Deception Pass is our most-visited state park, but you can find solitude if you know where to look.
During summer, we love Deception Pass State Park like we love no other playground. The park, which straddles Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, gets more annual visitors than Mount Rainier.
Campgrounds are booked months in advance, especially on Memorial Day or July Fourth. During summer weekends, 1,500 campers and 5,000 day visitors typically frolic around this 4,134-acre park. But you can still find solitude.
Most tourists spend their time taking in the view from the iconic highway bridge or visiting West Beach, which fronts on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. And even at those tourist attractions, if you avoid the peak hours of 1-4 p.m., especially on weekends, crowds are manageable, said park manager Jack Hartt.
The park, with its diverse landscape from sand dunes to tide pools, has many under-the-radar hikes and even some little-known new accommodations. Here is your guide on how to find tranquillity in Washington’s most popular state park.
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The park’s 317 campsites are often booked, but the best lodging may still be up for grabs. In May, the park quietly plopped five new cabins near Quarry Pond, east of Highway 20 in the park’s south end, the least populated section. They’re not as fancy as the park’s cabin on Ben Ure Island; they’re bare bones, 10 feet by 20 feet, with a twin-size bunk bed atop a queen size bed and a futon sofa that turns into a full-size bed. Cabins come with air conditioning and heat. The “kitchen” is the fire ring outside the front door, and bathrooms with showers are 30 yards away. Rates range from $49 to $79 depending on season.
John Tursi Trail
You won’t see many hikers since this trail, which opened June 4, is too new to make it into guidebooks.
The trail features views of lakes, valleys and Mount Erie. A joint project spearheaded by the state parks agency and Skagit County Parks and Recreation, it is named after the late Civilian Conservation Corps worker who helped build the park’s infrastructure.
Take the Pass Lake trailhead to Ginnett Trail, which after 1.5 miles becomes John Tursi Trail (1.1 mile). It’s a moderate hike (up to 400 feet of elevation gain) though the dirt trail is rocky and uneven. The trail gets dim under the lush canopy of firs and hemlocks. But about 1.2 miles up, you may wince at the bright sun as the dirt path opens up to meadows, rocky balds and madronas near the bluffs.
The first viewpoint is from atop a concrete slab — the former Ginnett homestead — with views of a valley below and Lake Campbell to the east. Go another mile to the second viewpoint and you’ll see Rodger Hill, where Northwest artist Morris Graves once lived atop a stone promontory, living a monkish existence in a cabin without electricity or running water during the 1940s. (The cabin has since burned down.)
The last stretch goes by a miner’s shack, where workers dug for copper 100 years ago. Though some locals go in, officials advise against it for safety reasons.
This preserve, with three short, easy hikes, opened in 2014 and doesn’t yet draw many visitors. And because it’s a 15-minute drive from all the touristy Deception Pass State Park attractions, many don’t make the effort to find it. That means you often get sweeping vistas of water and mountains without the crowds.
A narrow neck of land connects the preserve, also known as Kiket Island, to Fidalgo Island, west of the Swinomish Reservation. Take the mile-long Central Trail, flanked by the beach, with the icy blue Similk Bay to the north and the Confederate-gray Kiket Bay to the south. Ahead are mounds of sun-bleached driftwood where visitors use drift logs as picnic benches while kids play on the beach. A nearby lagoon is a wildlife sanctuary. It’s off-limits, along with much of Flagstaff Island, another small, land-linked extension at the preserve’s westernmost end where access to uplands is restricted to preserve wildflower habitat.
You can circle back through the old growth on the North Trail (0.5 mile), with a view of the iconic bridge, or take the flatter South Trail (0.4 mile).
The state park jointly manages this preserve with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
Trails hide in plain sight
Yes, the iconic bridge — connecting Whidbey Island to Fidalgo Island — is the must-see, whether it’s your first time or your fifth. It never gets old.
But hundreds of visitors who walk the quarter-mile, 177-foot-high bridge are often too busy taking selfies to notice the trails nearby. Duck down to the south side of the bridge. The Goose Rock Summit Trail (0.5 mile with 250 feet of elevation gain) leads to the highest point on Whidbey Island and offers views of the San Juans and Mount Rainier. And the Goose Rock Perimeter Loop Trail (1.9 miles with 150 feet of elevation gain) is so close to the water, you can smell the saltwater funk coming up at low tide. The trail takes you along the edge of the island with views of Ben Ure and Strawberry islands and Cornet Bay. Just don’t be so mesmerized that you forget to look ahead. The narrow trail can be rocky and slippery.
You can also hike about a mile here to the other must-see attraction: West Beach, and its panoramic view of the Olympics and Vancouver Island.
On the Fidalgo Island (northern) side of the park, Rosario Beach and its tide pools are another big draw, though not as congested as West Beach and the bridge. If peace and quiet are your quest, from here you will also want to drive or hike a half-mile south to Bowman Bay and do what the locals do: Hike along the shoreline to Lighthouse Point (1.5 miles), a dirt trail in the forest from which the predominant sound is the saltwater crashing against the beach.
If you go
Deception Pass State Park
From Interstate 5 in Skagit County, take Exit 230 and go west on Highway 20. After about 8 miles, cross the bridge to Fidalgo Island, and in another 3.2 miles, turn left to follow Highway 20 south to Whidbey Island. About a half-mile after crossing the Deception Pass Bridge, turn right into the main park entrance. Discover Pass required ($10/day, $30/year).
John Tursi Trail: From Highway 20, 0.7-mile north of the Deception Pass Bridge, turn west on Rosario Road and take the first right into Pass Lake parking lot to find the Pass Lake trailhead. Then follow hiking directions in story.
Kukutali Preserve: From Highway 20, 1.4 miles west of the Swinomish Casino, turn south on Reservation Road. Turn right on Snee Oosh Road. In 1.3 miles, look for the Kukutali Preserve sign on the right. If the seven parking spots are full (Discover Pass required) you may park on the roadside.
Even on quiet, little-used trails around Deception Pass, you may hear the roar of fighter jets overhead as they fly practice sorties out of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, located 1.5 miles south of the park.
• To book a cabin or campsite, check washington.goingtocamp.com.
• More about the park: 360-675-3767 or parks.state.wa.us/497/Deception-Pass.