The amazing thing about the West Coast is that it is still mostly wild, open, and astoundingly beautiful country, where you can drive for miles and miles and have the scenery all to yourself.
The high headland marking the place where the Columbia River finally merges into the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment was named by the early explorer Capt. John Meares, who in 1788 incorrectly interpreted the treacherous sandbars offshore to mean that, despite reports to the contrary, there was neither a major river nor any mythical Northwest Passage here.
Besides the grand view of the raging ocean, the best reason to visit the cape is to tour the small but worthwhile Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center (244 Robert Gray Dr., 360/642-3029, daily, $5), incongruously built atop a World War II-era artillery emplacement a short walk from the end of the road. On November 7, 1805, after five months and more than 4,000 miles, the explorers finally laid eyes on the Pacific from this point, and then they sat through nine days of continuous rain before fleeing south to Oregon. Displays inside the museum give the overall context for their journey of discovery, walking you through the different stages of their two-year round-trip. The small “Cape D” lighthouse stands atop a cliff, a half-mile walk from the Lewis and Clark museum, which is 200 feet above the Pacific Ocean. The more impressively photogenic North Head Lighthouse, on the ocean side of the peninsula a mile north of the museum, is the oldest on the West Coast.
The entire 1,882-acre area around the cape, including miles of beaches backed by rugged cliffs, is protected from development within Cape Disappointment State Park (360/642-3029), which has hiking, camping, and overnight lodgings in historic quarters next to North Head Lighthouse.
In recent years there have been a number of developments building on the area’s Lewis and Clark connections, including the eight-mile Discovery Trail, which heads north to the town of Long Beach, and a series of thought-provoking installations by architect Maya Lin (creator of the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial). Called the Confluence Project, and located mostly along the riverfront east of the museum, these works all deal with the coming together of the natural and man-made worlds, as well as the interaction of explorers and Native Americans. The installations range from boardwalks and interpretive trails (lined in places by quotations from Lewis and Clark’s diaries) to a sculptural basalt “fish-cleaning” table.
The nearest services to Cape Disappointment—gas stations and a couple of cafés—are two miles away, back on US-101 in the rough-and-tumble fishing port of Ilwaco, where you can also enjoy the sophisticated yet simple and fresh seafood prepared at Pelicano Restaurant (177 Howerton Way SE, 360/642-4034), on the harbor.
Southeast of Ilwaco, toward the Oregon border, US-101 winds along the north bank of the Columbia River, giving good views of the mighty river’s five-mile-wide mouth.