Backpacking & Camping on Long Beach, Washington
The Long Beach Peninsula, a quiet, tucked-away corner of the Pacific Northwest coast, defines the very southwestern finger of the state of Washington. A place of dunes, shore-pine copses, spruce rainforests, tidal mudflats, oyster-shell middens and little towns, this big sandbar is an excellent place to savor the region’s many special qualities.
Laying down a sleeping bag to spend a night under the stars — or, for that matter, parking an RV in a pine-fringed slot — makes for an especially direct experience with the peninsula.
Setting the Long Beach Peninsula in context is a useful exercise for anyone planning a visit to the area. The landscape comprises a great sandbar accumulated off the mouth of the Columbia River, which defines its southern end.
A bold, dark basalt headland, Cape Disappointment, lords it over the “Graveyard of the Pacific,” the Columbia’s stormy estuary. Some 30 miles of sand extends due northward like a narrow tooth, separating Willapa Bay eastward from the open ocean.
On a clear day, the Willapa Hills on the Washington mainland roll along on the eastern horizon, with High Cascade snow peaks looming beyond. The Olympic Mountains, heart of the Olympic Peninsula dozens of miles to the north, can be glimpsed from the Willapa Bay shore in places.
Cape Disappointment is the wild anchor of the Long Beach Peninsula and serves as its premier camping location. Miles of rugged trails lace the deep woods of the crest and drop through brine-scented hollows to the rocky coast.
The rough, rainforest-swathed and ravine-gouged headland marks the area where Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in 1805, although it was already known to British mariners and, of course, local Chinook Indians.
Cape Disappointment State Park includes a large campground, with close to 140 sites, 60 of which are full-hookup. Some of these sites can be reserved in advance, while others are first-come, first-served. Other rental options include 14 yurts and a trio of lakeside cabins.
Long Island is an estuarine island located just a stone’s throw off the Long Beach Peninsula shore on the south end of Willapa Bay. Part of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, the island includes a spectacular old-growth grove of western redcedar, one of the majestic, long-lived conifer species that defines the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforest.
Some 20 campsites — Pinnacle Rock, Smokey Hollow, Sand Spit, Sawlog and Lewis — are scattered between five primitive campgrounds on Long Island. These campsites, which are accessible only by boat, are first-come, first-served; during the autumn elk archery season, campers must register.
Tidal fluctuations in Willapa Bay are significant, so those kayaking or canoeing out to Long Island must consult the tide schedule; the sites are mostly reachable by water only with a six-foot or better high tide. However, you can generally always go ashore at the landing across from the Willapa Bay park headquarters on the southeastern part of Long Island and backpack in to the island’s campsites.
For both RV travelers and tent campers, numerous private campgrounds on the Long Beach Peninsula offer additional opportunities for bedding down. Most are concentrated in and around Long Beach, Ocean Park and Ilwaco, the peninsula’s major towns.
They range from the Bay Center/Wallapa Bay KOA to Andersen’s on the Ocean RV Park. Collectively, these Long Beach parks account for more than 1,000 RV spaces. Reservations are recommended during the peak tourist season from late spring to fall.
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