Discover Washington’s Largest Island
Thirty miles north of Seattle and at the eastern end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Whidbey Island is at 169 square miles the fourth largest island in the contiguous United States. Originally home to the Coast Salish tribes, it makes for a great road trip, offering a mix of cultures and peoples celebrating nature and art.
Reaching Whidbey Island was once a challenge, but with the addition of regular ferry service and bridges, you can explore the island via three entry points: the Mukilteo ferry approaching from the east, the Port Townsend ferry from the west or driving Highway 20 through Fidalgo Island and across the Deception Pass Bridge.
Highway 20 is an adventure. From Interstate 5, you drive into the Skagit Valley and then link to Highway 20 at Burlington, driving through Fidalgo Island to reach the northern tip of Whidbey Island by crossing the 511-foot span of Deception Pass Bridge. You are greeted by one of the crown jewels of Washington’s parks, Deception Pass State Park. Miles of hiking trails, breathtaking rocky beaches scattered with driftwood, romantic overlooks and hidden natural treasures all are found here.
As Highway 20 heads to Oak Harbor, roads run east and west to lesser-known parks and beaches. Oak Harbor is the largest town on the island largely because of its proximity to the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, a U.S. Navy installation about 3 miles north of town.
Once at Oak Harbor, check out the Pacific Northwest Naval Air Museum, stroll the waterfront at Windjammer Park or head west of town to the wilder beach at Joseph Whidbey State Park. You also can book a whale-watching tour that departs from Oak Harbor.
If you want to set up a base for a long weekend on Whidbey, you can find plenty of modern-to-rustic lodging options in and around town. A local favorite for coffee is Café De Lisio, which is between the town and the Navy station.
Farther south, pass Fort Ebey State Park and Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve. Both offer a little something for everyone: miles of hiking trails, historic buildings, jaw-dropping views and fantastic camping. Make sure to visit Perego’s Lagoon, an ecologically diverse area and one of the least disturbed coastal wetlands in the state.
The middle of Whidbey
Whidbey Island is reachable by two ferries that access the islands from the east or the west. The western-side ferry departs from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Behind you, the Olympic Mountains rise above lush forests and shimmering sea. Ahead of you is the dazzling Mount Baker and the Cascades. You may spot a seal or whale, or an eagle perched in a tree on the shoreline.
As the ferry pulls up to the island, notice the barracks and lighthouse of Fort Casey Historical State Park. It was built in the late 1800s to protect Puget Sound’s shipping lanes and is still equipped with display cannons. The fort joins Fort Worden and Fort Flagler as the island’s Triangle of Fire designed to stop any invasion by sea. These forts are notable for their history and incredible views. Near Fort Casey and the ferry terminal, Callen’s Restaurant makes for a good spot to eat before starting your day.
The next stop is the quaint town of Coupeville, which rewards visitors with views of farmland, forests, mountains and the shimmering waters of Penn Cove. In town, stop by the Island County Historical Society Museum and discover the area’s rich history or soak in the local culture by sipping suds at Penn Cove Brewing Co.
On the east side of town, Captain Coupe’s Park and Boat Launch has a nice view of the water and the distant Cascades. Further east is the Price Sculpture Forest, where you’ll see sculptures blended into a half-mile trail within the woods, such as a T-rex made from a fallen tree, a soaring eagle with wings spread coming to land on a tree trunk and a gorilla perched on a stump.
The south end
The southern end of Whidbey Island is a mere minutes by ferry from Mukilteo. You debark in the small hamlet of Clinton, where you’ll find places to buy food, gas and other necessities before heading into the island’s interior. The southern end of Whidbey is connected to the rest of the island by Highway 525, which eventually meets Highway 20 by Fort Casey. The road will pass many fantastic places.
Take a detour south to Possession Beach Waterfront Park. Nearby is the community of Sandy Hook, where visitors can arrange for a private distillery tour at Cultus Bay Distillery. Detouring slightly north of Highway 525, the town of Langley is worth exploring. Check out the Langley Whale Center, where volunteer docents are available Thursday through Sunday to answer questions on the orcas and gray whales that have been spotted off the island.
After touring Langley, return to Highway 525. Don’t miss Earth Sanctuary, a sculpture park and meditation destination. Greenbank Farm is another local favorite on the island, where you can wander through gardens, hike trails and even pick up a slice of loganberry pie.
With art, shopping and food, natural beauty, history and sea life, Whidbey Island is a true gem.
For more attractions on Whidbey Island, see this article.
—Written by Douglas Scott
—Top photo provides a view from Ebey’s Landing, Whidbey Island. By John Chao/NPS
—This article appears in the Fall Edition of AAA Washington’s member magazine, Journey.