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Coast Weekend Road Trip: Ilwaco

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Port of Ilwaco

Boats moored in the Port of Ilwaco.

There are some places from childhood that resonate with happiness. The Long Beach Peninsula is a destination where my parents and their friends would head to for weeks of seemingly pure bliss.

It was all about salmon fishing, clam digging, wave jumping, card playing, lighthouses, sand castles, stargazing and bonfires.

I had a fondness for Ilwaco, where the general store downtown was the place for us kids to get new colorful tin pails and shovels for sand digging, and maybe, if we were lucky, a new sweatshirt, too. During afternoons at the harbor, we waited in happy anticipation dockside to spy our boat coming into Baker Bay, waving wildly as our father arrived with the day's catch.

Downtown Ilwaco is not the hub it once was, and that department store is no more, but after a long stretch of fishing industry decline and near abandonment, the port is reviving. Fishing boats and leisure craft crowd the marina again and exciting new ventures are taking root.

What to do

You can book a fishing charter to catch bottom fish, salmon, tuna, sturgeon or Dungeness crab. There’s something about that early morning eagerness to get out on the water that really gets you going ... or maybe it’s that first blast of cold mist and fog.

Several charters, including Coho Charters and Beacon Charters, have affable, experienced skippers and deck hands that will supply all the fishing gear you’ll need. Weather can change quickly, so dress in layers.

Don Nisbett Gallery

People pass Don Nisbett's art gallery on the boardwalk at Port of Ilwaco.

Along the waterfront, there are art galleries to peruse and a bookstore, Time Enough Books. You can also gear up for fishing at Englund Marine and check out the bustling Ilwaco Saturday Market the rest of September.

There’s plenty to do just out of town, including visiting the marvelous Cape Disappointment State Park, North Head Lighthouse, sandy beaches or hiking or biking the 8.5 mile Lewis and Clark Discovery Trail from Ilwaco to Long Beach. Interpretive signs and art installments commemorate Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s famous expedition along the trail, as well as two Maya Lin “Confluence Project” pieces at the lower park: a stunning granite fish cleaning slab on the river and the concrete path leading to Waikiki Beach.

Coho King

A man hauls in Dungeness crab on the charter boat Coho King.

The area’s rich history might seem to start in the early 1800s with the arrival of Lewis and Clark. But the Chinook people were living here thousands of years before any Euro-American “discovered” these Pacific shores. Watch for the reopening of Ilwaco’s Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, which illuminates the tribe's history.

Beards Hollow estuary

The wetland walkway over Beards Hollow estuary.

For hikers and bikers, a brass sculpture of a California condor marks the beginning of Discovery Trail — homage to William Clark’s 1805 journal entry noting a “buzzard of a large kind” in view. You’ll have great views of Baker Bay and the mouth of the Columbia River as you wind along the harbor, then climb up the steep hill into the park. Here, you have the choice to head to North Head Lighthouse or descend through the coastal forest to Beards Hollow, a magical wetland estuary. You then can make your way through the woods and over the dunes to the ocean or follow the meandering trail through the dunes to Long Beach.

Where to eat

Don’t think of ordinary pub food at either Salt Pub or Waterline Pub. At both of these terrific places, you’re guaranteed to find locally sourced, fresh goodness.

Salt Pub

People eating outdoors at Salt Pub.

At Salt Pub, I never can decide whether to have the mussels poutine, a burger or the tuna or salmon fish and chips, so I just have to come with friends or family to share.

Just steps down the waterfront, at Waterline Pub, bring friends along to share the pork-queso-apple slaw “Portside Totchos,” Dungeness crab bisque or the cheesy Dungeness crab-artichoke flat bread.


Crabs set out on the concrete at Port of Ilwaco to cool after being pulled from the boiler pot.

Both pubs have great salads, small plates, mains,  burgers and beverages as well. Oh, yes, and beer, wine and cocktails. Outdoor seating is available at both pubs.

In town, ROOTS Juice, Java, and Salads is perfect for morning coffee, homemade breakfasts and wholesome lunches. Call in or order at the window for take-out or use one of the small bistro tables out front.

Where to stay

The nifty minimalist Salt Hotel is a streamlined favorite. The handsome At the Helm Hotel is a favorite too. Both hotels have quality linens and distinctive amenities and are harbor side, with their own restaurant.

For unusual stays, or larger groups, China Beach Retreat features a main house and charming Audubon Cottage on a private estuary, where you can kayak and watch heron and eagles vie for prey. Overlooking Ilwaco, on a knoll, is the Inn at Harbor Village, a former church built in 1926.

Port of Ilwaco

Looking back at the Port of Ilwaco from a boat in Baker Bay.

Cape Disappointment State Park has three Victorian-era residences adjacent to North Head lighthouse. The main keeper’s historic home has spectacular views of the ocean far below. The state park also has yurts, cabins, camping spots and RV hook-ups. At Fort Columbia State Park, you might try an officer’s quarters in the historic compound.

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