Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cape Disappointment

Storm at Cape Disappointment, from Waikiki Beach
1 mile round trip, 200 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

The Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean at Cape Disappointment, a rocky headland on the Washington Coast often enveloped by fog and battered by storms. While I am sure the cape is undoubtedly beautiful in the blue skies and warm sun of summer, the cliffs and rocky islets here become an incredible display of nature's violence when winter storms pummel the Northwest. I visited the cape during a windstorm, catching the effects of the remnants of Typhoon Songda on the coastline. Due to the extremely inclement weather during my visit, I only did a very short hike at park, following the trail out to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse; hikers with more time and better weather can more thoroughly explore the park's network of trails, which lead to the North Head Lighthouse, McKenzie Head, and along the bluffs of Cape Disappointment itself.

I drove down from Seattle on a stormy day, following I-5 south to Olympia, US 101 north briefly from Olympia to the junction with Washington Highway 9, then west on Washington Highway 9 until it merged with US 12. At Montesano, I left US 12 and followed State Route 107 to its junction with US 101, which I followed south past Raymond, South Bend, and Seaview to Ilwaco; at Ilwaco, I followed State Route 100 into the park, driving past North Head to a four-way stop at the park entrance. Here, I turned right first and drove along the Jetty Road to Waikiki Beach, a spectacular spot to watch a storm. From the vantage point along the jetty here, I could see huge waves coming off the Pacific and slamming into the headlands at the cape. I arrived slightly before the intense low-pressure center of the storm did and stayed until after the center of low pressure had passed slightly offshore. During this period, waves grew progressively larger, with massive swells almost 20 feet high and waves that broke on the cliffs and sent spray flying over 100 feet up, in some cases almost all the way to the base of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Winds gusting up to 80 miles per hour sent a continuous column of spray swirling up the headlands. The pressure off the coast dropped below 970 millibars, making this an impressively powerful storm. Standing just slightly back from the logs on the beach just in case of a big wave, I was still splashed by saltwater spray from these waves multiple times.

Waves pound Cape Disappointment during a storm

After the winds and the rains had calmed down a bit, I drove from Waikiki Beach back to the four-way intersection and then turned right and followed the road towards the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. I parked at the lot at the end of the road, putting up my Discover Pass before heading up a short paved walkway to the Interpretive Center itself. Unfortunately, the center was closed that day due to the storm; I checked out the view of the lighthouse and the sea from the observation deck behind the the visitor center, then walked by the remnants of an old coastal battery and followed the gravel trail towards the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse from Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
The trail led through the forest and quickly intersected with another trail coming up directly from the trailhead parking lot. At this junction, I took the right fork and followed the trail as it descended through the coastal forest and reached a paved road leading towards a Coast Guard station about a quarter mile out from the Interpretive Center. The road led left towards the Coast Guard outpost and right towards the lighthouse; as the road to the left was marked "No Trespassing," I followed the road to the right and followed it uphill towards the lighthouse.

Heading uphill, I caught a few nice views of the secluded inlet of Deadman's Cove, a small bay with a log-filled beach, a picturesque island, and a narrow mouth connecting it with the Pacific.

Deadman's Cove
About a quarter mile past the Coast Guard station, I reached the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, which was perched at the edge of the headland, seemingly at the edge of the world. The lighthouse is actually one of two at Cape Disappointment- the other is just a few miles away at North Head; the two lighthouses are distinguishable by the black stripe on the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse that's absent on the North Head light.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse
Looking north from the headland, I could spot the Interpretive Center sitting atop the coastal bluffs. As the ocean retreated towards low tide, the violent waves I had observed earlier had calmed substantially, although the sea was still quite turbulent.

Cape Disappointment coastline from the lighthouse
Looking out from the cape, I saw waves roll in from the Pacific between the North and South Jetties, which marked the mouth of the Columbia River. The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse guards over the Columbia River Bar, one of the most treacherous river bars in the world. Nicknamed the "Graveyard of the Pacific," this stretch of coast contains many hazards: storms buffet the coast all winter, fog threatens with low visibility, and the ever-shifting sands at the mouth of Columbia constantly grounds and sinks passing ships. Ship traffic moving in and out of the Columbia only do so safely today due to constant dredging of the main channel and to the navigational abilities of the bar pilots, who board incoming and outgoing vessels to chart a safe course through the bar's dangerous waters.

The huge waves often seen at Cape Disappointment means that maritime emergencies are commonplace off the Washington Coast. The Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment runs search and rescue operations on these stormy seas; the lighthouse is still actively used by the Coast Guard for monitoring activity on the Columbia Bar.

Stormy sea at Cape Disappointment
When I arrived back in Seattle, it appeared that I was one of few to have witnessed the storm's power; the Puget Sound was spared the intense winds I had experienced along the coast. In the end, the center of the storm stayed offshore, thankfully limiting its damage in most of the state.

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