One of life’s little travel joys is visiting a destination whose name enhances its character. A game of Pac-Man would be divine in Arcade, Italy. A joke would be infinitely funnier if you heard it in Saint-Louis-du-Ha!Ha!, Quebec. And a sizzling breakfast platter would taste twice as nice in the state of Georgia’s communities of Bacon and Coffee. But what happens when you visit a place whose name isn’t just a bit blah but actually downright dour? Enter Washington state’s unusual place names. Would you travel to a destination named Useless Bay or Cape Disappointment?
For such a lackluster name, Cape Disappointment (on Washington’s west coast, just along the border with Oregon) is actually a pretty cool place. It has the distinction of being one of the foggiest spots in the United States, with about 106 misty days a year. Nature lovers will enjoy visiting Cape Disappointment State Park (where you can go clamming, crabbing, and fishing) and the Cape Disappointment lighthouse. History buffs will be interested to know that the unique name dates all the way back to 1788, when a fur trader frustratingly mistook the mouth of the Columbia River for a bay — one which his ship could not enter and his aggravation has been immortalized ever since.
In 1792, Captain George Vancouver had a spate of bad luck. In an attempt to anchor his ship mid-storm, he got stranded on a sandy and shallow shore. No wonder he christened this area Useless Bay! For everyone other than George Vancouver, however, Useless Bay has plenty of practicalities, including easy access to the cottages and communities of Puget Sound. Never fear if it’s a bit rainy. Just grab a coffee from the family-run Useless Bay Coffee Company and curl up to read M.J. Beaufrand’s thriller, aptly named Useless Bay.
Could there be a less appealing name than Mosquito Pass? You guessed it — this marshy area between San Juan and Henry Islands (not far from the Canadian border) was rife with the buzzing blighters back when early explorers first visited. All told, modern-day adventurers will want to have their bug spray with them when they visit but they can rest easy that the pesky situation has certainly improved. A visit to the nearby English Camp, part of San Juan Island National Historic Park, will help you appreciate the challenges that early settlers experienced.
Another gem of a name from Captain Vancouver, who apparently could not catch a break while exploring Washington, Foulweather Bluff is indeed a rainy destination. But foul? It’s best to chalk that up to Vancouver’s grim wit. Travelers will enjoy this stretch of Puget Sound, including the Foulweather Bluff Preserve Trail, a short hike that brings walkers past old-growth trees to a pebbly beach that’s ideal for birdwatching.
Point No Point
If you’ve ever had one of those frustrating travel days where you just feel like there’s no point to all your meanderings, you might want to add Point No Point to your travel list. This living tribute to futility was coined by explorer Charles Wilkes in 1841. From afar, it looked like there was indeed a sharp point jutting out into the water but as Wilkes approached further, his “point” seemed to disappear. However, there are many “points” of interest for modern guests who aren’t concerned with cartographical illusions. Point No Point is home to the oldest lighthouse in Puget Sound, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s also arguably the finest place in all of Washington for birdwatching.
Given the nautical nature of many other unusual place names in Washington, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Destruction Island was inspired by a shipwreck. Alas, this island has a complicated history and a harsh moniker. In 1775, Spanish explorers arrived to search for firewood and provisions. Their uninvited presence was not welcomed by the Indigenous people who long lived there, and the invaders were killed. Twelve years later, a party of English fur traders repeated the unwelcomed visit and they met with the same fate. The English fur trading captain christened the site of this second conflict Destruction River and, over the centuries, the name evolved. History hasn’t been kind to these Indigenous people, for whom the situation must have looked very different as they fought to protect their communities from external threats. It’s a poignant reminder that there’s a lot of history behind every name. Today, Destruction Island (about 4 miles from the coast) is decidedly peaceful and is a sanctuary for seals, sea lions, birds, and even rabbits (descendants of the pets once kept by a lighthouse keeper’s daughter).
For more Washington state inspiration, consider