Find autumn's hidden wonders at less-crowded Deception Pass
Outdoors writer Mike McQuaide offers tips on hidden gems of Deception Pass State Park, a highly popular destination that gets much smaller crowds in the offseason.
Special to The Seattle Times
To get to Deception Pass State Park, take Interstate 5 to Exit 230 at Burlington, Skagit County. Go west on Highway 20, following signs for Anacortes, and in about 12 miles turn left at a traffic signal to follow Highway 20 as it heads south toward Whidbey Island/Oak Harbor. Deception Pass is about six miles ahead. Discover Pass required.
360-675-3767 or www.parks.wa.gov/parks/?selectedpark=Deception%20Pass.
Until about a year ago, if you'd asked me about Deception Pass State Park, I'd have said "Meh."
It's too crowded. Everybody goes there. It's impossible to get a decent campsite.
Those are just a few of the misguided impressions I once held. I didn't see the light until last year when I ran the Deception Pass 25K trail-running race, which offered a three-hour crash course on just about everything this mind-bogglingly diverse park has to offer.
We rambled up-and-down through old-growth forest. Ran across grassy headlands that boasted cliff-edge views of crashing waves and far-off mountains. Mucked around down low near tide pools and along sandy, driftwood-strewn beaches. Passed peaceful misty lakes where quietude was plentiful save for the early-morning quacks of quarreling buffleheads.
At the finish, after nearly 16 miles of trail running — less than half the park's total of 38 trail miles — I was tired, yes, but also awe-struck at the scenery we'd scrolled through.
I was a convert.
Still ... there is some truth to my previously held beliefs. With more than 2 million visitors each year, the most of any park in the state, Deception Pass can be a crowded, everybody-goes-there place where it's impossible to get a campsite.
But not now.
"Fall is a great time to visit Deception Pass," says park manager Jack Hartt. "You've still got the nice weather and a lot of the crowds are gone, especially on weekdays. Weekends can still be busy but as the weather deteriorates, those crowds lessen, too."
The two most popular spots for visitors are the circa-1935 Deception Pass Bridge and West Beach, a long gravelly beach with wide, open-water views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island. But there's a lot more to this park than those two hot spots.
Here are some other places to explore:
After crossing the bridge from the north, most park visitors head south on Highway 20 for about a mile and turn right at the main park entrance. But if you turn left instead, onto Cornet Bay Road, in 1.5 miles you find yourself at Hoypus Point, one of the park's overlooked gems.
An abandoned road bed offers flat, mostly paved beachside walking, while inland, myriad trails lead through Hoypus Point Natural Forest, one of the largest old-growth forests in the state.
"It's by far the least-visited part of the park," Hartt says. "Walking around in the fog and mist, you can really focus on the majesty of the old trees. Some of them are from the days before Columbus."
Ben Ure Island
Ever wanted to own your own island? Or at least pretend to? The park owns 90-percent of tiny Ben Ure Island, on which it rents out a small 12- by 24-foot, two-person cabin that offers heat, electricity and superb bridge and Mount Baker views. The island is named for an infamous smuggler who brought illegal Chinese immigrants ashore through Deception Pass in the 1880s.
There are a couple secluded private residences on the island, but Hartt says "it's like having almost a whole island to yourself."
Access is by kayak only or other beachable human-powered watercraft. The cabin rents for $88 and is booked up most weekends, though weekdays often have openings. To reserve the cabin, call 888-226-7688 or go online to https://secure.camis.com/WA.
Like oft-visited West Beach, oft-overlooked North Beach offers a long shoreline perfect for contemplative waterfront walks, but with far fewer crowds. Which is surprising because it's literally just around the corner from West Beach.
Also better protected from the wind, North Beach boasts rocky headlands, serpentine trails to clamber up and down and some of the park's best island-spanning bridge views. To get there, head for the main park entrance and West Beach, but park at the north end of the parking lot and follow signs for North Beach.
The newest addition (2010) to Deception Pass State Park, this pristine 96-acre island is a finger of land jutting into Similk Bay at the far eastern reaches of Fidalgo Island. (In fact, it's as close to La Conner as it is to the Deception Pass Bridge.) Co-owned by both Washington State and the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, the forested, undeveloped island offers two miles of unspoiled beaches and huge views to surrounding mountains, islands and water.
As for now, the only way to visit Kiket Island — which connects to Fidalgo Island via a thin strip of land — is by guided bus tour, offered by the park. Tours are offered at 9 and 11 a.m. Saturdays and leave from Swinomish Casino, just off Highway 20. Tours are free, but reservations are required. Call 360-661-0682.
Located on the Fidalgo Island (north) side of the bridge, Pass Lake is a well-known fly-fishing spot. Nearby, however, are also about four miles of deep woods trails that explore the lakeshore and northern hillside.
"It's a very quiet part of the park," Hartt says. "You can't even hear the highway, so it's much different from most people's expectations of Deception Pass."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His blog is mcqview.blogspot.com.