Beard’s Hollow is a part of Cape Disappointment State Park, one of Washington State’s largest state parks. Cape Disappointment State Park is located at the southwest corner of the state, where the Columbia River flows into the Pacific Ocean.
The trail at Beard’s Hollow offers several distance options as it is part of the larger Discovery Trail – a wide, paved path that connects north Long Beach to Ilwaco. This path is friendly to walkers and bicyclists. My favorite section is the ¼-mile level section that connects its ample parking lot to the ocean beach and the coastal bluffs that are home to North Head Lighthouse. This part of the trail is lush with vegetation and meanders through a peaceful wetland and past an ancient sea stack on its way to the sandy beach.
Interpretive panels at the trailhead share stories about the history of the area. Beard’s Hollow got its name as a result of tragic circumstances: Edward Beard, the recently married young captain of the bark (a type of sailing ship) Vandalia, was last seen attempting to cross the Columbia River Bar on January 8, 1853. The mouth of the Columbia River, one of the most treacherous river mouth crossings in the world, is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” That night it added the Vandalia to its list of ships consumed. The next day the Vandalia was found upside-down on the beach near the mouth of the river. Beard’s body was found ½-mile north, washed up in the inlet that now bears his name.
Decades later, jetties were installed on either side of the Columbia River to help maintain a safe channel for ships to enter the river. As a result of this modification, sand started to build up in Beard’s Hollow, transforming it from an ocean inlet to a wide beach. Through the years, the once sandy beach became the lush wetland that you see today.
Old-timers in the area may mention camping in Beard’s Hollow. Before Washington State Parks acquired the property there was a campground in the center of what is now the wetland. After purchasing the land in the 1970’s, the State let it sit untended for decades. Natural processes and native animals quickly began making their mark on the land.
The center of Beard’s Hollow now contains a series of three broad, shallow beaver ponds. Beaver lodges are visible to the careful observer – look for three to four-foot piles of sticks out in the middle of the ponds. Cattail and other water-loving plants are home to marsh-loving birds like the red-wing blackbird and marsh wren. Wood ducks, great blue herons and other waterfowl can be seen by the quiet observer. A wooden bridge across the head of Beard’s Hollow provides nice access to view the middle of the first pond.
Beard’s Hollow is nestled in between steep hillsides abundant with plant life. Willows and alders mark the transition zone between the wetland and the forested hillside. The understory is filled with sword fern, salmonberry and elderberry. Deer and bear are some of the larger animals one might have an opportunity to see.
As you leave the wetland and forest slopes the massive “Elephant Rock” looms ahead. This is a sea stack that was stranded in the accumulating sands that filled Beard’s Hollow. It is now covered with pioneer plants, vegetation that can grow in little to no soil. Garter snakes love this area for the sun exposure it receives.
It is clear how Elephant Rock got its name once you look back at it from the beach. The massive chunk of basalt looks like a mammoth – its head on the left looking south, its great tusks reaching into the shore pines below, and its back covered with trees and shrubs. The sea stack is also known as “Crying Rock” because it often has moisture seeping down its flanks, even in the summertime. The official name for this edifice is “O’Donnel Rock.”
As the paved trail bends around the foot of Elephant Rock through a young stand of shore pines, stay to the left on to the sandy path, and the Pacific Ocean comes into view! The trail leads through the dunes to the beach.
The dunes are anchored in place by three types of dune grass. Only dunegrass (Elymus mollis), a broad-leaved variety with bluish leaves, is native. The other two, American Beachgrass and European Beachgrass (both in the genus Ammophila), were brought out to this coast to help stabilize the dunes. The tall grasses provide cover for mice and weasels, and there are often deer in this area - where they are much easier to see than in the forest!
Once on the beach, walking to the left will lead you to the base of the cliffs that comprise North Head. There is a lighthouse on the bluff, but it can be difficult to see from so close to the cliffs. The rocks that jut out into the ocean in this area are enticing, but beware! People are swept off these rocks almost every year, and the currents that swirl around the rocks make it very difficult to climb back to safety. Fishermen often use this area to get a little further out in the water, so the area is called “Fishing Rocks.” The fishermen are fishing for surf perch, a pretty red and green fish that grows to the size and shape of a dinner plate.
The beach near Beard’s Hollow is accessible by car, so watch for traffic as you walk on the sand. This is a great place to picnic, as long as you do so up in the dry sand; traffic usually stays on the hard-packed wet sand.
There are no trash receptacles at Beard’s Hollow, so remember to bring a bag so you can pack your trash out. There is a pit-toilet at the parking lot, but no facilities at the beach.