Willapa Bay’s Oyster Capital of the World and Ilwaco, Gateway to Cape Disappointment
From Raymond proceed west on U.S. Route 101, which follows the Willapa River to South Bend, seat of Pacific County and the self-styled Oyster Capital of the World.
Note the piles of oyster shells along South Bend’s waterfront, a product of this important and reviving area industry. The town occupies a narrow plain and climbs into the nearby hills bordering a large southward bend of the Willapa River. The settlement dates back to a sawmill established in 1869.
Of interest are the Pacific County Historical Museum and the 1911 Pacific County Courthouse, a domed architectural gem on a hill south of U.S. 101. Other examples of Victorian architecture symbolize South Bend’s early wealth.
West of South Bend, the estuary broadens into Willapa Bay. Highway 101 skirts its eastern shore for over 30 miles, traversing wooded headlands alternating with marshy meadows. Eight miles west of South Bend, a roadside historical marker indicates the site of Bruceport, settled in 1851 by the survivors of the scuttled oyster schooner Bruce.
Just south of the Palix River bridge, a road branches west to Bay Center, a bayside village on a narrow peninsula. The first settlers arrived in 1851 and a townsite was platted in 1873. Oystering remains important and there are several 19th-century buildings and a pioneer cemetery. Bush Pioneer Park offers camping and is a pleasant spot for a picnic.
In the valleys of the Palix, Nemah and Naselle rivers, Scandinavian and Finnish immigrants took up dairy farming and lumbering in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From September into mid-November, salmon migrate upstream to the Nemah Salmon Hatchery, which maintains area stocks of this important sport fish and food source.
South of the Naselle River, U.S. 101 skirts the southern reach of the bay. Look for the headquarters of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge beside the road. The refuge embraces Long Island just offshore, which includes miles of trails, primitive campgrounds and a grove of thousand-year-old western red cedar trees. The island is accessible only by private boat.
Beyond the southern end of the bay, Highway 101 strikes west to the Long Beach Peninsula, a popular destination offering one of the world’s longest beaches of hard-packed sand, resort communities and historic towns. Separating Willapa Bay from the Pacific Ocean, it stretches more than 25 miles from Cape Disappointment to Leadbetter Point.
Ilwaco is an important commercial and sport fishing port on the Columbia River. American Capt. Robert Gray discovered the mouth of the great river in 1792. The Lewis and Clark Expedition explored the area in 1804-05.
By 1900, the Ilwaco Steam and Navigation Co. began operating a narrow-gauge railway north to Nahcotta, linking coastal resort communities on the peninsula. The area soon became a summer playground for Portland’s Victorian elite who journeyed down the Columbia by steamer.
The Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum chronicles area history.
Cape Disappointment, the wooded headland west of Ilwaco, commands the northern entrance to the broad Columbia estuary. British Capt. John Meares named the cape in 1788, describing his feeling upon not discovering the legendary Northwest Passage.
Near the tip of the cape is U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment, which conducts search-and-rescue operations at one of the most treacherous river bars on Earth. With more than 230 shipwrecks in the area dotting the ocean floor, sailors know it as “The Graveyard of the Pacific, but the construction of jetties improved safety for vessels moving between the Pacific Ocean and the Columbia River.
Nearby stands Cape Disappointment Lighthouse. Built in 1856, it’s the oldest lighthouse in Washington state. Most of the cape was part of Fort Canby, proclaimed in 1852 as Washington’s first military installation. The fort’s military mission ended after World War II and it became Fort Canby State Park in 1957, later renamed Cape Disappointment State Park.
The park is part of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Park. The park’s highlight is perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific: the Lewis and Clark Interpretative Center, with exhibits chronicling their entire transcontinental trek. The park’s large campground spreads over the sandy tract extending from the North Jetty to the base of North Head, the site of 1899-built North Head Lighthouse.
– Written by John King, last updated in November 2022.
– Top Image is of Leadbetter Point State Park. Photo by GMC3101/Getty Images