Explore Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The breeze sings, the sea glistens, and treachery lies all around.

I peek beyond a thicket of brush at what was long ago dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific, a stretch of ocean that has struck fear into the hearts of many sailors. I’m muttering my own prayers on this solo, late-morning hike that has my back to a seaside cliff and my gaze focused on the underbrush -- just ... over ... there -- where there’s a loud thrashing made by something not human.

Over the years, nearly 2,000 boats have gurgled to saltwater oblivion and 700 sailors have met their maker near the mouth of the Columbia River. Washington’s Cape Disappointment State Park, the spot where I now sweat, lies at the bottom of the Long Beach Peninsula, extending at its southern end into the maw of this river.

The ever-shifting, fan-shaped sandbar played havoc with vessels trying to navigate their way in a pre-GPS world. Even the first attempt to build Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in 1853 ended in disaster when the ship carrying the building materials foundered directly below the cape. Eventually two lighthouses -- Cape Disappointment and North Head -- were constructed a mere two miles apart to help those at sea.

North Head Lighthouse is just around the corner from me. I edge along the cliff, wondering: What is that thing in the brush? Could it be a bear, a coyote, a weasel? All are inhabitants of this cape, whose deep-green beauty stuns me despite my predicament. The 1,882-acre park has plentiful camping, with 250 sites that include yurts and vacation-home rentals, plus six miles of hiking trails rich in history. If I’d stayed on one of them, I wouldn’t be in this fix.

The cape was named by British Capt. John Meares in 1788 after his failure to find the mouth of the Columbia. Visitors can walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, who caught their first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 15, 1805. William Clark set up camp and carved his name in the trees while on exploratory missions on the cape. I’m not nearly as intrepid.

Steering clear of my mystery nemesis, I pull myself through the chest-high vegetation, holding on to the rusty poles of a broken-down fence. I get to the top. All is quiet. I exhale. Then I run. I’ll live to hike another day.