Washington’s longest beach offers winter wonders
The fierce waters around the mouth of the Columbia River thwarted explorers for hundreds of years. Winter storms halted the famous Corps of Discovery in 1805, and hundreds of ships since then have met their end navigating through the treacherously shallow, shifting river channels. Jutting out as a long, narrow arm into the unpredictable “Graveyard of the Pacific” to the west and north and the Columbia to the south, Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula shouldn’t be as welcoming as it is.
And yet, with its tidal flats and marshes, and 28 miles of wide, sandy beaches backed by dunes and forested lakes, the peninsula has been a hub of tourism for well over 100 years. Vacationers from Seattle and Portland would travel by steamer, stagecoach and railroad each summer to relax and play on the longest continuous beach in the continental United States.
Winter is not only the best time to book lodging for the peak summer months, but also a great opportunity to embark on an off-season coastal experience like nowhere else.
- From Seattle: About 170 miles
- From Spokane: About 430 miles
- Outdoors: winter waves, sandy beaches and glistening forest walks
- Indoors: cozy meals, history and local culture
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Hotels and Lodging
Winter waves crash into rocky cliffs near the lighthouse at Cape Disappointment State Park. (Photo by Richard Dawson)
Life on the Water
The water still governs many aspects of peninsula life. The port at Ilwaco still provides fresh fish, and oyster dredges still ply the waters of Willapa Bay near historic Oysterville and the Port of Peninsula at Nahcotta. While flooding remains a concern at low elevations, the tides no longer change the entire transportation system as they did from the late 1800s to 1930, when steamers bound for Willapa Bay could not enter during low tides, requiring the narrow-gauge train known as the Clamshell Railroad to shift its schedule every few weeks.
Though the train is long gone, its presence haunts the peninsula. Many of the towns were once stops: Fort Columbia used it to transport military men and goods to its batteries; Klipsan Beach hauled lifesaving boats and personnel during marine disasters: and Nahcotta delivered 70-pound bags of oysters every week. The Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum opens the line’s only Pullman-built car — a restored, painted wooden beauty called the Nahcotta — during annual festivals in July and October.
An endangered marbled murrelet nesting in a tree is a rare sight along the Pacific coast. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Photo Service)
STORM WATCHING AND WILDLIFE
Summer always draws big crowds to Long Beach, but winter brings many delights, too. Swells crash against 200-foot cliffs at Cape Disappointment State Park’s Waikiki Beach with the lighthouse as a backdrop. Locals walk beautifully maintained paths on some of more than 2,000 acres of the misty, green park year-round, including the Discovery Trail along the beach, where migrating gray whales can occasionally be seen.
The Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center offers shelter when rain hits and is home to the lighthouse’s old Fresnel lens, which Interpretive Center Manager Aaron Webster calls “a piece of utilitarian art” in the sunlit atrium overlooking the Columbia River Bar. The cape and surrounding areas offer prime opportunities for viewing wildlife, particularly birds.
Keen eyes can identify resident raptors where sun streams through wet branches of Sitka spruce and hemlock forests. The northern spotted owl hasn’t been seen in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge since the 1980s, but the refuge is still home to marbled murrelets, an endangered seabird that nests in forests and can rarely be sighted on the short hike through Teal Slough’s ancient western red cedars. Willapa Bay’s mudflats are prime shorebird territory, especially during extremely low tides in January and February.
Those low tides expose wild oysters for picking at public tidal flats near Nahcotta Tidelands Interpretive Site next to the Fish & Wildlife Department Field Station, which you can call with questions about weather and tidal conditions before you go.
Winter visitors won’t encounter the late spring and early summer mosquitoes that flock to the marshy areas on Willapa Bay, especially Leadbetter Point at the northern tip of the peninsula. Check hike conditions at the point to see if flooding calls for waders, and stay off the beach when exploring the Pacific coast during dangerous weather. Even when the water appears calm, always keep watch for potentially deadly sneaker waves.
The Depot Restaurant (Photo courtesy of Visit Long Beach)
SHELTER FROM THE STORM
January is restaurant month on the peninsula, with venues offering $33 three-course menus Sunday through Thursday. Take advantage with a plate of the local razor and steamer clams bucatini at The Depot Restaurant in Seaview, a beloved hangout in the only remaining Clamshell Railroad depot that still sits in its original spot, decorated with railroad signs and large-scale historic photos.
If you decide to dig razors on your own, stop by Jack’s Country Store in Ocean Park. Founded in 1885, it’s one of the oldest retail operations in Washington, and offers advice, licenses and a superlative array of clamming equipment and picnic items, including bulk bins for cracker meal and panko to bread your catch before frying.
January and February also offer a surprising variety of indoor concerts and enrichment lectures. The Salt Hotel & Pub hosts talks through April on topics like plant-based medicine and waterway engineering, while the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum makes a great stop any time of year — but particularly on dreary weekends — for revolving exhibits on local history and the tiny, coin-operated railroad upstairs.
Find your own vintage train at the astonishing Long Beach Peninsula Trading Post, a two-floor warehouse of the peninsula’s best artifacts. Don’t miss owner Brenda Hill’s “museum,” a display case loaded with some of her favorite pieces of local memorabilia from days gone by.
—Written by Jennifer Burns Bright
This story originally appeared in the January/February 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.