About two hours from Seattle, Ebey’s Landing offers one of the state’s best beach hikes and a look at early Washington history.
Editor’s note: Know a favorite restaurant, historical site, unique museum or other Northwest attraction worth miles of driving, just for itself? This recurring feature, “Worth the Trip,” spotlights such destinations — along with other pleasant diversions along the way.
A few years ago, I wrote about a man who, starved for travel and stuck in Seattle caring for aging parents, started riding bus line after Metro bus line to explore every corner of his own city.
From him, I learned how easy it is to find fresh perspectives and landscapes close to home.
Lately, similarly marooned, I’ve found a number of new nearby delights — reached by car rather than bus, but still within a day’s radius of Seattle. Not the least of which is Ebey’s Landing, on Whidbey Island, where I recently stood on straw-colored bluffs overlooking a panoramic view of Admiralty Inlet and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and wondered how, in my decades in Seattle, I had never been there before.
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The truth is I’ve bypassed Ebey’s in favor of some of Washington’s other treasures, like Mount Rainier or the North Cascades. But this was winter, and the high-country trails were under deep snow. I had heard about Ebey’s bluff-and-beach ramble, a main attraction of Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Frankly, I was expecting a short, pleasant hike and not much more. But Ebey’s was such a joy, I went back just two weeks later.
The fun wasn’t just in the hike, but in Ebey’s Landing as a whole — all 22 square miles of land determinedly kept much the same as it was 150 years ago.
Jointly managed by federal, state and local governments, Ebey’s Landing was established in 1978 as the nation’s first National Historical Reserve, designed, as one sign said, to provide “an unbroken historical record from nineteenth century exploration and settlement in Puget Sound to the present time.”
It gained that status after a land-use fight in the 1970s between those who wanted to build subdivisions in the prairies and others who wanted to keep the farms. A fierce battle ensued, pitting friend against friend. In the end, the preservationists won, and when you stand on the top of the bluffs and look back out over the valley, all you see is brown and yellow-green fields, some worked by descendants of the original homesteaders.
For visitors, one prime attraction is the bluff hike, which has two trailheads — one near Sunnyside Cemetery, where some members of the Ebey family are buried. The other is at the beach, at the end of Ebey Road. We chose the former, taking our guidebook’s advice to pause in the parking lot to look out over the wide swath of once-threatened farms, and the Cascade Mountains beyond.
On the way to the bluffs, the trail winds past the home built by Jacob Ebey, one of a number of members of the Ebey family who were some of the first white homesteaders to arrive in the 1850s, lured by the offer of free land. Next to the house is a smaller, two-story structure, called a blockhouse, made of thick round logs rather than planks, with just one window. In the conflicts between white newcomers and the Native Americans who preceded them, the settlers built such structures to protect themselves when attacked.
About a mile later, we arrived at the edge of bluffs. With the farmland to our back, we gazed over what some consider the most classic of Northwest landscapes, with Puget Sound, the Olympics, a rocky beach — and occasionally a white-and-green ferry chugging from nearby Keystone to Port Townsend.
The only feature missing is big trees. This hike is all view.
People love it
The winter air was cold enough to sting, but plenty of other people were also taking advantage of the clear day to enjoy the sights. Locals jogged along the trail, or followed their dogs on long leashes. Together, all of us formed a steady chain stretched out along the bluffs and the beach. We headed north first, sticking to the bluffs rather than starting down.
I’ve worked a lot harder for such a soul-filling vista, and we found ourselves stopping frequently to take it all in.
After about a mile and a half, the trail descends, zigzagging toward the beach where the crash of small waves grew louder.
The sun warmed us as we walked, with the water to our right, a steady line of weatherworn driftwood to the left. As the waves tumbled onto the shore, they ended with a sizzle of foam and a clatter of stones as the tide sucked the water back out.
My husband stared out at the horizon. Head bent downward, I scanned for agates — and found some.
Two miles later, we reached the second trailhead and snagged a picnic table to eat our sandwiches, declaring that this hike alone makes Ebey’s Landing worth the trip.
After lunch, we climbed the wooden stairs back up the bluff, retraced our steps to the car, then headed to nearby Coupeville.
Historic town, too
Another treat! I expected a waterfront, a few gift shops and at least one good restaurant. I didn’t expect a town with buildings that date back to frontier days — tall, whitewashed storefronts facing each other, the waterside ones with their backs to Penn Cove, the center of a shellfish cornucopia.
Coupeville, we learned, was one of the first towns in Washington state, one of many where residents once dreamed of becoming a big-city terminus of the transcontinental railroad. Nearly 100 buildings in town are listed on the National Historic Register — and the town is part of the Ebey historical reserve along with the farms, the bluffs, the beach, and two state parks.
We browsed through the Island County Museum and walked out to the end of the long, 1905 wharf where ferries used to pick up passengers bound for places including Seattle and Everett. We wandered down historic Front Street, which has a mix of gift stores and restaurants, an ice-cream shop and a co-op gallery, where member artists take turns staffing the front desk.
For dinner, we settled into a table at the waterfront Front Street Grill. I had to try the local Penn Cove mussels, choosing the house specialty: mussels in a coconut green curry sauce ($12).
Being winter, it was dark by the time we finished.
As we drove the 25 miles back to the Mukilteo-Clinton ferry landing, I lamented I hadn’t been visiting Ebey’s Landing every winter — and summer, and spring. From now on, I will.
IF YOU GO
MORE TO DO AND SEE AROUND EBEY’S LANDING
Many restaurants line Coupeville’s Front Street and a few blocks beyond. A few examples:
• Oystercatcher has a view of the water, with entrees starting at $30, made from ingredients from local farmers. (901 Grace St., oystercatcherwhidbey.com)
• Front Street Grill features burgers, sandwiches, pasta and Penn Cove mussels. (20 Front St., fsgcoupeville.com)
• Knead & Feed, where the Kroon family has been baking for 40 years. (4 Front St., kneadandfeed.com )
• We would have tried out the ice-cream shop, Kapaw’s Iskreme, if it had been open. (Opens again in March; 21 Front St.)
Many shops and galleries will draw you in, including:
• A Touch of Dutch, with food and gifts from Holland and Northern Europe (11 Front St. atouchofdutch.com)
• The Handbag Consignment Shop (7 Front St., handbagconsignmentshop.com)
• Far From Normal, with gifts aimed at making you laugh (12 Front St.).
• Penn Cove Gallery (9 N.W. Front St., penncovegallery.com)
• Crow’s Roost is packed with gifts, jewelry and home goods (902 Grace St.)
• Lavender Wind sells products from Lavender Wind Farm, which also is within Ebey’s Landing reserve (15 Coveland St., lavenderwind.com).
Near the shore end of the wharf, Island County Museum covers the history of Island County since the ice age. Admission: $3-$4 (908 N.W. Alexander St., wp.islandhistory.org).
Penn Cove Mussel Festival, March 4-5, features chowder tasting, mussel eating competitions, farm tours, music. (thepenncovemusselsfestival.com)
• Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve: www.nps.gov/EBLA
• Coupeville Chamber of Commerce: coupevillechamber.com
• Visitor info: cometocoupeville.com