A Washington state park gem: Deception Pass

Lynda V. Mapes / Seattle Times /

Published Jun 12, 2013 at 05:00AM

OAK HARBOR, Wash. — If you know only the landmark green bridge at Deception Pass State Park, you don’t know this park.

What awaits visitors here is so much more snapping photos from the overlooks at the bridge that spans the green slash of saltwater as it rips through the pass, with currents that can exceed 8 knots.

That’s fun, but don’t stop there. Deception Pass State Park is the poor man’s San Juan Island getaway, with all the glory of those island landscapes, without the ferry wait and costs. It’s all here: 400- to 600-year-old trees. Glorious beaches, primo picnic areas, tide pools, rocky headlands and sweeping views to the farthest horizon.

No wonder as he walks the park, “It gets better” is a favorite saying of park ranger Jack Hartt. Because every time he turns a corner, it does.

Strewn across both ends of the bridge at Deception Pass at the tips of Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, the park covers more than 4,000 acres and 10 islands — one of them with a rentable cabin.

To be sure, this is not a park for everyone. Some won’t like the jet noise, rumbling from the Naval Air Station at Whidbey Island.

And for some, the summer high season is just too busy. On a summer night the park turns into the second-largest city on Whidbey Island, with some 2,000 visitors camped out. The park gets more than 2 million visitors a year — making it one of Washington’s most popular, and far more frequently visited than North Cascades or Mount Rainier national parks.

But for its ease of access, and wide range of things to do, it’s been a favorite for many Washington families for generations. “It’s home away from home,” said Jane Stauffer, of Conway, Skagit County, set up with her husband, Mike, and two grandchildren in their campsite at the Cranberry Lake Campground on a recent spring day. With the red-check oilcloth on the picnic table, strings of lights and even a hummingbird feeder on the awning of the RV, they had brought all the comforts.

Madison, the family dog, was tucked into her bed on a folding chair by the fire ring with its cheery blaze, a blanket snugged around her shoulders. At 16, “She’s been coming here a long time,” said Jane, joining two generations of their family now on Deception Pass vacations.

“You can drive here so quickly, you aren’t in the car so long, and then there is so much to do,” Stauffer said. “We spend a lot of time on the beach looking for treasures, fly kites, and then there are the beautiful sunsets.”

What makes it a gem

It’s the wide diversity of things to do and landscapes to enjoy, in a setting that feels remote but is so accessible. From pink-salmon fishing off the beach, to tide-pooling, fly-fishing for brown trout, even whale watching for grays and orcas in spring and fall, there truly is something for just about everyone.

A unique place

The tidal rip through Deception Pass is unique in Washington, and it’s fun to watch boats jockey the passage. The grounds are also graced with an unusually rich assortment of classic stone and timber buildings from the 1930s, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, from picnic shelters with wood-burning stoves, to an interpretive center that can be rented out for weddings and other gatherings.

This is also an unusually good park for people with small children, or visitors who cannot or prefer not to even get out of the car. Consider West Beach. Visitors can drive right to the edge of the shore, and from the parking lot in their car enjoy sweeping views of the Olympics, Strait of Juan de Fuca and a milelong saltwater beach. Picnic tables right at the edge of the parking lot make setup and put-away easy. Driving the many loops of the park offers views of Cranberry Lake, old growth forests, saltwater beaches, and of course, that trademark experience of crossing the bridge. This truly is a park for visitors of all ages and physical abilities.

Not to be missed

The end-of-the-world view from Rosario Head. Park administrators have stood their ground against fencing the edge of the headlands, allowing visitors a spectacular unobstructed view of the outer waters of the Salish Sea and an endless sky from the bleached rocky bald of the headland. The sense of space, sea and sky are matchless.

Where to lay your head

Deception Pass is primo camping country with more than 300 sites. With hot showers, camp firewood, water taps, fire rings, picnic tables, green grass and old-growth trees that provide a sense of privacy, this is cushy camping you can drive to and bring all your stuff. So go ahead: Steep your thickest wool sweater with campfire wood smoke as you settle back in the camp chair and count your blessings.

If camping really isn’t your thing, B&Bs and small inns are readily available nearby in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island. The larger towns of Anacortes and Oak Harbor have all the usual options and conveniences.