The islands in Washington’s Salish Sea are more than usually blessed with scenic parks and nature reserves. I took every opportunity to explore the countryside on Whidbey and San Juan islands, where stands of primary forest give way to tall bluffs overlooking empty beaches. These were my favorite parks, in order from south to north.
We visited this Whidbey Island park, comprised mainly of a wide sweep of dog-friendly beach, on a perfectly clear afternoon. People come here more to relax than to hike, bringing folding chairs or blankets to sit on the sand and take in the view of the sea and distant Mount Rainier. We could even make out the Seattle skyline, looking small and fragile in comparison to the immense mountain. Note that parking is limited.
South Whidbey State Park has had some troubles recently, with its path to the beach partially washed-out and campsites closed because of the danger of falling trees. Nevertheless, the Wilbert Trail, a little less than a mile in length, merits a hike. It takes visitors away from the water and into sections of old-growth forest, full of towering hemlock, fir, spruce and cedar. At least one of the cedars is some 500 years old, but we spotted several others that looked similarly ancient.
Also on Whidbey Island, Fort Ebey State Park has a wealth of hiking trails, both through forest and along the coast. I recommend taking the short trail to Lake Pondilla, which takes you past a small but picturesque lake surrounded by conifers and dotted with water lilies. Continue down to the beach, from which you can see the Olympic Mountains across the water. Walk along the driftwood-strewn sand until you reach the path back inland. Head up to the parking lot, where the Bluff Trail leads off to the right. The sign says that it’s a mile to the gun battery — Fort Ebey was originally constructed to defend the coast during World War II — and it looks like a daunting uphill walk. But the first emplacement is just a quarter mile away. You can go inside the fortification to get a soldier’s-eye view of the sea and walk to the edge of the bluff for sweeping panoramas of Admiralty Inlet.
Popular Deception Pass State Park straddles the gorge, spanned by a bridge, dividing Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island. Instead of parking in the crowded lot at the end of the bridge, drive instead to the less competitive North Beach lot. It’s a short walk up to the bridge from there. From its narrow sidewalks, you have stupendous views of the forested cliffs leading down to the pass, several small islands and the distant snowcapped peak of Mount Baker. If time and energy permit, I also recommend hiking to the top of Goose Rock; the trailhead is on the opposite side of the bridge from North Beach. After working up an appetite, we backtracked to Seabolt’s Smokehouse in nearby Oak Harbor, where we feasted on the best fish and chips I’ve had in recent memory.
Until recently, Mount Grant Preserve on San Juan Island was slated to become a private housing development. The San Juan Preservation Trust and the San Juan County Land Bank banded together, gathered donations and succeeded in purchasing the land, which is now set aside for public use. One morning, I hiked up the paved road through cool forest to the summit, where picnic tables and benches have already been installed. The views are nothing short of sublime, encompassing Mount Rainier, Mount Baker and islands in every direction. The exertion of the mile-long uphill hike was well worth the effort.