Two lighthouses guard the north shore of the entrance of the Columbia River – Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and North Head Lighthouse. Both stand high on magnificent outcrops of ancient oceanic islands, the pillowed patterns of underwater eruptions still etched in their basaltic cliffs.
The entrance, or mouth, of the Columbia River is one of the most treacherous river crossings in the world. Almost as soon as explorers entered this region, the river began devouring ships and sailors. As a result, the area became known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.”
Before the lighthouses were built, the settlers in this region attempted to make the bar* crossing safer by putting up visual markers to help guide the ships into the river. White cloth was tied to trees for daytime crossings, fires were lit to guide ships across the bar at night.
*Bar refers to the area where the river meets the ocean. As the river water meets the ocean water it slows. The sediment that it has been carrying then drops out of suspension and creates piles of mud and sand under the water. These sand bars cause high, choppy waves on the surface of the water, and are so shallow that ships and boats become stranded upon them. The ships frequently end up broken apart by the surf.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse
Because of the highly profitable fur trade, and other resource-extraction industries in the early to mid-1800’s, settlement in the region around the mouth of the Columbia River boomed. The frequent loss of ships finally convinced the government to invest in construction of a lighthouse on the cliff overlooking the main channel into the river. (The main channel has since relocated to the Oregon side of the river, where it is maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers with jetties and dredging.) After years of construction and some major set-backs, including the loss of the ship carrying its first intended lens, Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was finally put into operation in October of 1856.
North Head Lighthouse
North Head Lighthouse sits on the northwestern lobe of the group of cliffs that comprise the entirety of Cape Disappointment. As shipping traffic to and from northern ports such as Port Townsend increased, many ships headed southbound were smashing up on the rocks and shoals of North Head. As it turned out, North Head, only two miles northwest of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, was positioned in such a way that it completely blocked the light of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse from reaching southbound ships. So construction began on a second lighthouse, this one on top of the cliffs of North Head. It was put into operation in 1898.
Visiting the Lighthouses
North Head Lighthouse is located in Cape Disappointment State Park. It is a short, ¼-mile fairly level walk from the parking lot to the lighthouse. No matter what the weather at the parking lot or inland, you should expect the wind to be blowing on the bluff. In fact, North Head is one of the windiest places in the United States of America! Be prepared for gorgeous views of the ocean and the lighthouse as you walk down the gravel access road; in other words – bring your camera! (This is also a fantastic place to catch the sunset.)
North Head Lighthouse is open to the public during limited hours throughout the year. It’s best to call ahead of time to ensure that it will be open. The phone number for Cape Disappointment State Park is 360-642-3078. There is a small fee to go into the lantern room of the lighthouse, 60-feet above the top of the almost 200’ cliff. When open, a volunteer or park staff will be waiting in the lantern room to share some of the history of the lighthouse and the area. These tours are a fun way to learn more about the background of the area. The volunteers enjoy researching the lighthouse and often dig up unique and interesting facts and stories to share with visitors; no two talks are the same!
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is located on the Coast Guard Station, Cape Disappointment. It is at this Station that the National Motor Lifeboat School operates, training men and women of the Coast Guard to handle boats in the worst of conditions – on the Columbia River Bar.
To get to the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, visitors must hike a relatively steep ½-mile trail that begins at the parking lot for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. The last section of the trail travels along the top of a cliff overlooking the Coast Guard’s firing range. As a result, the trail can be closed with little notice to help prevent mishaps during firearms training. You can call ahead to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center for information about trail closures – 360-642-3029.
This lighthouse is not open to the public. Where North Head has a nice spiral staircase leading to the lantern room, Cape Disappointment’s lantern room is accessed by a staircase and a ladder. Even though you can’t go inside, you can get right up next to this magnificent lighthouse. And the views from this bluff within the river’s mouth are very beautiful.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse is one of the most photographed features at Cape Disappointment State Park. There are two popular viewpoints from which to take pictures – the walkway in front of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, and the second parking lot at Waikiki Beach Day Use Area within the main area of Cape Disappointment State Park.
Both of these lighthouses were originally tended by lighthouse keepers; men and women who were responsible for keeping the lamps lit at night and cleaning the lenses each day. Eventually the lighthouses became automated. Now, with satellites and GPS to guide ships, lighthouses have become more of a reassuring bit of nostalgia than a necessity. Their lights still shine, but the buildings are falling into disrepair. By visiting these treasured icons, you are helping preserve an inspiring piece of our cultural history!