From the headland beyond the San Juans ferry dock in Anacortes, Washington Park looks out on a gorgeous island panorama.
ANACORTES — Who says young folks aren’t resourceful?
Take, for instance, 18-year-old Sarah Dykstra and her 19-year-old boyfriend, Zach Wiley. When they missed their ferry to Lopez Island and found themselves stuck at the Anacortes ferry landing with four hours to kill, Dykstra pulled out her smartphone and looked for something to do.
“We saw this big green area on the map — a park — right near the ferry terminal so we decided to check it out,” says Dykstra, who’s from Bellingham. She and Wiley, who’s from Syracuse, N.Y., are students at New York’s Alfred University.
After unhitching bikes from their car, they pedaled for 15 minutes and found themselves at Washington Park’s Burrows Viewpoint, a splendid windswept bluff overlooking one of those classic Northwest panoramas: myriad islands — forested lumps and humps rising like so many whales from the chilly, curving waterways of Burrows Channel and Rosario Strait. A few miles to the southeast, tree-carpeted Mount Erie, smack in the center of Fidalgo Island, rose above all else like a sentinel keeping watch.
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“This is amazing,” Wiley said, taking it all in. “In New York, we have hills — the Adirondacks — which have nice views, but nothing like this.”
A park worth discovering
Dykstra’s smartphone’s “big green area” is Washington Park, a 220-acre mostly wooded gem of a park 0.7-mile west of the ferry landing. It’s at the far northwest tip of Fidalgo Island, jutting out on a finger of land called Fidalgo Head. Along with a 73-site campground, the park features a picnic area, a boat launch and several miles of trails that crisscross the park’s forested interior, which is home to some 100 species of birds.
A geologic wonder as well, the peninsula is largely composed of greenish serpentine rock, which weathers into a rust-colored soil that’s toxic to many plants. Thus, only certain plants and wildflowers — Blue-Eyed Mary and Pod Fern, among them — can survive on its windswept meadows.
But the park’s true calling card is perhaps its 2.2-mile loop road that explores all that the peninsula has to offer: rocky shoreline and tidepool beaches ripe for exploration; forests of fir, cedar and island-esque madronas; bluff-top meadows and grassy knolls, and just about everywhere, water views to the surrounding islands and far-off mountains.
Numerous pullout spots with park benches and/or beach access invite visitors to stop, ogle the views and smell the saltwater, as it were. Along with folks in cars (speed limit: 10 mph), the one-way, one-lane road is beloved by walkers, cyclists, families — pretty much everyone.
On a park bench at the edge of the woods just above the Leaning Tree, a famed tree that juts low over the water like a bowsprit on a clipper ship, Bob Atkinson sat eating his lunch on a recent day.
“I just took off on my motorcycle looking for a place to have lunch,” said the Bellingham retiree who used to scuba dive just offshore in Guemes Channel. Against a backdrop of Cypress and other San Juan islands, numerous ferries, sailboats and other watercraft passed slowly back and forth.
“I haven’t been here for a while; I don’t know why — it’s really pretty spectacular, isn’t it?”
A pioneer’s bequest
Washington Park got its start in 1911 when Fidalgo Island pioneer T.H. Havekost donated eight acres, proclaiming upon his death: “Make my cemetery a park for everybody.” Today, a large stone monument to Havekost stands just off the loop road near Burrows Viewpoint.
Over the years more land was donated and purchased, including some 75 acres bought in 1922 by the Anacortes Women’s Club through the sale of lemon pies. Today, it’s all part of the Anacortes city park system.
Further along the loop at another, concrete stairs lead down to a bigger beach at Juniper Point. It’s ready-made for exploration: Massive boulders invite one to climb and scramble, while nearer the water an endless supply of smaller rocks, stones and pebbles beckon children to lift them up to ooh and ahh at the creepy crawlies — crabs and wormlike thingies — living underneath.
There’s also driftwood for just hanging about and chill-laxing, listening to the gentle waters lap. That’s what Auburn’s Stan and Diane Jacobson were doing this day while Hana, their “spaniel mutt” sniffed about. They’ve been regular visitors to Washington Park since the 1970s.
“It’s changed a lot over the years,” said Stan. “They paved the road, they put in benches but it’s still a great walk. And you can’t beat the peace and quiet.”
Against a backdrop of the Olympic Mountains, a great blue heron flapped lazily on its flight path to one island or another. A harbor seal poked its head above the water, scanned the shoreline, then dived back below. Said Diane: “We have so many memories here.”
One wonders if Dykstra and Wiley, the young couple who found Washington Park with the help of a smartphone, have just started on their own timeline of Washington Park memories.
Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of the newly published “75 Classic Rides: Washington” (The Mountaineers Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.