The sound of wild Pacific seas crashing to the shore; the sun setting slowly over a historic lighthouse; lovers and friends walking silently along the sandy shore; kids flying a kite or laughing as their beloved sand castle is reclaimed by the tide; an ill-shapen tree standing guard on the edge of a craggy cliff overlooking the cluster of small villages and town-these are the indelible images that become vivid and lasting memories of a visit to Washington’s Pacific coast.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, near Ilwaco, sits on a high promontory overlooking the mouth of the Columbia. It’s a humbling experience to stand here looking down on the very sight that Lewis and Clark trudged across our untamed continent to see nearly two centuries ago. From here, the coast swoop down to near sea level, forming what lays claim to being one of the longest beaches in the world – the Long Beach Peninsula. Across a narrow strip of sand dunes, the shallow waters of Willapa Bay are home to thousands of birds and thriving oyster farms. This coastal area offers some of the best birding in America. On Grays Harbor’s north end you’ll find some of the finest oceanfront resorts in the state at Ocean Shores. And, once headed north on State Highway 109, you’ve entered a little known strip of Pacific shoreline where you’ll be hidden away in the far reaches of the maritime Northwest, yet only three hours drive from Seattle.
Birding, beachcombing, hiking, curling up next to a roaring fire in a seaside cabin, listening to the wind in the cedars and Sitka spruce – this area offers the essence of Pacific Northwest beach life. And although there is no shortage of good places to stay and elegant places to eat, the focus here is on the natural wonders of the sea and the shoreline.
But don’t limit your discoveries to the coast. Inland from both great bays as well as the mouth of the Columbia, small towns are peaceful respites where good food, some interesting architecture, the occasional antique shop, and glimpses of rural life take you back to a simpler time. Elma, Montesano, Aberdeen and Hoquiam lie to the east of Grays Harbor; Raymond and South Bend to the east of Willapa Bay. In Skamokawa, about 25 miles east up the Columbia River from the Pacific, settle in and watch the behemoth container ships head up river on their way to the docks of Portland.
Give yourself plenty of time to explore this region of Washington. Leave your watch in the drawer at home and pack some books. Don’t forget rain gear and extra dry clothes. The howl of the wind, the crash of the waves and the movements of the sun and the moon are all you’ll need to remind you of the passing of time.
Grays Harbor County
From the primeval Quinault Rain Forest to the Pacific shore, Grays Harbor County invites visitors to discover the wild side of the Pacific Northwest. There are miles of jagged, pristine coastline, some of which can only be reached through a beach access. Yet, that walk on the wild side is happily juxtaposed to the simple pleasures of a superbly presented fresh seafood dinner or family time at an old-fashioned country fair. In Grays Harbor County, whales and world-class bird watching share the venue with rodeos and history-rich owns, offering visitors a delightful and broad-based touring experience.
Most visitors will arrive in Grays Harbor from I-5 at Olympia, following Highway 101 to the SR 8 cutoff – passing through the scenic southeastern portion of Grays Harbor County. Here you’ll encounter a mix of small farming and logging communities like Elma, McCleary and Oakville. Montesano, which means “mountain of health” in Spanish, was founded in 1852 and is one of the oldest settlements in Grays Harbor County as well as its county seat. Many of the homes were built at the turn-of-the-century and are on the Washington State Historical Homes registry. The historic County Courthouse – a majestic backdrop rising high above the city – provides a noteworthy photo opportunity.
The cities of Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis were established in the 1880s and from the commercial center of Grays Harbor County. Both proudly reflect the heritage of their first settlers with classic clapboard storefronts, historical murals and log holding yards. Thousands upon thousands of shorebirds arrive at nearby Bowerman Basin each year, with bird watchers happily celebrating an annual Shorebird Festival.
The North Beach, also known as the Washington Coast, is one of the most scenic areas in the Pacific Northwest. Ocean side communities like Ocean City, Copalis Beach and Moclips – with 20 miles of sandy beaches – provide a safe haven for quiet reflection. North Beach is also known for the delicious Pacific razor clam. Shaped like old-fashioned razors, these large clams are not easy to catch… the tide has to be just right and so does your luck. But, those who hunt this elusive crop swear by the rewards. Spring clam season usually begins in March.
Nestled deep in the Quinault Rain Forest, near the north county line on Highway 101, line the communities of Amanda Park and Quinault. The Quinault Valley is famous for the immense ancient trees of the temperate rain forest including several world champion tree species. The world’s largest tree, a Sitka spruce with an estimate age of 900 years, and Washington State’s largest tree, a western red cedar, are located here. The Rain Forest, a glacier carved lake, and abundant wildlife all contribute to the area’s strong appeal, as do countless outdoor selections; camping, Forest Service guided nature walks, boating, swimming, numerous hiking trails, world renowned steelhead fishing and horseback riding.
Ocean Shores is a popular vacation and convention destination, largely because it satisfies a long list of ocean front activities. Want to bring a business or conference here? Ocean shores Convention center is located in the heart of downtown, two blocks from the beach, and able to accommodate small and large groups, trade shows and banquets. Requiring solitude? You’re set too.
The sea air is conductive to a healthy appetite, and the city has close to 30 eating establishment. From delicatessens, family and fine dining to the indelible pleasure of encountering some chewy salt water taffy, sampling the dining options is all part of the fun.
If restoration and reflection are on your “to do” list, the area has miles of uncrowned shoreline and accommodations to fit every budget, allowing for extended weekend or long visits. Once settled, you can choose to sequester yourself beside the fire, mesmerized by the surf, or plan days worth of activities like golf, go-carting, bicycling or horseback riding.
Beachcombing is a daily ritual for visitors here, but Ocean Shores can boast about more than its spectacular shoreline. It also has more than 23 miles of fresh water lakes and canals. Bring or hire a boat or canoe, then navigate through the canals as you view exquisite homes and native wildlife. Duck Lake is grand for fishing, water skiing, or lazy exploration.
Charters are available at the marina, with whale watching excursions during the spring and summer. Other marine excursions include deep-sea fishing, sport fishing, dinner cruises and scenic trips around Grays Harbor and along the spectacular coastline.
And, golfers take heart. You don’t have to give up your obsession here. After taking the kids on a wild go-carting ride, schedule yourself a tee-time at the PGA rated Ocean Shores municipal golf course. Just minutes from the Convention Center, there’s a pro shop, snack bar, and rental clubs and carts. There’s miniature golf too, with several courses including old-fashioned seaport village. Families, couples, and groups all find their niche in Ocean Shores. Whatever your mood or requirements for entertainment, this Oceanside town makes sure it’s available.
The South Beach, also referred to as the Cranberry Coast, is located on the south side of Grays Harbor. This area boasts 18 miles of pristine beach from Westport through Grayland to North Cove and Tokeland. Visitors will appreciate the charm and atmosphere of a timeless fishing village, colorful cranberry bogs, spectacular beach combing, charter fishing and whale watching opportunities. There are as many accommodation options as recreational choices.
Westport, on the southwest tip of Grays Harbor, also offers year-round surfing, whale watching and a scenic Maritime History Trail. Westport’s Maritime History Trail, a 6.5 mile bike and pedestrian path, links the Westport Maritime Museum and the Grays Harbor Lighthouse.
Pacific Ocean storm watching from the Westport breakwater is an invigorating fall and winter activity. There are complementary options like go-carts, aquarium, restaurants and shopping here.
Over 20.000 gray whales journey past the Washington coast from March to late May. Bring your binoculars or charter a boat to view one of nature’s most riveting shows. The 40-mile Scenic Coastal Loop off Coastal Highway 101 is the perfect introduction to “The Cranberry Coast”, with lots of chances for browsing and testing the area’s red-gold treats along the way.
Waterways to the Pacific
Pacific County, home to Willapa Bay and the Long Beach Peninsula, is a truly magical region where pristine waters, lush forests, and vibrant communities welcome visitors. This is the spot where you’ll want to unwind with quiet adventures in this peaceful, comfortable haven.
Part of the county’s charm is the meandering roads, highways and lanes that lead travelers to various destinations and points of interests. We’ve included the two traditional approaches to the coastline ere, but it really doesn’t matter where you begin your journey; Pacific County is a place that always beckons you back.
In north Pacific county, the physical environment is perfectly suited to a seamless transition from work to play, stress to peace, urban sprawl to northwest spectacular.
This region is overflowing with obvious cues that your restoration and renewal is close at hand. Here, small communities and towns celebrate their cherished heritage, whether it is logging, harvesting oysters or fishing.
The Willapa region is prime salmon, sturgeon and steelhead country. For binocular toting birdwatchers, there are excellent viewing sites. And delighted kayakers have discovered the peaceful waterways padding and Willapa Bay for saltwater touring.
Raymond is one of the traditional entry points to the coast region. This town guarantees visitors wildlife sightings – every day. Two hundred steel-plated figures line the Raymond-Wildlife-Heritage Sculpture Corridor, including a mix of historic and regional scenes along with representations of regional wildlife. It’s evident that Raymond residents love their wildlife. Part of a recent major renovation of downtown Third Street includes sidewalks stamped with animal footprints.
The Willapa Seaport Museum houses an extensive collection of maritime artifacts. The popular Public Market on the Willapa is held on the other side of the building from the museum from mid-March through December.
If you’re looking for a secluded sanctuary, try Tokeland or North Cove, on SR 105. These quiet seaside villages offer beach combing, kite flying, storm and whale watching as standard fare. When is season, popular activities include clamming, crabbing and fishing. There are several lodging options in Tokeland, including he historic landmark Tokeland Hotel and Restaurant, motels, and RV Parks. For an evening’s entertainment, stop by the Shoalwater Bay Casino on the Shoalwater Bay Reservation.
South Bend is the county seat of Pacific County and home to the elegant Pacific County Courthouse, decorated with a stunning art glass dome. This charming town, named for its location nestled on a bend of the Willapa River, has several historic buildings, Victorian style homes and antique dealers gracing its streets. South Bend claims the title “Oyster Capital of the World” with restaurants and vendors that specialize in the succulent Willapa Bay oyster. Make time for the Pacific County Historical Society Museum, a great spot for information on the significance of fishing and logging industries in Pacific County’s history.
Overlooking Willapa Bay is the picturesque fishing village of Bay Center. If you come in the spring, the road is lined with daffodils – a perfect complement to the memorable outlooks of the Bay and the northern tip of Long Beach Peninsula. Bay Center is home to numerous oyster canneries with fresh Willapa Bay seafood available for purchase. One out of every six oyster consumed in the United States is harvested on these tide flats.
The drive from South Bend to the Long Beach Peninsula reveals a stunning marriage between lush forests and this unspoiled, pristine bay. The tidelands are a rest stop for waterfowl and seabirds that follow the Pacific Flyway and the coastal ecosystem itself is regarded as one of the most productive in the continental United States.
The two “guardians” of the bay are Baby Island and Long Island, the latter a popular destination point for kayakers and canoes. Once you’ve landed on this island, only accessible via water, there are trails for hiking and primitive campsites to reserve for those that want to settle in for the night.
Another approach to the Peninsula is from the south along the mighty Columbia River through Wahkiakum County. Following along the river, you’ll be paralleling the route Lewis and Clark followed in November 1805 as they approached the Pacific Ocean. From Cathlamet in Wahkiakum County, SR 4 leads you away from the Columbia to Naselle, a Finnish farming community with roadside parks, fishing, hiking, lodging, and dining.
Experience the dynamic forces of nature where the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River collide head-on – each struggling to show-off its individual strength and personality. The views here are rather grand, so keep your eyes wide open and senses alert.
Heading south from Naselle on SR 401 toward the river, you’ll encounter the Megler Visitor Information Center, the Astoria-Megler Bridge, Lewis and Clark Station Camp, and the southern end of the Long Beach Peninsula.
The Long Beach Peninsula
If you’re seeking quiet adventure, seaside rejuvenation, and welcoming hospitality, you’ve found your answer on the Long Beach Peninsula. The Peninsula offers jagged ocean cliffs, a 20 mile uninterrupted shore, and access to pristine Willapa Bay. Two lighthouses, military forts, museums and interpretive centers underscore the area’s historic significance. A string of eight unique communities connect along the Peninsula to its northern tip and Leadbetter State Park.
Hundreds of species of birds nest and migrate through the Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. Visitors from around the world are drawn to the wide-open spaces, raw and wild nature, award-winning dining, and a variety of lodging facilities. Beach combing, bicycling, hiking, and kayaking are popular year round activities.
When approaching the Peninsula, shortly after passing the Astoria-Megler Bridge, take an immediate left after going through the tunnel to discover Fort Columbia State Park complete with interpretive center, trails, bunkers, views, and picnic facilities. Nearby in the fishing village of Chinook, Craftsman and Victorian- era homes will catch your eye. The state’s first salmon hatchery is also located here.
Ilwaco offers an active marina for commercial and pleasure boats, homes dating to the 1880s, and several centennial murals depicting the area’s rich history. Charter a boat for salmon, sturgeon or halibut fishing or visit the many shops and restaurants lining the marina. There are several exhibits of local history at the Heritage Museum on Lake Street – a certified site on Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Trail.
A Lewis & Clark vantage point
From Ilwaco, head west on Loop 101 to find two lighthouses, scenic vistas, Fort Canby State Park, the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, the U.S. Coast Guard Lifeboat School, and cove beaches. Look for the Westwind Trail, a 4.5 mile invigorating hike ending at the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and Baker Bay. A mile in, you’ll be at the North Head Lighthouse, also accessible by automobile and open for tours.
Another afternoon or morning delight is visiting one of Washington’s most popular parks, Fort Canby. Covering more than 1.700 acres filled with campsites and picnic areas, the lush forests of Fort Canby State Park provide the perfect setting for modern day explorers. Beach combing is the commonly enjoyed pastime for all visitors to the coast, Benson Beach and Waikiki Beach-located near the entrance to the park are popular choices. While there, you’ll see huge swells and the white spray of breaking waves or glassy seas, all depending upon the season and tide.
This is serious Lewis and Clark country where the Corps realized Jefferson’s mission of reaching the Pacific Ocean. You won’t want to miss the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center where journal entries are matched to photographs, murals, artwork, medical instruments, foods, trade goods, and the many contributions made by Indian tribes to the Lewis and Clark party. Another intriguing exhibit is a history of shipwrecks, illustrating how the mouth of the Columbia earned the nickname “Graveyard of the Pacific”.
Access Seaview via Ilwaco and pause at Black Lake where you can follow a gentle path along the shoreline or, in the winter, glimpse majestic trumpeter swans. Seaview considered one of the best examples of early coastal communities in the Northwest was founded in 1881 and quickly became the playground for Portland’s elite. The many Victorian-style houses and cottages lining its lanes are the perfect venue for walking or bicycling as you view the glories of times past. Seaview also has antique shops, art studios, historic inns, and a handful of the area’s top restaurants.
Long Beach is a captivating seaside beach town with an ocean boardwalk, festive downtown, overnight accommodations, and crowd-pleasing events. Arcades, pocket parks and mosaic sculptures share space with restaurants, galleries, kite shops, upscale gift shops, bakeries, and bookstores, as well as the world Kite Museum with its rare collections of vintage kites.
Each August in Long Beach, one of the nation’s largest kite festivals fills the sky with brightly colored shapes while the beach buzzes with an international crowd of kite-flying enthusiasts. A jazz festival, fishing derby, Loyalty Day celebration, summer entertainment series, beach run, rodeo, Independence Day fireworks, and sand-sculpture competition are among the town’s other annual events.
On the way to Ocean Park, just nine miles north on Highway 103, consider a detour to the Cranberry Museum on Pioneer Road, which showcases the large local cranberry growing industry. A few miles further, stop at Loomis Lake to dangle your feet off the dock or launch a canoe. Nearby Loomis State Park, with parkland on both sides of the highway, offers visitors intimate picnicking opportunities and ocean view.
The north Peninsula
Ocean Park, founded 1883 as a summer resort and revival camp, is a quiet residential community long revered for its friendliness and razor clamming, that comes to life during the summer. Visit during the Northwest Garlic Festival, the Old-Fashioned 4th of July Celebration, the Labor Day Heritage Festival, or Road Run to the End of the World, a popular event featuring over 1.000 vintage cars.
Be sure to take a leisurely look at the 1890s style cottages, many built from salvaged ship-wreck cargoes. These cottages take on a special charm come summer, when they are accented by lots of flowers, especially the sentimental pink mallow. The Ocean Park-Surfside area is also superb for beachcombing, bicycling, storm watching, castle building, or a walk or drive on the wide sandy beach.
In nearby Nahcotta, a small village bordering Willapa Bay, enjoy the island views and explore the Nahcotta Tidelands Interpretive Site. A fine overview of the area’s history and additional information about shellfish, wildlife and plants of the Willapa Bay ecosystem can be found at the nearby Willapa Bay Interpretive Center.
If you’re hitched up your boat trailer for this journey, stop by the Port of Peninsula, a marina and boat ramp used by both commercial and private craft. You’ll marvel at the sparkling piles of white oyster shells, canneries selling fresh oyster, soaring bald eagles and herons wading in the tidelands. Come dinner time, you can contentedly observe the reflected hues of sunset on the bay at one of the area’s finest restaurants.
The entire village of Oysterville, a few miles north, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, and visiting here is like taking a step back in time. A product of a 19th century oyster boom, homes dating to 1863 grace the tree-lined streets, and the 1892 church is open to the public. There’s also a recently restored 1908 schoolhouse.
Leadbetter State Park is located at the northern tip of the Peninsula. It is estimated that over 100.000 shorebirds stop here during migration or choose to call Leadbetter and Willapa Bay home year round. Early mornings in the woods are a concert of whistles, songs and honks in this refuge of marshes, mudflats and grass. Birdwatchers are wildly enthusiastic about this northernmost nesting area of the snowy plover, a threatened species, and are respectful of the park’s closure when the plover is nesting.
On your departure south, enjoy the restful views of fairy tale woods and lovely homes bordering Willapa Bay. And, after returning again to Highway 101 and heading towards home, you’ll be restored and ready to schedule your return.