the blog of Seldom Seen Photography

Cape Disappointment State Park – A Photo Guide

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse as seen from Waikiki Beach shortly after sunset

Last Friday, Tanya, Nahla, and I drove down to Cape Disappointment State Park for the day. We couldn’t have asked for a better early Spring day. Other than a brief rain shower on the way down, the day was sunny and warm (for early March anyway). We were extremely lucky weather-wise, Friday was the only day without significant rain in the week. Rainfall totals at Astoria, Oregon, the closest weather station to Cape Disappointment, over the past week were 0.33 inches on Monday March 3rd, 0.15 inches Tuesday, 1.43 inches Wednesday, 0.33 inches Thursday, 0.03 inches Friday, 1.38 inches Saturday, and 0.86 inches Sunday.

North Head Lighthouse

North Head Lighthouse

Cape Disappointment State Park, which is also part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, is one of Washington’s larger state parks covering 1,882 acres. It offers 2 miles of ocean beach, two lighthouses,  and old-growth forest. The park is located at the very southwestern tip of the state, at the mouth of the Columbia River. The park encompasses two rocky headlands, North Head and Cape Disappointment, both with their own lighthouses. Between the two is a broad, sandy ocean beach. An ocean coast with both headlands and sandy beaches is unique in this part of the state. The coastline to the north is mostly either low sandy beaches or shallow estuaries, without headlands, for the next 70 miles. I have nothing against broad sandy beaches, but for photography, headlands are generally much more photogenic.

The key photographic highlights of the park are the two lighthouses. Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse on the United States west coast, guarding the mouth of the Columbia River. The lighthouse is reached via a 1/2 mile trail from the parking lot for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at the southern end of the park. (The interpretive center, by the way, is one of the better Lewis and Clark museums in the Northwest, if not the whole country.) The trail approaches the lighthouse from the east, and the lighthouse is not visible from the trail until near the end of the trail. Further, the approach is from below the lighthouse. These factors make the lighthouse backlit for most of the day from the approach, and the ocean is not visible beyond the lighthouse until reaching its base. Space is extremely limited on the northern and western sides of the lighthouse and non-existent on the southern side. Additionally, there is a more modern, small boxy building just to the west of lighthouse. All these restrictions make it difficult to photograph the lighthouse near its base. However, the walk out to it is worth it for the view – the wide, sweeping expanse of the Columbia River entering the Pacific Ocean, with the Oregon coastal mountain range to the south. The mouth of the Columbia contains some of the most hazardous waters on the west coast, and the Coast Guard keeps a close watch on ships and fishing and pleasure boats entering and leaving the river.

In fact, the small building is manned by the Coast Guard. When we were there, the seaman in the station invited us inside to look through his binoculars (I don’t know what size lenses these things had, but if I had to guess, there were at least 600 mm; ie. they were huge) and tell us about his job. We talked about the waves, how big they get, and what it’s like bust through them on a small boat while doing surf training or going on a rescue. If the Coast Guard is surf training when you’re there, with a long lens, you should be able to get some great shots of  boats busting through and over breaking waves from the lighthouse.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse 2

Mid-afternoon light on Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, again from Waikiki Beach

The best shots of the Cape Disappointment lighthouse itself, however, are not from near the base, but from beach level. The view from just to the west of Waikiki Beach ( a small beach, complete with big waves and surfers, just not the same climate as its more famous cousin) is particularly good. Because this is north of the lighthouse, the best light will be late in the afternoon and near sunset. You can try to capture waves crashing against the rocks beneath the lighthouse or frame the lighthouse with driftwood. Another possible, and more elevated, shot is from the interpretive center, again with the best light in late afternoon or near sunset.

The North Head lighthouse, located near the northern end of the park, has a bit more room around the base, making photographs possible from more angles close to the base. The lighthouse is accessed from a 1/4 mile trail from the historic lightkeeper’s and assistant lightkeeper’s houses and nearby parking lot.  The North Head lighthouse sits a bit lower than the much of the land near it, so it is much easier to get a shot of the lighthouse with the ocean in the background than is possible at Cape Disappointment (okay, it’s probably impossible to get that type of shot at Cape Disappointment unless you have a plane or a drone). For example, you can easily walk up the hill behind the lighthouse and capture it with the setting sun over the Pacific.

Other good shots of the North Head Lighthouse can be taken from the beach south of the lighthouse and from an extension of the headland north of the lighthouse. To access this northern area, take the paved trail from the lighthouse parking lot to Bell’s View. Near the wooden view platform, wander off the trail to the west and pick up the informal trail which ends at a small cement pillbox (left over from WWII). But be careful, you’ll be near the edge of a cliff, and it’s a long way down to pounding surf below. While there, it’s also worth taking a peak at Bell’s View, which is northward to the seemingly endless beach and surf on the Long Beach Peninsula.

Other opportunities for photography include the beach between the two headlands, views of Deadman’s Cove along the trail to the Cape Disappointment lighthouse (beach access is not allowed), old growth forest (probably best on the North Head trail), historic artillery bunkers (the park was home to Fort Canby, active from 1852 through the end of World War II), and potentially wildlife. And if you like small fishing towns, visit the harbor at Ilwaco, which is located just outside the park.

North Head Lighthouse 2

North Head Lighthouse viewed from the north.

On the Beach

Tanya and Nahla playing on the beach.

Ilwaco

Fishing boats in the harbor at Ilwaco

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9 responses

  1. Beautiful photos!!!!

    March 12, 2014 at 7:37 pm

  2. Great work Joe!

    March 12, 2014 at 11:41 pm

  3. Great photography & information. God bless you.

    March 13, 2014 at 2:21 am

    • Thank you. I hope the information I give here and is some of my other posts is useful to photographers out there that may want to visit our beautiful Pacific Northwest.

      March 13, 2014 at 9:06 am

      • Thanks for the beautiful captures and the information. My question is: Can an 89 year old man easily reach the Beach from which you took the pictures of the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. This is the spot I want to check out. However I have limited mobility and therefore seek your advice.

        July 3, 2015 at 4:53 pm

      • Hi Donald; sorry for the slow reply, I was off camping over the weekend. Now to your question, the beach from which I took Cape Disappointment Lighthouse (Waikiki Beach) is very close to the parking lot, and I think you can see the lighthouse from the parking lot. However, there is a lot of big driftwood you would have to climb up onto to see the water (I shot from on the driftwood), which may not work for you. That said, there may be a better way for you. If you go to the far west end of the parking lot, it appears (at least on Google Maps) that there is little to no driftwood, but you still might have to climb the jetty rocks – sorry, I can’t be certain. The other option is to park at the lot by the restrooms, there is a trail there to the beach that is probably quite easy. From where this trail reaches the beach, you need to go out toward the jetty a bit. The total distance from the car is maybe 100 to 150 yards. My suggestion is to look at the aerial view on Google Maps (type in Waikiki Beach, Pacific County, Washington), and maybe call the park ranger. Hope that helps.

        July 5, 2015 at 5:47 pm

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