The Foulest Place In The West? Cape Disappointment, WA
Some call it a foul place, one of the foulest in fact, at least when it comes to the weather. If you’re a lover of all things wet, all things foggy, all things windy and just general soak-drenched damp craziness this may just be the spot for you. It rains here, and not just in small amounts but with timed regularity. A complicated mix of pressure systems (the Aleutian Low and the Pacific High) battle just off the coast creating over 7 feet of rain in winter and over 100 days the fog in summer. The systems combine with the ocean to produce one of the highest levels of wave energy in the world, sometimes reaching over 30 feet (10 m). The sun is but a brief visitor and the cliff-backed waters are the most dangerous on the western coast, so much so that the entire area has earned the name of “Graveyard of the Pacific”. Oh this is something else, my friends, something else entirely.
When we arrived at this god-forsaken spot we drove miles through dense, dark pine and emerged into a swirling steam of thick grey fog, twisting and churning on the road like ghosts of a classic nightmare. The sky was dark and heavy, the ground black and slick and the thunder of crashing waves hinted at the devastating power of nature just beyond our doorstep. We backed into our RV spot just in time to witness the first spewing of rain, an angry downpour of massive proportions and a mere taste of many to come. Why would anyone come here? Any why, oh why would anyone plan to stay a WEEK??!
The answer came just 30 minutes later. Like the end of a furious argument the veil of weather suddenly lifted. In the blink of an eye blue skies peeked through the clouds, the sun bathed the steaming ground and the beach opened in glorious invitation. We walked the 15 feet (yes, literally 15 feet) from our RV spot to the sand and were silenced in awe-struck beauty. This place is wild, crazy, and absolutely intolerable but when the sky clears there is a gorgeousness like no-where else. It speaks to the deeply primal in me, harmonizes with my soul and resonates a profound (and very odd) relaxation that I can’t quite describe. Standing there on this wild beach, backs by cliffs and a shining white lighthouse with an endless horizon of churning waves before me I’m in total bliss. I just don’t know what it is, folks, but I LOVE places like this!!
We’ve arrived at Cape Disappointment, WA and it is just my kinda place!
This ~1,700 acre dramatic cape, now mostly a State Park, was named by English explorer John Meares who was looking for the northwest passage over the Columbia River bar in 1788. He missed it, was rather bummed and so he got to name the headland just north of it (not a bad trade-off I guess). This bar, still one of the most dangerous in the world, was finally crossed in 1792 and developed into an important sea-way in the early 1800’s. This prompted the building of not just one, but two lighthouses on the cliffs to protect the mariners. Cape Disappointment Lighthouse began operation in 1856 and is still operated by the Coast Guard today making it the oldest lighthouse still in use on the West Coast. The second at North Head was lit in 1898 and also still beams today although stewardship was transferred to the State Park in 1995. Both gorgeous beacons can be seen from the beaches on clear days and both can be reached by short hikes, but only North Head offers tours ($2.50 a piece).
Besides the lighthouses this point is also the historic place where Lewis and Clark finally reached the Pacific Ocean on their 1803-1806 expedition to map the passage to the west. There is a huge (and rather lovely) Interpretive Center overlooking the cliffs which takes you through their entire journey in a time-line fashion right from the original departure of the custom-build keelboat at Pittsburg, to their winter camp at Fort Mandan, the hiring of interpreter Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea (who became pivotal to the expedition), the harsh passage over the Bitterroot Mountains and the difficult canoe down the Columbia River to the ocean. It’s very nicely done and offers a movie too, well worth the $5 to see.
But perhaps the most alluring part of Cape Disappointment is its wild beauty. The deeply forested trails that penetrate the pines, the wildflowers that hide in its undergrowth and the stunning beaches that soften its coastline. For the latter we can thank the massive Jetty’s that were built to stabilize the Columbia River bar which, in turn, dramatically expanded the coastline both north and south of the river. Our fabulous RV spot (very deliberately chosen by the way) has a slot view of one of those beaches with the soothing background music of the waves as a steady companion. The view provides a constantly changing emotion from angry grey on rainy days to perfectly mirrored reflections on sunny low-tide days. We’ve been doing at least 6 walks a day on the sand and totally loving it. Polly is beside herself with bouncy joy, while I’m going shutter-crazy with the camera. We’ve got several more days in the area where we’ll dance around the downpours and explore some of the surrounding spots too, but for now we’re dead happy just hanging on this crazy coastline by the beach. It may well be one of the foulest places we’ve been, but in a very, very good way.
P.S. We have zero internet connection at our campsite, so I’ve managed this feat of technological blogging magic by eating at Serious Pizza (on-site in Cape Disappointment State Park) that provide a free WiFi service…oh, and delicious gluten-free pizzas too! Food and a solid data signal. What more could a foodie geek want?
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