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Cape Disappointment

The view from Waikiki Beach. Photos by Jillian O'Connor

Cape Disappointment offers year-round escape — plus two lighthouses

You can book ahead for summer trips, or bundle up now for beautiful scenery.

Cape Disappointment? With that bleak name, it doesn’t sound like you’ll find much there. But on a late summer camping trip, we found one of the most scenic areas we’ve visited in Washington, right where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean. 

The Cape Disappointment State Park campsite area we booked was composed of rather close together sites, which was, um, a disappointment. But when you see nearby Waikiki Beach (yes, that is really the name!), you’ll understand why that tent area is in such high demand. 

Exploring Waikiki with Cape Disappointment Lighthouse in the background.

The many boys on this group camping trip had a great time running over to the ocean to scamper around and play — sometimes with large, friendly, well-behaved dogs who were romping about. The popular beach is nestled among cliffs, right under the stunning Cape Disappointment lighthouse. (Meanwhile, the older boys, teenagers, had a great time buying six-dollar packages of Oreos at the nearby campsite store. It also offers camping supplies such as ice, wood and fishing gear, as well as vacationing teen essentials such as Cheetos, queso and soda.)

The view of North Head Lighthouse as hikers first get off the trail.

Our campsites were close to a marshy lake nearby, and a nice hiking distance from the North Head Lighthouse. (It was roughly 2 miles away on foot. You can also drive to it.) Much of the path is uphill, but it’s not overly steep or treacherous in summer. (Always check in with Washington Trails Association’s website to get a good idea of current trail conditions, though.)

The North Head Lighthouse (completed in 1898) is open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., May to September in normal times, but it was closed through September due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021. Note: When the lighthouse is open for tours, children under the age of 7 are not permitted.

North Head Lighthouse

The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse (completed in 1856), visible from Waikiki Beach, is permanently closed. There’s a quite steep 1.5 mile trail up to it. 

At night, we had plenty of marshmallows and long forks and a friend’s propane fireplace, which was very handy during the summer burn ban. 

If you do camp in the area, you’ll want to take the park’s raccoon warnings seriously. I spotted a raccoon family lumbering by our large, noisy group in the night, and found an enterprising young raccoon looking for leftovers from our fajitas multiple times in the dark.   

One of the lighthouse keeper’s residences.

The raccoons are there. They are numerous. And they’re not easily scared off. 

The details

Address: Cape Disappointment State Park (formerly Fort Canby State Park)
244 Robert Gray Drive
Ilwaco, WA 98624

Phone: (360) 642-3078

Fun fact: The state park has 8 miles of hiking trails, much of it through old-growth forest. 

The drive: About 3.5 hours from downtown Seattle. About 171 miles.

A new Newfoundland friend on the beach.

Cape Disappointment accommodations

Camping: Available year-round. (It’s in high demand in summer, so families should plan to book in early January for summertime trips.) The park has 137 standard campsites, 50 full hook-up sites and eight partial-hookup sites with water and electricity. 

Other places to stay: The state park offers accommodations in three cabins, 14 yurts and two vacation houses (each has three bedrooms). (The homes look quite pretty and are at the top, right near the lighthouse and a parking lot. They’re known as the lighthouse keeper’s residences.) 

Restrooms:  Eight restrooms (two ADA) and 14 showers (four ADA).

Parking: A Discover Pass is required for vehicle access to state parks for day use. For more information, go to the Discover Pass web page.  The park has automated pay stations for visitors to purchase a one-day or annual Discover Pass.

The view from the North Head Lighthouse area.

Nearby attractions and activities

Catching dinner: There’s clamming, crabbing and fishing! Visitors often like to go clam digging on Benson Beach or fishing on the North Jetty. Licenses are required in Washington.

Boat ramp? Yes.

Cape Disappointment

Another ocean view from the North Head area.

Museum: The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Ilwaco, also in the park, was a key stop by car just before we started the journey back to the Seattle area. It entertained a group of ten masked, vaccinated tween and teen boys with a film about the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest and numerous interactive models of canoes, a trebuchet and other equipment used on the historic journey. Open daily: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The quaint state park gift shop building near the lighthouse keeper’s residences.

Tickets: Ages 18 and older, $5. Ages 7 to 17, $2.50. Ages 6 and younger: Free

The next time we are in the area, we’ll make sure to leave enough time to explore the rest of the museum. (We mainly saw the exhibit area near the small, socially distanced theater.)

Oyster capital! As you drive to Cape Disappointment State Park from the north, you will surely see the small town South Bend, Wash., the self-declared “Oyster Capital of the World,” right on the Willapa River. (I did a little quick research in the car, and it seems one out of every six oysters consumed in the world is harvested in Willapa Bay.) 

We plan to stop and feast at a local oyster stand on our next trip. 

More parks: You can explore the rest of the vast Long Beach peninsula and its many attractions, according Fort Columbia State Historical Park and Leadbetter Point state park, and restaurants, shops and shoreline.

More Pacific Northwest travel:

Deception Pass with kids: 5 fun things to do (and one maybe)

Explore Washington’s 3 amazing national parks

The newbie’s guide to a family RV adventure

About the Author

Jillian O'Connor

Jillian O’Connor is managing editor of the Seattle's Child print magazine. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons and a dog named after the Loch Ness Monster.