosing to sample the different option with a flight of tasters. I must say they were very good!
Located a couple of miles, out on Pier 39, is the Rogue Pub. The food here is really good and they do some mighty fine stouts. Probably the best thing about the pub is being able to sit outside on the deck, especially if you can get to the far west side, and watch the sunset. If there is no room you can always pop away from the pub and head down the west side of the pier and watch the sun go down.
As vegans, it is sometimes difficult to find somewhere suitable, especially when you are staying in small towns. The options are often limited, but it is definitely getting easier to find good options in restaurants and supermarkets. When you find somewhere that is exclusively vegan or vegetarian you hit the jackpot. We never expected to find a place that was vegan friendly, so it was a great surprise to find the Blue Scorcher Cafe Bakery in the same building as the Fort George Brewery. The only drawback was that it only opened for breakfast and lunch.
Where to stay
‘At the Helm Hotel’ is located in Ilwaco, WA just across the Columbia River from Astoria. This 5-star hotel offers room service. Guests can enjoy a meal at the restaurant or a drink at the bar and free WiFi is available.
All guest rooms at the hotel are equipped with a seating area, a flat-screen TV with cable channels and a private bathroom with a hairdryer and a bath. All rooms will provide guests with a fridge.
A room during peak summer months will cost you around $260 per night.
The Astoria Riverwalk Inn is located just one minute walk from Port of Astoria Marina and the Riverwalk Trolley Bus, this Oregon motel features simply furnished rooms with an attached bathroom with free Wi-Fi and complimentary continental breakfast. Free guest parking is offered.
A cable TV with extended channels and tea and coffee-making facilities are found in every room at Riverwalk Inn-Astoria. All rooms include a balcony overlooking the marina and Egyptian cotton sheets. Guest rooms at this motel include views of the marina and the Astoria-Megler Bridge.
A room here in the summer will set you back about $180 per night.
The Norblad Hotel is a historic 90-year-old building located in Astoria, less than 5-minute walk from the restaurants and shops lining the Astoria Riverwalk. Free WiFi access is available.
Certain rooms come with a private bathroom. Free toiletries are available.
At the Norblad Hotel, you will find a shared kitchen. Other facilities offered at the property include a tour desk and luggage storage.
An ensuite Queen room here in the summer will set you back about $140 per night.