Second Leg: 34 Miles
Anacortes (pop. 17,527) spreads across low hills on the northern edge of Fidalgo Island and is the primary mainland gateway to the scenic San Juan Islands.
Cozy, walkable downtown Anacortes — accessible via Commercial Avenue — hosts a historic mix of retail shops, art galleries, cafés and a number of attractions.* The Anacortes Farmers Market, for instance, showcases some of the region’s best crops and produce every Saturday between May and October. Nearby, the Anacortes Museum (1305 8th Street) is housed in the 1909 Carnegie Library and hosts exhibits on the history of Fidalgo Island. The free museum is open Tuesday through Sunday.*
From downtown Anacortes, take SR-20 west, following signs for the 220-acre Washington Park at the western end of Fidalgo Island. If you’re in a hurry, stick to the park’s 2.2-mile loop road, which circles rocky Fidalgo Head and affords views of Rosario Strait and the San Juan Islands. If you have time, enjoy a picnic and beachside stroll at nearby Sunset Beach; watch for bald eagles, harbor seals, porpoises and resident orcas in the area. Elsewhere, the park hosts campsites, a boat launch and miles of hiking trails through thickets of oak and madrone (noted for its peeling, cinnamon-hued bark and glossy green foliage).
Heading south, Anaco Beach Road becomes Marine Drive as it follows the island’s west shore. Dramatic views stretch across Rosario Strait to the other San Juan Islands in the distance. After a few miles, the road curves inland; continue slightly left onto Rosario Road, then take a sharp left at Lake Erie Grocery onto Heart Lake Road. After a mile, head right at the fork, following signs for the Mount Erie viewpoint.
A narrow road leads to the summit of Mount Erie — at 1,273 feet, it is the highest point on the island. To the west and southwest, the impressive panorama affords views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands, the Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island. To the south lie Deception Pass and Whidbey Island. Off to the southeast rises the distant snowy dome of Mount Rainier, while the Cascade Range forms the eastern horizon. The abrupt south face of Mount Erie is a popular rock climbing and hang-gliding area. Retrace your route back down to the west shore; when you arrive at Lake Erie Grocery, turn left (south) on Rosario Road, which skirts the rocky shore.
You’ll soon enter Deception Pass State Park — one of Washington’s scenic gems and its most popular state park.
The park’s namesake feature is the narrow, cliff-lined channel separating Fidalgo Island from the north end of Whidbey Island. Within its 3,854 acres are freshwater lakes, tracts of forest, rocky hills, marshland, sand dunes, nearly 15 miles of saltwater shore, islands, rocky headlands and other natural wonders — all ripe for exploration. More than 38 miles of hiking and equestrian trails crisscross the busy park, with remarkable views around seemingly every bend. A one-day Discover Pass runs $10 per vehicle.
The best view of the channel comes from the landmark Deception Pass Bridge (with a parking area just south of the bridge). Built in 1934–35, the bridge spans nearly 1,500 feet and crosses a pair of the area’s narrowest channels. The panorama is spectacular; roughly 180 feet below, the tidal waters pulse with a powerful ebb and flow. Cliffs up to several hundred feet high, some rising in a sheer face, flank the waterway. Their upper slopes are dotted with grassy meadows and a dark, evergreen woodland of conifers and madrone. To the west, the pass broadens into the open waters of Rosario Strait. South of the bridge lies the park’s main visitor area and campgrounds at Cranberry Lake, West Beach and North Beach.
Return to SR-20 and continue northward, once again crossing the Deception Pass Bridge. Follow the highway as it curves inland and passes Lake Campbell after two miles; the small island in its midst is, in fact, an island … in a lake … on an island.
Follow SR-20 as it turns northeast and soon approaches a roundabout near the southern edge of Fidalgo Bay. Head right to continue east on SR-20 (retracing a portion of your earlier route); after two miles, turn right (to head south) on Reservation Road, which leads across the wooded eastern lobe of Fidalgo Island. This area forms the Swinomish Indian Reservation; the 15-square-mile tract of land is home to the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, descended from tribes that lived in the surrounding Skagit Valley and Puget Sound islands for thousands of years.
You’ll drive alongside Swinomish Channel, which connects Skagit Bay (to the south) and Padilla Bay (to the north), before crossing the Rainbow Bridge; La Conner, our next stop, lies on its opposite shore. Click “Mount Vernon” to get your adventures on the route back.
–Written by John King. Updated by Matthew Wastradowski, June 2020. Photos by: iStock