When my husband and I returned from a camping trip a bit over four years ago, we selected a favorite photo for use as the desktop image on the laptop connected to our television.

Taken on an extraordinarily blustery day at Cape Disappointment State Park, the photo captured a wooden lifeboat that had been deposited on shore several years prior, just hours before the vessel was reclaimed by the sea.   The boat rested in debris tossed up by the storm, the ocean frothy and tumultuous, the sky gray and looming.  In the background waves sprayed against a promontory extending west.

Displayed on the 37-inch screen of our television, we discovered on the distant headlands, a lighthouse.  It was clearly a white cylinder sans the black stripe of Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, which we had visited during our stay.  Upon investigation, I found that Cape Disappointment State Park contains two lighthouses!  Cape Disappointment Lighthouse resides at the mouth of the Columbia River.  A mere two miles away, the hilltop tower seen in the photo was North Head Lighthouse.

North Head Lighthouse from Cape Disappointment campground
North Head Lighthouse from Cape Disappointment campground

We loved Cape Disappointment State Park, and my only disappointment from the trip was that we missed seeing this lighthouse.  So when we chose to head across the Columbia River for a day trip to Ilwaco during our recent Astoria camping trip, North Head Lighthouse was the first stop.  Rather than an unforeseen sight captured by accident, North Head Lighthouse and the route to reach it are now the prime subjects of a new batch of photos.

The full length of the path to the lighthouse is a quarter mile.  There are three benches along the way that can be used for resting.  Below describes each leg of this extended walk.

Be aware that the decline on the way to the lighthouse is an incline on the return.  So plan to reserve enough energy after your explorations to make it back to your vehicle.

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Bench in trees

200+ Steps

From the parking lot, head to the left of the houses previously used by lighthouse keepers and assistant keepers.  These buildings are now used as vacation rentals.  How novel!

Eventually you’ll see a bench just off the trail in the grass, surrounded by ferns and other greenery.  This walk segment is the longest stretch between seating options, over 300 steps total.

Bench near sign

200 Steps

Continue on the path from the bench in the trees.  After you emerge from the greenery the ocean stretches across the horizon, and gradually you will see the top of the lighthouse.  To the south you can see the Columbia River North Jetty in the distance.  An informative sign explains how this man-made seawall impacted this portion of coastline.  Very interesting…I’ll leave the details for you to discover on your own.

Bench by lighthouse

125 Steps

The next and final place to rest is a primo seat overlooking the ocean, with the North Head Lighthouse rising very near.  Although there is chain-link fencing around the lighthouse, the bench is high enough to see over it while seated.  On a calm day this is the perfect place to contemplate days past, before modern navigation and communication aids, when this tall sentinel prevented shipwrecks and saved lives.


75 Steps

Reigning over the ocean on a jutting headland, a long span of sand between it and the Columbia River North Jetty, the North Head Lighthouse keeps watch over those approaching from the north.  The bluff-top buildings have resisted succumbing to harsh weather for over a century in order to keep those at sea safe.

According to Lighthouse Friends:

“North Head is the most intact light station in the Pacific Northwest. All of its original buildings remaining [sic] standing, including the tower, two oil houses, two residences, a barn, chicken coop, and garages.”

Walk Details for North Head Lighthouse Wheels:
Terrain: Trail of refined pea gravel, slight decline for most of it, leveling out as you approach the third bench, then fairly steep dropping down to lighthouse.
Seating: Three benches on the way to the lighthouse.
Fee: Day pass or Cape Disappointment State Park camping receipt. Additional fee for touring the lighthouse, when tours are available.
Restrooms: On the south side of the parking lot.
Directions: From the North Head Road loop in Ilwaco, turn west onto North Head Lighthouse Road which ends at the parking lot. The trail head is on the west side of the lot, skirting to the left of the lightkeeper buildings.