Cape Disappointment is on the southern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula in southern Washington. The area around the cape is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” for its treacherous waters, rocky cliffs and ever-changing sandbar formed by the Columbia River. North Head Lighthouse, first lighted in 1898, was the second of two lighthouses built on the cape. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Visitors check out the view from the North Head Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment State Park. The 65-foot-tall lighthouse was first illuminated in 1898. The original lens burned five gallons of kerosene a night and could be seen 20 miles out to sea. In 1998, a marine rotating beacon was installed. North Head was the second of two lighthouses built on Cape Disappointment. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
The Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center can be seen across Dead Man’s Cove from Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. A muralized timeline chronicles Lewis and Clark’s westward journey to the Pacific Ocean. Sketches, paintings and writings help depict the trials and triumphs of their three-year odyssey. There’s a gift shop loaded with Lewis and Clark memorabilia, as well as books and posters pertaining to the uniqueness of the maritime locale. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
This bronze marker commemorates the location of
A look down at Dead Man’s Cove, which can be seen during the 1.2-mile round-trip hike to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. The cove can be accessed through stairs from the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. As the story goes, the body of a shipwreck victim washed up on the shore here thus the cove’s name. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
This was the first of two lighthouses constructed at Cape Disappointment. Ironically, the cargo ship carrying the materials to construct the lighthouse wrecked directly below the cape in 1853. The 53-foot-tall lighthouse was first illuminated in 1856. The horizontal black stripe was added later to distinguish it from North Head Lighthouse, which became operational in 1898. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
This 125-foot column sits atop Coxcomb Hill in Astoria, Ore., southeast of Cape Disappointment across the Columbia River. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Etchings on the column depict vignettes of the areas past. Interior stairs, which are currently being replaced, lead to an observation deck and views of the Columbia River. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Take a spin across the 3-mile-long bridge that leads to the fur-trading enclave founded by John Jacob Astor in 1810. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Many would say this place has all the ingredients for a great dining experience: good food, enjoyable atmosphere, reasonable prices and tasty microbrewery beer. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
One recommended combination is the chicken wings with a pint of Shark Spit IPA. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
Back at Cape Disappointment, the former residence of the head lighthouse keeper at North Head can be rented for $377 plus tax per night. Two adjacent houses rent for $267 plus tax per night but lack the view offered by this main house. The refurbished house accommodates six guests. Hardwood floors extend from the living room into the lovely grand dining room and library. The century-old, two-story Victorian-period house features a comfortable living room with TV and DVD player, a spacious tiled kitchen with modern appliances, and three bedrooms with two queen-size and two single beds. (Tim Hubbard / Los Angeles Times)
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.