Leg 1: 30 Miles
Mount Vernon (pop. 34,360), named for President George Washington’s Potomac River home, sprawls along the east bank of the Skagit River.
The city’s downtown core houses a charming mix of dining, shopping and recreation* — and can be reached from I-5 via exit 226. The Lincoln Theatre, on First and Kincaid, makes a fine place to start exploring; the historic venue hosts concerts and live performances (and screens independent and classic films); its auditorium also houses a Wurlitzer theatre organ — a relic of the silent film era.
Away from downtown, the WSU Skagit County Master Gardeners Discovery Garden offers a nice break from the hustle and hosts a variety of plants — including small fruits, a Japanese garden, herbs and more — at 16650 SR-536 (Memorial Highway). It’s typically open from dawn to dusk daily.*
For a broader look at the city’s natural beauty, enjoy the panoramic views at Little Mountain Park, three miles southeast of downtown via South Second Street, and Blackburn and Little Mountain roads; a pair of viewpoints around the summit showcase the central Puget Sound, San Juan Islands, Olympic Mountains and more.
Just north of Mount Vernon, I-5 crosses the Skagit River — the third-largest watershed on the U.S. West Coast. High levees flank the stream, protecting the lower valley from devastating winter and spring floods. Views here stretch eastward to the snowy peaks of the North Cascades (pictured). Bald eagles frequent the cottonwoods lining the river each winter, drawn by salmon heading upstream to spawn.
A few miles north, you’ll arrive in Burlington (pop. 9,224). Founded as a logging camp in the 1880s, the city celebrates its agricultural heritage today with the annual Berry Dairy Days, usually the third weekend in June.
If you’re traveling with little ones, stop and spend a couple hours at the Children’s Museum of Skagit County in Cascade Mall (northeast of exit 229)*. The museum nurtures learning and exploration with an art room, reading room, train exhibit, sensory areas and other fun activities.
Just north of Burlington, take I-5 exit 231 onto SR-11 (Chuckanut Drive). The road angles northwestward across a flat patchwork of pastures and fields. Skagit County, one of the largest and most diverse agricultural communities west of the Cascades, grows more than 90 crops — including blueberries, strawberries, cucumbers, potatoes, apples and vegetable seed.
At the scattered hamlet of Allen, turn left (west) onto Allen West Road. Three miles west of Allen, at a T-shaped junction, turn right to head north onto Farm to Market Road; take your first left onto D’Arcy Road, and at another T-shaped junction, turn left (south) onto Bayview Edison Road.
Here we skirt the wooded shore of Padilla Bay. Its waters, tide flats and shores constitute the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, established in 1980 to protect its underwater eelgrass meadows. The reserve’s Breazeale Interpretive Center typically hosts exhibits on the area’s natural history. If you need to stretch your legs, more than three miles of mostly flat interpretive trails (open daily) provide access to the shore, inland woods and meadows.
Roughly a half-mile south is Bay View State Park, one of Washington’s oldest parks, established in 1925. The 66-acre park boasts nearly 1,300 feet of gravel beach on Padilla Bay and offers ample opportunities for picnicking, beachcombing, saltwater swimming, fishing, camping and birdwatching. (Birders have tallied more than 250 species in the surrounding Skagit Valley.)
Heading south, Bayview Edison Road passes through the quaint community of Bay View, skirts the edge of Bay View Ridge and swings down to the fields and pastures of the Skagit Flats — where quiet sloughs meander toward the sea. Just after crossing the railroad tracks, turn right onto the multi-lane SR-20. A high bridge crosses Swinomish Channel, which separates Fidalgo Island — named for Salvador Fidalgo, an 18th-century Spanish explorer who never actually visited his namesake island — from the mainland.
Beyond the west end of the bridge, SR-20 splits west of March Point. Bear right and follow the SR-20 Spur, which skirts the shore of Fidalgo Bay before arriving at the bustling port city of Anacortes. The next leg takes you to Anacortes and Fidalgo Island.
–Written by John King. Updated by Matthew Wastradowski, June 2020. Photos by: iStock
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