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Photo by Ethan Welty.

Northwest Weekend: Whidbey Island

Take a trip to one of the Puget Sound's most unique islands | by Jonathan Shipley

Not far from the mainland is another land. It can be many things: charming—where eclectic shops offer unique finds, from first-edition antiquarian books to locally grown flowers; contemplative—where quiet forests are interrupted only by the singsong hymns of small birds; thoughtful—where long-dead pioneers in ridgetop cemeteries oversee the verdant valley farms they created long ago; and majestic—where wild blue skies gleam over rock-strewn beaches and the blue velvet of the Pacific.

Whidbey Island is a place that can be explored a thousand times over without being explored at all. From emerald-crowned forests to chilly beaches and cute small towns to fulgent farmlands, there’s plenty to see, plenty to do and plenty of hiking opportunities to get lost in or, perhaps equally, be found in. And with its easy access—from Mukilteo to the south; Deception Pass to the north—there are things to do for those who want to tie up their boots, untie their boats, or simply relax in the back-in time quiet island vibe, ice cream cone in hand.

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Day 1

Slow Down

The ferry ride is a pleasant 30-minute sail across Possession Sound. Once you’ve disembarked, drive 6 miles to Langley. For lunch, grab a slice at Village Pizzeria and take your pizza to the picnic tables down by the water, just steps away. After lunch, it’s time to get lost in the woods.On your first day be prepared to shake off the hustle and bustle of mainland city life and find a softer pace ticking on a slower clock. There’s no better way to start than with a stack of pancakes, a stack of bacon and a cup of coffee at Patty’s Eggnest in Mukilteo, near the ferry harbor. Frequently a King 5 “Best of Western Washington” finalist for best breakfast, this locally owned favorite serves hearty homestyle meals with a low-key vibe. Try the Elvis French Toast: thick toast fried with peanut butter and bananas and served with bacon.Thank you very much.

While most tourists clamor for the state parks, there are spots on the island virtually untouched by anyone but local residents and local wildlife. Just 2.5 miles west of Langley, Saratoga Woods Preserve offer visitors a network of easy, family- and dog-friendly trails. Meander through second-growth forest adorned with salal and fern, or wander up to Waterman Rock, a huge erratic (boulder) left by glaciers millennia ago. You can get a preserve map at Langley’s Historical Museum or visitor center.

Once your legs are thoroughly stretched, head back to Langley for a nice dinner. Prima Bistro offers French-inspired Northwest fare in a cozy atmosphere. Wild boar ragout is on the menu, as is trout grenobloise. For a memorable dining experience, make a reservation at the Inn at Langley, where Chef Matt Costello prepares fresh, seasonal meals with fine wine pairings. Quite the experience, dinners can last up to three hours. After dinner, take a sunset stroll along the waterfront at Seawall Park.

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Day 2

Island Life

On day two, you’ll hit up some of the most popular parks Whidbey has to offer. Before you head out, start with good ol’ diner food at Braeburn Restaurant. This area favorite uses only fresh, local ingredients and serves up tasty dishes like breakfast bread pudding, apple- stuffed French toast and biscuits and gravy.

After breakfast, your first stop is just 20 minutes from Langley: South Whidbey Island State Park. With commanding views of the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains, this 347-acre park also has opportunities for bird watching, clamming and crabbing, and offers 3.5 miles of hiking trails in old-growth forest and along a stretch of unspoiled saltwater shoreline. For a morning warm-up, stroll through forests of cedar and pine, with Admiralty Inlet right there. These trails are perfect for families or folks with pets.

For lunch, take a brief interlude in Coupeville. Try the cozy Knead & Feed. It serves tasty homemade sandwiches, and the clam chowder comes highly recommended. After lunch, go for an ice cream at Kapaw’s Iskreme. Their scoops are huge and the colorful flavors are varied. Then head out to some of the most beautiful landscapes Whidbey Island has to offer.

Coffee! Photo by Jonathan Shipley.

Just 2 miles north of town is the Sunnyside Cemetery, a pioneer burial ground established in 1865. Complete with blockhouse, it is the final resting place of many of Whidbey’s luminary residents of the past, including the Ebey family, the Lovejoys and the Coupes. Head west along the prairie to Ebey’s Landing, now a national historic preserve, perched majestically on a bluff over Puget Sound.

From here, a 5.5-mile trail offers panoramic views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, birding opportunities, chances to see deer and more. With just a slight elevation gain (around 260 feet, give or take), it’s perfect for hardy children too. Half of the hike is high above the beach, snaking along the bluff with forest nearby. The other half is along the beach itself. The only sounds reaching your ears are the wind and the water. Depending on the season, flowers can roar across the bluffs and whale sightings can be fairly common.

The next destination is Fort Casey State Park, just a few miles south. There is plenty of parking and much to see. Here, you can take in sweeping views of Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, go up inside a lighthouse and explore the cavernous bowels of WWII gun battery placements. Not a hiker’s park—there are less than 2 miles of hiking trails—Fort Casey is more a wonderland for exploration and historical discovery, where you can learn about the fort’s construction in 1897 and its mission to stand guard over the sound, spin your way to the top of Admiralty Head Lighthouse (first lit in 1903 but since deactivated) or simply fly a kite in the giant field outside the fort. Whatever your activity, it’s an afternoon well-spent.

Admiralty Head Light on Whidbey Island. Photo by Anthony Mohr.

Next stop: Fort Ebey State Park. Whether you’re packing a surfboard, mountain bike, paragliding gear or sturdy hiking boots, this is the destination for everyone. With 25 miles of biking trails and 28 miles of hiking trails (ask a park ranger for a map), this 645-acre park was once home to Fort Ebey, a coastal defense during WWII. Now, it is forest and beach and old fort grounds open for exploring. This park showcases some glorious sunsets, so be sure to stay and catch one. The best way to view the sunset is from the Bluff Trail—4 miles of shoreline, mountains, water and sunlight. Finish the day back in Coupeville with a late supper at the Oystercatcher for a selection of fine seafood dishes.

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Day 3

Deception Pass

Not to be outshone by all you’ve done so far, your final day on the island will be spent at one of the prettiest parks in the state: Deception Pass. Start your day with a donut. Or two. Or a dozen. The place to go is Donut Master in Oak Harbor. You’ll find bear claws as big as a bear’s claw, buttermilk donuts that’ll stick to your ribs, and—do those donuts have bacon on them? Yes. Yes, they do. If pastries aren’t your thing, Oak Harbor (a town of 22,000 incorporated way back in 1915 and the largest town on Whidbey Island) has plenty of breakfast options. Try Island Cafe, which features a full breakfast menu. Country fried steak? If you insist.

Fueled up for the day, drive north 10 miles to Deception Pass State Park. Established in 1923, Deception Pass, at 4,134 acres, offers 14.6 miles of saltwater beach and 6.4 miles of freshwater shoreline along three lakes. Rugged cliffs meet the turbulent waters of Deception Pass here. Whether you like shorelines (kayaking, perhaps?), mountains, forests or sunlit views, this is the place for it all. And there’s no better way to take it in than by trail, with more than 38 miles of hiking trails, plus biking trails and equestrian trails.

Deception Pass. Photo by Mike Morrison.

For a 5-mile round-trip journey, try the hike from the Deception Pass Headlands to Rosario Head to Lighthouse Point. It’s a walk with great water views, madrone trees and droops of hemlock, with soaring eagles overhead. Begin your return to “normal life” by crossing the dramatic bridge from Whidbey Island to Fidalgo Island. Take a few moments to walk out onto the bridge and admire the trees, the flitting nuthatch birds and the kelp swaying in the churning waters below.

Contemplate your weekend of “island life.” It’s doubtful that in just a few days you had time to do it all. Cast your gaze skyward to the gulls drifting overhead. Maybe you should start thinking about your next island getaway.

This article originally appeared in the Sept+Oct 2015 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.