Cruising Washington's Discovery Trail

Bike ride on cloudy day in Washington state's Long Beach Peninsula

A thin veil of mist seeps in from the ocean, blanketing the dunes and making the serpentine Discovery Trail ahead of me appear as though it winds up into the clouds. As I spin my beach cruiser through a gentle watercolor landscape, I breathe in the salt-tinged air. The cry of gulls punctuates the sound of the Pacific Ocean waves sighing onto the sand, and a breeze keeps me cool.

I'm visiting Long Beach Peninsula in the southwest corner of Washington state, a 28-mile-long finger of land that separates the Pacific Ocean from wildlife-rich Willapa Bay. Just over two centuries ago, in October 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first laid eyes on the Pacific "Ocian" here, at the end of their perilous overland journey.

I'm on my own journey of discovery. I've rented a fat-tired cruiser bike from Skookum Surf Co. and am cycling the 8.5-mile Discovery Trail from north to south. My route promises seaside sculptures that pay homage to Lewis and Clark's visit; fun shops and tourist magnets in downtown Long Beach; an interpretive center dedicated to the exploring duo; a 19th-century lighthouse; and a fishing-boat harbor.

Along the way, the blustery winds noted in Clark's journal offer freewheeling rides to a profusion of kites that seem alive as they dart and dip alongside the trail. Follow my route in the slideshow below.

Washington's Discovery Trail
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Cruising Washington's Discovery Trail

The Discovery Trail starts at the north edge of Long Beach, on 26th Street North. Just a few hundreds yards along, “Clark’s Tree,” a bronze sculpture, bears the words Clark carved on a pine tree: “William Clark. Nov. 19, 1805. By land from the U. States.” 

At 1.8 miles, I arrive at a basalt column that rises above the dunes, inscribed with excerpts from Clark’s journal, which mentions a 10-foot sturgeon heaved ashore by the tide. Bronze sculptures of a bemused-looking William Clark leaning on his rifle and a prehistoric-looking sturgeon offer fun visuals.

Where Bolstad Street intersects the trail I cycle a block in, then turn right onto Pacific Highway, the main street of Long Beach. A colorful array of shops attracts visitors in search of T-shirts, kites and candy. I swing into The Candy Man, known for its saltwater taffy, to indulge in house-made fudge.

Two blocks south, Marsh’s Free Museum is the epitome of a cheesy tourist trap, with every square inch crammed full of goods—glass floats, seashells and other flotsam—as well as entertaining vintage arcade games and oddities such as the museum’s iconic “Jake the Alligator Man,” an alleged half-man, half-alligator mummy. 

I return to the trail via Sid Snyder Drive, stopping at the World Kite Museum, where the profusion of color and design in the gift shop rival the curated collection of kites from around the world on display upstairs. The museum is the sponsor of the annual World Kite Festival every August, which draws thousands of kite flyers to the peninsula’s beaches.

At the trail, I swing 100 feet north to see a gray whale skeleton reminiscent of Clark’s journal entry about finding a whale backbone here. This one is a 38-foot juvenile male that washed up in 2000, more than 200 years after Clark’s observation on March 19, 1805.

Rocky bluffs back the dunes 6 miles down the trail at Beards Hollow, where I stroll the beach barefoot. It’s an idyllic picnicking spot, and a couple is doing just that, embraced by a rocky outcropping that blocks the wind. The trail bends inland here, and I cycle through moist, vivid green wetlands. 

Turning right at Highway 100, I ascend a steep hill through a Sitka spruce forest in Cape Disappointment State Park, then the trail hooks right onto North Head Lighthouse Road. The 1898 lighthouse is high atop a scenic promontory, and I climb coiling stairs to the top to take in wave-washed beaches as far as I can see. 

I leave the Discovery Trail behind to climb 1.5 winding miles through Cape Disappointment State Park to the prize at the end of the peninsula: the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. Galleries bring to life the explorers’ journey of discovery through interactive displays, soundtracks and a movie. A gallery overlooking the ocean explains the treacherous waters offshore where the Columbia River meets the Pacific, dubbed “the Graveyard of the Pacific” for the multitude of shipwrecks.

Backtracking to the trail, I cycle past the Beards Hollow parking lot, heading north before the trail hooks east and winds through woods. Gathering speed, I roll downhill into Ilwaco, then walk my bike past Jessie’s Ilwaco Fish Co. cannery and down to the dock to see the fishing boats. Strolling the boardwalk, I pop into galleries filled with local art. Finally, my ultimate reward: exquisite local crab cakes at light-filled Pelicano Restaurant, overlooking the boat basin. 

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