We weren’t finished with the islands yet. Although Whidbey Island isn’t considered to be one of the San Juans, it’s situated close enough to that archipelago that it should be considered a next door neighbor at least. You can certainly see some of the San Juan Islands from Whidbey’s western coastline, as well as the peaks of the Olympic Range. In actuality, it lies at the northern mouth of Puget Sound, and due east from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It was convenient for a stopover, and it was too tempting to pass up once learning a little about what the island had to offer. When the ferry from Friday Harbor returned us to the island just north of Whidbey, we hooked up the Airstream and headed south just a short distance.
Whidbey Island is 45 miles in length, making it one of the largest islands in the continental U.S. However, because it is never more than a few miles wide, Whidbey has views of the water at just about every turn of its winding country roads. Farms, forests, bluffs and beaches border the coast, and two historic villages have the same quaint character that you expect to see on the San Juans. We had driven half of its length on our way to catch the ferry to Friday Harbor. Judging by the glimpse of landscape we had seen, I knew we had made a good choice to work Whidbey Island in to our itinerary.
There might be one drawback to the blissful life found on Whidbey (depending on your perspective). Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, with its thundering jets making landings and take-offs on a regular daily basis, tends to alter the idyllic atmosphere of the island’s northern half. The town of Oak Harbor, adjacent to the base, services the hundreds employed by the navy and has benefited from its presence. But the commercial sprawl soon concludes, and further south you’ll find the majority of the island’s B&Bs and small inns. Perhaps more significantly, because of what happened around Oak Harbor, a grass roots movement began to act, having the intent of preserving the tranquil atmosphere of the island’s rural beauty. Hence, Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve was created. Our first full day had us heading in just that direction.
Created in 1978 under National Park Service designation, the reserve’s somewhat quixotic purpose is not to preserve a particular historic moment, but rather the aspect of a land in transition. Thus protected are homesteads that are still working farms, plus woodlands and wetlands, as well as old military installations, also the town of Coupeville. The reserve, one of the first of its kind in the nation, was created “to reserve and protect a rural community which provides an unbroken historic record from the 19th century exploration and settlement of Puget Sound to the present time.” There is no visitor center for the reserve, but there is an information kiosk in Coupeville. There are brochures available that outline biking and driving tours through the area, as well as a description of the 5.5-mile hiking trail overlooking Admiralty Inlet and the Olympic Range beyond. A beautiful day . . . a beautiful trail . . . we took off!
The Bluff Trail made for a superb hike! In fact, I had read it is one of the finest coastal hikes in the Northwest—how’s that for a description? The accolades might be partially on account of the path leading to the highest coastal bluffs in the state.
There were parts which were fairly steep stretches, very reminiscent of hikes along the Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan. And there were views to match. After attaining the pinnacle of the hike, we soaked up the views over the Juan de Fuca Strait and relished what a clear view we were given.
After the somewhat gradual climb we had to the high point, the trail then threw us a counter-punch. The return leg would be down at sea level, requiring a steep and sandy descent—a nearly 300-foot drop! Now that put a little excitement into the morning stroll.
Once down, we took time to rest, shake the sand out of our shoes and study the bluffs’ perspective from below.
Fort Casey was another facet of Ebey’s Landing. A former military base built in the 1890s to guard Puget Sound, it was part of the “triangle of fire” along with Forts Flagler and Worden on the opposite side of the Inlet. Now a state park, it has the original gun batteries and informative kiosks for those, like Chris, who might find its history interesting. Adjacent to the military installation was the 1897 Admiralty Head Lighthouse, which Melinda found more photogenic.
Hunger pains had us looking for a nearby town, preferably one with interest as well as good restaurants to chose from. The attractive town of Coupeville was just up the road and it more than qualified for our criteria.
Coupeville is the point of disembarkation if you take the ferry crossing from Port Townsend. It’s about midway down the island and generally where things begin to get more interesting. And more picturesque. A waterfront community, it reminded us a lot of a small New England seaside village. This small town, located on Penn Cove, is quaint, has lots of charm and character, with history to match. Founded in 1852, it’s the second oldest town in the state.
Seeming to be the focal point of town, the Coupeville Wharf not only typifies the town’s character, it’s an interesting place to visit. You’ll have a prime location for viewing boats coming in and out of the harbor (sailing seemed to be the specialty of this day). Several sea creature skeletons’ are hanging on display indoors (which we found very interesting), and the pier gives you a great view of the town and the setting of Penn Cove.
Many of the town’s old commercial buildings now house antiques, gift and specialty shops.
The Lavender Wind Shop was a nice surprise. With their farm located close to town, the store featured all things lavender—if it wasn’t made from lavender then it featured a lavender motif or decoration. Edibles . . . soaps, shampoos and lotions . . . candles and sachets . . . bouquets, fresh or dried . . . plates, teacups and goblets, all decorated with a lavender design. What a shop—what a temptation!
Yes, I gave in.
And then there was the character of Coupeville. So many sea captains retired to Coupeville in the late 1800s that the county seat is dotted with their late-Victorian homes. The three pictured here are now B&Bs. All help to lend a nostalgia to a town with sea-faring roots.
Before heading back to camp, there was one last stop that needed taking. We had arrived in the Land of Fresh-Picked Berries and boy, do they know how to bake pies in this part of the country! So this Farm-to-Market Bakery was sure to catch my eye. When I yelled “Pull over!”, I meant business. Marionberry seemed to be the flavor of this day!
And that was fine by me.
We never did make it to the southern end of Whidbey Island. With the day fading fast, we hit the road back to our camp, taking the main artery, marked as Whidbey Island Scenic Way, which traces along the island’s spine. Its northern terminus was our destination, one of the most popular state parks in Washington.
Deception Pass State Park lies at the northern edge of Whidbey Island, on the shores of a churning channel between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. It has miles of beaches, quiet coves, freshwater lakes, forests of tall old conifers and 40 miles of hiking trails.
Altogether our kind of place.
The campground was large, heavily forested, and navigated by tight, winding roads. A popular place, having all types of sites—some close-packed, others (like ours) nicely isolated and spacious; all had the feel of being a world apart.
When Captain George Vancouver sailed by here in 1792, Whidbey appeared to be an extension of nearby Fidalgo Island. It was only on closer inspection that he could see the narrow channel separating the two land masses. He named the channel Deception Pass. Much later, Captain Thomas Coupe became the first to sail a fully rigged sailing vessel through the pass. The foolhardiness of this act is clear when you look down at the churning, rough channel a mere 500 feet wide with a tidal rip that can reach 8 knots, and bounded on both sides by steep, rocky headlands. Deception Pass kept the island isolated until 1935 when a bridge was constructed to span that channel.
Until the summer of 1935, the residents of Whidbey Island were cut off from the world. No bridges connected them to the rest of the state. Lobbying efforts, having been ongoing for 40 years, finally reached fruition when funds were allocated and the CCC lended its help. The bridge was completed in just under 12 months. The result is a bridge of outstanding design that literally stops people in their tracks. Cars park on both ends of the bridge, and people file out along its span. Standing 180 feet above the water, it is nearly 1,500 feet in length. It is the view down to the water that entices people to come take a look.
Or maybe see it from below . . . along the shores of the state park. In the evening I came alone to see the fading golden light of sunset burnish the ironwork of the bridge. And look out over the waters of Juan de Fuca to the San Juan Islands on the horizon. This state park easily sells itself at moments like this.
One more day to spend on Whidbey Island, we decided to take a closer look at the “big” town of Anacortes, located on Fidalgo Island. A town of around 16,000 people, Anacortes promotes itself as the “Gateway to the San Juans.” Seeing how the main ferry line that runs out to the major islands is located just outside of town, the motto seems reasonable to hold.
From a small quiet settlement, Anacortes exploded into a boom period, based on speculation that a western terminus for the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad would be developed here, taking advantage of the natural, deep water harbor. The town increased from 200 to 2,000 in only 2 months. When it wasn’t selected as the terminus, the town went into a severe depression, but began to revive in the early 1900s as a lumber and mill town, as well as developing a fishing and cannery industry. More mills continued to locate here until the 1950s, when box mills had ceased operation, victims of the shift to cardboard paper for boxes.
Shell and Texaco built refineries nearby in the 1950s, which had a positive effect on the town’s economy. In the late 1960s expensive housing developments were built, and many retired people were attracted to the area. Technology-based industries arrived in the late 1980s and Sun Healthcare Systems located here in 1997. Marinas began appearing where once there had been mills and canneries. And then the tourists began to come.
Exploring the town on foot, we happened upon a shipbuilding facility. Turning a city corner, we were suddenly confronted with this massive ship under construction. Fortunately, we were able to speak with one of the security guards, who filled us in on all the scoops.
The ship, named the Sally Ride, is the second such one in a new class of Navy Research vessels. The Neil Armstrong Class, as it is called, is designed for oceanographic research. Taking two years to build, the Dakota Creek Shipbuilding Company Industries was fortunate to get the commission. Not hiring union workers, the company cannot build the state ferries, but it can repair them, which is another source of income. Seeing such a huge ship up close, watching the workers (mostly welders) crawling all over and up on scaffolding, busy as bees, was interesting too. It was truly a beautiful vessel. Another ship was just beginning to be built adjacent to this one—to be a large fishing ship.
It was a very informative and enlightening visit.
Also to its credit, Anacortes can boast that half its land is city park or forest preserve. Washington Park is a prime example. Just a mile or so beyond the ferry landing, the park is a prime sunset location. Owned by the city, the 220-acre park is a combination of forest, meadow, and beach.
Cap Sante Park is a forested promontory with a panoramic view that includes the city, marina, Fidalgo Bay, the Cascade Mountains to the east and the San Juan Islands lying west.
Mount Erie, just south of town, gives great panoramic views from its 1,273-foot peak. The drive, on a narrow, winding road, has other viewpoints, and from the top you can look out over Rosario Strait to the San Juan islands, and on clear days see Mount Baker to the northeast. And that is where we ended our stay on Whidbey Island.
We were given one last ocean sunset back on the beach at Deception Pass.
Driving out of the forested campground, we’re moving inland and upland . . . to the rough and remote Cascade Mountains.
Airstream Travelers, rolling on.
Chris and Melinda