DECEPTION PASS STATE PARK — High chair affixed to a picnic table, my daughter ate bite-size portions of shrimp scampi cooked over a portable stove before my wife and I tucked her into a travel crib zipped inside a tent in the Cranberry Lake Campground. On her first night camping, crashing waves and tree-rustling wind generated white noise better than any baby gadget.

The next day, we hiked out to Rosario Head, passing a picnic shelter where four years prior my wife’s family and mine met for the first time days before our wedding. Together they broke bread — or cracked claws — at a seafood boil. This solid stone structure, with windows framing the captivating blue waters beyond Rosario Beach, embodied the Pacific Northwest landscape that we wanted to convey to our families, who were visiting the region for the first time.

We are far from the first and certainly will not be the last Washingtonians drawn to Deception Pass. On 3,854 acres just 90 minutes from Seattle, this park is a highlight reel: mesmerizing saltwater passages spanned by an engineering marvel, tranquil freshwater lakes and ponds for swimming and fishing, craggy headlands with panoramic views, long stretches of beach, ephemeral tide pools and lush old-growth stands.

This year marks 100 since Washington State Parks turned the old military reserve, long the traditional land of the Samish and Swinomish tribes, into a state park. On July 23, the park and its foundation will host a community picnic at East Cranberry Lake, the same place the park designation was celebrated in 1922. Deception Pass has been Washington’s most popular state park ever since, with visitor numbers today that rival the country’s most popular national parks and create management challenges for the lean staff.

A century breeds longstanding connections to this sliver of land and water where Fidalgo and Whidbey islands meet.

“We get families who come every single summer on the exact same weekend,” said the park’s Kirkland-born interpretive specialist, Joy Kacoroski, who camped at the park with her family as a child. “We’ve watched junior rangers become young adults. Visitors pull out photos of them standing under the bridge when they were a kid and now they’re 70 years old.”

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Those multigenerational stories are familiar to retired park manager Jack Hartt, who grew up in Ballard and vividly recalls the Coleman lantern, canvas tent and crackling fire on his first camping trip to Bowman Bay, at age 4.

“These are the memories that millions of people have and the same people have dreams about when they can get back up here again,” Hartt said.

Reflecting on the park’s centennial, he was blunt about the park stewards’ role as preservationists: “What we have is what we don’t want to change. One hundred years from now, I want people to see the same thing.”

From pioneers to premier park

Deception Pass had a rich Euro American history even before it was folded into the nascent State Parks system. Western Union draped a telegraph line across the Salish Sea to Victoria via Fidalgo Island in the 1860s. Homesteaders and loggers nibbled away at the original landscape — the military can be thanked for today’s preserved old-growth — while Bowman Bay’s namesake, Dunnell Bowman, printed a socialist newspaper.

By the early 1900s, steamers from Seattle offered city folk a beach day at Rosario. At the future park’s east end, incarcerated people toiled in a quarry at a state prison camp. On a small island in Skagit Bay, Scottish immigrant Ben Ure operated a saloon, dance hall and smuggling operation — rum, opium, woolens and human trafficking of Pacific Islanders — while his Indigenous wife kept watch from neighboring Strawberry Island for Coast Guard cutters.

Deception Pass beyond the bridge: 7 things to do at Washington’s most popular state park
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In the 1930s, Deception Pass evolved into the park we recognize today. For that, thank the federal government. The National Park Service lent its expertise, as the Great Depression had decimated the state parks system’s budget, and the NPS briefly considered designating Deception Pass as a national park.

To execute the park plan, the Civilian Conservation Corps deployed thousands of young men who built graceful stone picnic shelters and bathhouses, swimming beaches, campgrounds, trails, roads and water and sewer lines. They also lent their manpower to the Deception Pass Bridge, which opened in 1935 over the protests of Berte Olson, Puget Sound’s first female ferryboat captain, who held rights to the route.

The end result was so majestic that, to this day, casual visitors mistakenly assume they are in a national park.

“This [park] has to be managed and done right,” Hartt, who has written two books about the park, said of the attitude toward improving the park at the time. “All these structures are built like they fit in.”

Popularity contest

In 1924, Deception Pass State Park welcomed 26,000 people, making it the most visited Washington state park. Over 100 years, it has rarely relinquished that title, especially once the bridge and a newly paved road on Highway 20 put the park in easy reach of the mainland. In 2021, the park’s estimated 3.2 million to 3.5 million visitors rivaled the attendance totals of the 10 most visited national parks.

“It’s fun to be popular, but sometimes people do things that can be damaging to the park,” Hartt said. “Always in the back of our mind, we are protecting the people that are here, and protecting the resources from those people.”

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That task now falls to Jason Armstrong, who took over as park manager in 2017 and embraces the park’s historical legacy.

“When we build something in this park, we really do our best to try and make it look like something that was built in the 1930s,” he said.

In early June, a group of park staff and volunteers built a wooden fence to guide hikers on the summit of Goose Rock, a geological feature known as a “bald” that is home to rare vegetation. The steep, narrow approach trail required carrying all the materials by hand.

“It was just like in the CCC days,” Armstrong said. “We were up there seven to eight hours building that fence and we were all exhausted. Those men had to be remarkable individuals in terms of their capacity to build every single day, whether masonry or log work.”

The reliance on volunteers for that centennial maintenance project hearkened to CCC days in more ways than just manual labor — a place that acts like a national park nevertheless scrapes by on state resources.

Truly McCone is a law enforcement ranger who earned two lifesaving awards for interventions she made when people attempted to jump off the bridge. In one instance, she happened to notice the scene unfolding because she was swabbing toilets in the bridge parking lot.

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“National parks have law enforcement rangers that are ready immediately,” McCone said. “I could be cleaning a toilet or selling someone a pass when I get the dispatch, then have to drop everything and change into uniform.”

After state budget cuts in the wake of the Great Recession, the park lost its full-time interpreter. The Deception Pass Foundation fundraised to bring on Kacoroski in 2019, who rebuilt the park’s interpretive program with the help of AmeriCorps volunteers and whose position is now fully funded by the state. The National Recreation and Park Association named her to the organization’s “30 under 30” list this year.

Interpreters now station themselves at the entrance to the Rosario Tide Pools with loaner naturalist guides, instructing visitors how to navigate the pools without disturbing the sea creatures that call them home. A yellow rope designates a wildlife-safe walking path through the rocky pools, home to barnacles, crabs, anemones and other sea creatures revealed at low tide. That innovation came from Hartt, who raised alarm bells early in his 2003-2017 tenure about ecological devastation as park visitors poached sea stars for their private aquariums.

Hartt, who wrote his senior thesis in marine biology at the University of Washington on state park beaches, was also instrumental in removing creosoted wood and rock sea walls from Cornet and Bowman bays in 2012 and 2015, respectively. Originally built to protect long-defunct fish hatcheries, they impeded the natural function of the intertidal zone.

“To see a real beach in both of those places was one of the capstones of my career,” Hartt said.

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For his part, Armstrong has secured staffing and funding to keep Rosario Beach open year round. “I’m a huge advocate for public access,” he said, while also acknowledging the need to balance wildlife needs.

He faced a management test this year when Elsie Mae, a resident northern elephant seal, gave birth to a pup, Emerson, on Jan. 31 in Bowman Bay, one of the park’s signature destinations. The park closed the area for months to allow the pup time to move offshore. Finally, with Memorial Day approaching, Armstrong worked with NOAA marine biologists to move Emerson and reopen the bay ahead of the summer kickoff.

“It was an amazing experience to have in the park and it was a lot of work to manage one seal pup,” he said.

A spiritual connection

Abundant wildlife is an element that undeniably adds to the appeal of Deception Pass. Birders post up on the bridge with binoculars to spy bald eagles while winter brings a bevy of loons. Alligator lizards ply the forest and whales have been spotted within 10 feet of shore.

“This park provides a three- to five-hour escape,” said Armstrong, describing Deception Pass as a training ground for hiking and camping before embarking on bigger backcountry adventures, as well as a place where folks learn to paddle on sheltered bays and lakes (although the swirling currents in Deception Pass proper offer the most advanced saltwater in the state).

While the park may be an escape for non-Native visitors, it’s the ancestral home of the Samish and Swinomish, for whom the park represents their treaty-guaranteed “usual and accustomed grounds” for fishing, clamming and foraging. Those rights were largely ignored, Hartt said, until the landmark Boldt Decision in 1974; their land today has been shrunk to nearby reservations.

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In 1983, a story pole was erected in honor of Ko-kwal-alwoot, the Maiden of Deception Pass, a Samish legend depicted in the striking wood carving of a woman — on one side with human hair and skin, on the other covered in barnacles with kelp tendrils. That act of reconciliation precipitated more significant efforts, like the multiyear negotiations to wrest Kiket Island from private hands and into joint ownership and management between Washington State Parks and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community in 2010.

For Hartt, the past, present and future of Deception Pass come together at Rosario, which he calls “the soul of the park.”

“You walk out on that peninsula where tribes used to have longhouses, passing tide pools and the story of the Maiden — how if you take care of the water and the land, it takes care of you — then you get up on that head and there’s a 360-degree view,” he said.

“It’s quiet, away from the noise of the bridge, and I can take a 3-year-old or a 93-year-old. It’s a spiritual place to me.”

Deception Pass Centennial: Community Picnic in the Park

Deception Pass State Park will host a 100th anniversary celebration featuring a picnic, live music, a beer garden, a CCC reenactment, vendors and more. Free, no registration required.

1-9 p.m. Saturday, July 23; East Cranberry Lake Picnic Shelter: 41229 State Route 20, Oak Harbor.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Cornet Bay and incorrectly stated the length of former park manager Jack Hartt’s tenure.