About this Itinerary
For some, it doesn’t get much better than walking, biking, or skating on a paved path that trundles alongside the Pacific Ocean and winds around grassy dunes uninterrupted by street signs and car traffic. Add to this a chance to play in the surf, shuck your own oysters, and dig for razor clams and you may be already planning your trip to the Discovery Trail on Long Beach Peninsula in southern Washington. This paved, 8.3-mile trail, named for the arrival of Lewis and Clark’s expedition more than 200 years ago, is ideal for families with its benches, restrooms, water, ocean views, and enough turns and dips to make it fun and accessible for all ages.
The Discovery Trail (DT) runs from the northern town of Long Beach southeast to the historical fishing village of Ilwaco. This pathway features a collection of public art, including bronze sculptures commemorating the L&C expedition, and access to Cape Disappointment State Park. There is plenty of natural beauty to boot, but don’t expect constant ocean views; the DT remains nestled between sand dunes for much of its distance (which can be a useful protection from wind) to offer a scenic ride not so much on the beach but rather through a sea of dune grass. Remember that weather on the coast can be unpredictable so plan accordingly.
The DT consists of paved trail, boardwalks, and bridges with numerous trailheads and access points along its entire length. From the northern terminus to Beard’s Hollow (6.25 miles), the trail is relatively easy and flat, but from Beard’s Hollow to the southern terminus at Ilwaco, the elevation changes approximately 300 feet for a more challenging and forested ascent. Bikes are available to rent from Long Beach Rentals or the Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau though many of the local businesses offering overnight accommodations provide complimentary beach cruisers for their guests.
The 21-mile Long Beach Peninsula is chock-full of cottages, bed and breakfast inns, hotels, and campgrounds, most in close proximity to the DT. Here are a few options to explore that cover the gamut of available services: Anchorage Cottages, Adrift Hotel and Spa, Boreas Bed & Breakfast Inn, and Wildwood Campground and RV Park. Once on the trail, you can certainly leave the DT and take spur roads into town for lunch or supplies as needed, but we would suggest gathering a picnic lunch ahead of time, giving yourself freedom to linger wherever you are inspired to do so. Coastal Corner Market in Long Beach is a family-owned grocery and market that is close to the DT. Also, from June through October on Friday evenings, the local farmers market sets up and you can choose from an incredible array of regional bounty, from produce to seafood, baked goods, on-site prepared foods, and more.
The northernmost trail terminus of the DT begins across from The Breakers Resort on 26th Street NW in Long Beach. There is a small parking area here, though the main trailhead, which has more parking capacity, is off of Bolstad Street, 1.5 miles south. Beginning at this northern trailhead you head west for less than a half mile, hit the dunes, and turn south. We should point out that while the DT is named after Lewis and Clark and their extraordinary expedition of discovery, it also runs along the former rail corridor of the Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Company (IR&N). This railroad, dating back to the late 19th century, was established as a transportation artery to serve the peninsula’s local seafood and agricultural industries. Though little of the rail’s past remains evident today, many of the early industries—cranberry and oyster farming, fishing, and crabbing—are still a vibrant part of the regional economy.
At mile 1.8 is the Bolstad trailhead and Basalt Monolith, a rock commemorating the most northwesterly point reached by the Corps of Discovery inscribed with quotes and sketches from Clark’s journal. Past the monolith, between Bolstad Street and Sid Snyder Drive, the DT’s surface is a wooden boardwalk. Look for the Grey Whale skeleton at 10th Street S. and a unique earth shelter restroom dug into the dunes. At the junction with Sid Snyder Drive, you can head inland for a block to the World Kite Museum & Hall of Fame, which hosts the annual Washington State International Kite Festival each August (an amazingly colorful and delightful time). While on the topic of particularly busy times to be on the peninsula, note that a popular sand-sculpting competition is held on the beach adjacent to the boardwalk each July.
Before the rail arrived to the peninsula in 1888, stagecoaches and steamboats were the area’s primary sources of transportation for passengers and freight. With the building of the IR&N’s line between ports at Ilwaco and Nahcotta, the rail and the steamboats began to work together to transport commodities up and down the peninsula, moving mail, timber, cranberries, and oysters. The popularity of automobiles eventually changed this dynamic, of course, and the last train to travel along this coastline ran in 1930. Construction of the Discovery Trail began in 2002, thanks to the combined efforts of cities and numerous public agencies. This trail is rich with history worth contemplating as you glide south down the DT, but don’t get too distracted; there are some sharp and blind curves as the trail winds amongst the dunes.
This peninsula—bounded by the ocean, the Columbia River to the south, and Willapa Bay to the east— is comprised of several distinct ecosystems and home to a diverse array of wildlife. As you might imagine, whale-watching and bird-watching are two very popular pastimes here; the visitor’s bureau can provide you with information on migratory patterns and viewing locations. At Seaview Trailhead (mile 3.6), you may want to take 38th Place to the visitor’s bureau as well as a host of eateries that line Pacific Way. The final beach-side trailhead is Red Lake Trailhead at mile 4.3. After the stream crossing at 30th Street, the DT begins to enter a more wooded landscape.
Ahead you can see the rocky bulk of Cape Disappointment; at the base of this cliff is Beards Hollow, a beach named after a captain whose ship was wrecked off the mouth of the Columbia River in 1853 (but is perhaps more widely appreciated as the shores upon which members of the L&C expedition set foot on November 15, 1805). Within 2 miles, the trail turns east and heads inland through swampy wetlands to Beards Hollow Access (mile 6.25); you can look forward to an outstanding overlook with views of the ocean and shoreline. Many recreationalists opt to turn around at this point as forging ahead to either Ilwaco or Cape Disappointment requires some climbing. If continuing on, however, the trail forks as it approaches N. Head Road. Take the left fork northeast through more forests toward Ilwaco or continue straight to N. Head Road and follow it south to Cape Disappointment State Park, which offers a Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, North Head and Cape Disappointment Lighthouses (the latter is the oldest operating lighthouse on the west coast), ocean beaches, hiking trails and camping.
After the trail forks, the DT crosses N. Head Road in a half mile and heads due east another mile to the village and trail terminus. On the way is an overlook of Ford’s Dry Lake/Homan Lake. Ilwaco is a small, working fishing village on the Columbia River Bar. During the time of the railroad, the IR&N earned the nickname “The Railroad that Ran with the Tide” because of its port in Ilwaco. As the waters were too shallow during low tide, the railroad was forced to set its timetable to correspond with the high tide when steamships could reach the dock. The IR&N’s Ilwaco freight depot is now a permanent exhibit at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum just two blocks east of the trailhead. You can learn more about the railroad’s story at this museum as well as the life and history of the Chinookan people and region’s early Euro-American settlers. Rail-buffs may want to be in town for the annual ClamshellRailroad Days, an event sponsored by the museum and held the third weekend each July.
After yesterday’s trail riding, today offers the chance to experience the area’s many other attractions. Ilwaco is a popular destination for salmon and sturgeon fishing and there are several fishing charter companies in town should you be hankering to get on the water. You can also head to the marina to simply enjoy the waterfront’s restaurants, shops, galleries, and public pavilion. Enjoy local fare at Ole Bob’s Seafood Market and Galley Restaurant, a market and café serving up baked oysters, clam chowder, and crab cakes, or check out Saturday Market at the Port, Ilwaco’s summer-time farmers market. If you love blueberries, look for Cranguyma Farms, which sells berries from their historical 50-year old patch (and also invites visitors to the farm to pick their own).
Speaking of berries, the Long Beach peninsula is uniquely known for its cranberry bogs. During the annual cranberry harvest (generally October), Ilwaco hosts a Cranberrian Fair honoring the industry with vendors (don’t miss the chance to taste homemade peach/cranberry pies), bog tours, and a Cranberry Trolley running between the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum and the Cranberry Museum in Long Beach.
If you have a car and want to experience more of the railroad’s history on the peninsula, the Long Beach Visitors Bureau provides details for a self-guided Clamshell Railroad Driving Tour. One of the stops on the tour is the Depot Restaurant in Seaview, the only depot still in its original location.