Beautiful Fidalgo Island in Washington State is simultaneously one of America’s most visited islands and her best-kept travel secret. In spite of its breathtaking panoramic vistas and first-class amenities Fidalgo remains, even for well-traveled Northwesterners, an undiscovered emerald by the sea. Why? Because most travelers do not grant this beautiful island a second glance in their crazed dash to line up at Fidalgo’s often congested ferry terminal for the San Juan Islands.
Locals recognize crazed vacationers a mile away. Their frantic wide-eyed, last-minute dashes for propane, gasoline, food and flat tire repairs are legendary. With their minds totally focused on beating the 5,000 other visitors who take the ferries to the San Juan Islands each day in the summer, they never give Fidalgo a second thought. That is too bad for them; they are missing a real vacation treat.
Fidalgo’s honest-to-goodness easy-going “island time” lifestyle offers visitors a tranquil respite of picturesque forest-rimmed lakes, abundant wildlife and spectacular sunsets.
To reach Fidalgo Island from Interstate 5, take exit 230 at Burlington and follow the signs west 16 miles to Anacortes. Fidalgo Island is connected to the outside world by two bridges, including the dramatic Deception Pass Bridge on State Route 20 linking Fidalgo’s southern shore to Whidbey Island.
Deception Pass, which was named in 1792 by British explorer Captain George Vancouver, has granite walls that compress the tide’s rushing waters into a swirling and foaming eight-knot current roiling through the narrow, rocky channel. You will think, as Captain Vancouver may well have, that you are watching a mighty river rushing out to sea. It is easy to see how Captain Vancouver may well have thought he had discovered the elusive Northwest Passage.
Anacortes, the island’s only town, was settled in the 1880s and named after one of its first settlers, Anna Curtis Bowman. Although the myth continues, no one named Anna Cortes ever lived on Fidalgo Island. The pioneers just maintained Fidalgo’s Spanish heritage.
Anacortes offers something for everyone. Land and aquatic adventures include fresh and salt-water fishing, scuba diving, jet skiing, rock climbing and kayaking. Twenty-five miles of secluded hiking and horse trails through the island’s magnificent state parks and 2,200 acres of lush city forestlands make Fidalgo an extraordinary destination.
Tourists are important to Anacortes’s economy; but contrary to many of the West’s small waterfront towns, Anacortes’ 16,083 residents enjoy a healthy economy and working waterfront independent of tourism. Visitors like Anacortes’ comfortable feel because they sense they are visiting a beautiful community, not just another long row of tourist boutiques. Rated as one of America’s most desirable small towns for families, Anacortes was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s show.
Sheltered in the Olympic Mountain Range’s “rain shadow,” Anacortes annually receives 10 inches less rain than Seattle with temperatures ranging in July from 76 to 52 degrees. Average annual snowfall is a trace to 3 inches.
There is much to do on Fidalgo Island. So let’s get started:
Start your visit with comprehensive maps of Anacortes and Fidalgo Island from the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center at 9th Street and Commercial Avenue. The center can provide informative brochures and expert advice to help plan your itinerary.
There is no better way to become acquainted with Anacortes’ charms than taking a leisurely stroll upon your arrival. At 7th & R streets just north of the busy Cap Sante marina be sure to tour the landlocked historic Puget Sound steam-powered paddle wheeler, the W. T. Preston. Next door, Anacortes’ historic train depot has evolved into a bustling community arts center and gallery. A visit to the Depot Arts Center at 611 R Ave. exposes its visitors to the quality and diversity of Fidalgo Island’s active arts community.
Next stroll a couple of blocks west to Commercial Avenue with its colorful summer flower baskets hanging from every light pole. Explore Anacortes’ many interesting shops offering everything from secondhand books to gourmet foods and fine art in colorful and meticulously restored turn-of-the-century buildings. The West Coast’s oldest marine hardware store, Marine Supply & Hardware Company at 202 Commercial Ave., is on the National Historic Register. This is not your typical hardware store. It is a browser’s delight, proffering everything from the latest in nautical hardware to World War II Japanese ceremonial swords.
Delight at local artist Bill Mitchell’s colorful historic murals on numerous downtown buildings depicting actual scenes and characters from Anacortes’ colorful past. Do not be surprised to find your kids or even yourself posing by the murals for a truly unique vacation photograph.
Be sure to walk, pedal or drive over to 200-foot high Cap Sante Point’s rocky face jutting out over Fidalgo Bay just east of the Cap Sante marina. The point offers a great view of downtown Anacortes with its waterfront and sheltered bays framed by green forests. On clear days, you can view towering 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier south of Seattle while to the northeast 10,778-foot high Mt. Baker rises majestically.
Anacortes offers worldly cuisines as well as Northwest seafood specialties often only hours from the sea. The ever-popular local gathering lunch spot on Commercial Avenue is Gere-a-Deli. Tempting gourmet fare is available at Cameron’s Living Room Dining at the south end of downtown’s Commercial Avenue. The Calico Cupboard Old Town Bakery toward the north end of Commercial Avenue serves up a varied selection of great pastries, soups and sandwiches that will satisfy the most discerning palate.
Do not worry. You can burn the calories tomorrow hiking Fidalgo’s trails or paddling around its lakes or shorelines.
Explore Every Park
Fidalgo Island encompasses numerous parks offering truly unique settings. Start at Deception Pass State Park’s Rosario Beach located at Fidalgo’s southern tip, off Rosario Road. Nestled between two sparkling sheltered coves, it is a great place for picnics or volleyball under towering firs and cedars or a short hike on a rocky point jutting out into Deception Pass. Scuba divers enjoy Rosario Beach’s easy water access. Be sure to see the impressive 23-foot high hand-carved red cedar Samish Indian story pole, Maiden of Deception Pass, portraying the captivating Ko-Kwal-alwoot legend.
On Fidalgo’s north shore, 220-acre Washington Park near the ferry terminal affords spectacular ocean vistas as well as old-growth forest and beaches. The park’s views of the beautiful San Juan Islands and the magnificent Olympic Mountains, especially at sunset, are a photographer’s delight.
Washington Park offers boat ramps, children’s playgrounds, picnic areas dotting the park’s shoreline, and a variety of scenic hiking and biking trails including a 2.5-mile scenic loop trail along its periphery (closed to large RVs). Watch the shoreline to spot whales swimming off shore or blue herons patiently stalking unsuspecting prey.
For the very adventurous and physically fit, 1,270-foot high Mt. Erie offers a zigzag trail to its summit. If rock climbing is your niche, you can join the scores of rock climbers on summer days who hang from Mt. Erie’s craggy southern face overlooking Lake Erie and Campbell Lake.
If you would rather drive to Mt. Erie’s summit, follow the well-marked signs off Heart Lake Road. Once on top, explore the three panoramic viewpoints. The western viewpoint overlooks both the San Juan Islands and Canada’s Vancouver Island. From the eastern viewpoint, you can view the fertile Skagit Valley, sparkling Padilla Bay, and snow-capped Mt. Baker nestled in the Cascade Range. The southern viewpoint beholds Campbell Lake and Pass Lake as well as Whidbey Island and Deception Pass’s eastern entrance. The road to the top of Mt. Erie is narrow, with numerous blind sharp turns not available for RVs.
If fishing is your passion, Fidalgo offers some of Washington State’s finest fresh and salt-water fishing. Trophy rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout as well as Atlantic salmon await you at serene Pass Lake bordering Highway 20 just north of the Deception Pass Bridge. It is a year-round fly-fishing only, barbless-hook quality fishing lake with a catch limit of one fish 18 inches or more in length. A motorboat ban protects Pass Lake’s quiet, pristine charm.
Heart Lake State Park, in the middle of Fidalgo Island, offers a tranquil forested setting with outstanding opening day trout fishing. Watch for deer or coyotes on Heart Lake’s shoreline or ospreys and geese patrolling the lake. Although it is only minutes from downtown Anacortes, do not be surprised, even on sunny summer weekends, to have this beautiful lake to yourself.
Accessible only on foot, Whistle Lake offers the greatest solitude. The lake is excellent for picnicking and swimming, although there are no lifeguards. Numerous hiking trails to and around the lake’s shoreline offers hikers a good workout. The moderate to difficult 3.5 mile Whistle Lake Shore Loop is beautiful. For a less strenuous workout, take the two-mile Gerry Wallrath Trail Loop. Both trails are accessible by way of Whistle Lake Road. Excellent maps detailing all the trails in Anacortes’ forestlands are available from the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Center.
The island’s largest lakes—Lake Erie and Campbell Lake—are open to powerboats. Erie is another popular place on opening day of the fishing season, while Campbell, with its famous island in the middle (according to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, the world’s only island within an island), is excellent for water and jet skiing.
If you prefer saltwater fishing, Fidalgo affords excellent opportunities for landing bottom-fish and salmon. Anacortes proudly boasts the U.S.A.’s largest private charter fleet. Charter fishing boats are available with everything you will need from lunch to fishing gear. You can charter boats of all sizes and descriptions to leisurely explore the San Juan Islands. Crabbing and clamming are also popular pastimes.
Fidalgo Islanders love to party. Annual celebrations begin in May with a Waterfront Festival attracting 15,000 visitors annually. For 46 years the juried Anacortes Arts and Crafts Festival has been attracting 50,000 art lovers and skilled artists each August. The Anacortes Salmon Derby is always a winner and for a mellow mood, check out Anacortes’ annual Jazz Festival. The nearby Skagit Valley Tulip Festival in April attracts 500,000 visitors to marvel over hundreds of acres of multi-colored tulips and daffodils.
Cruise San Juans
Leave your car for the day in the ferry landing’s parking lots and leisurely walk on board for a relaxing day in San Juan Island’s colorful Friday Harbor. You will agree that the ferry ride (schedules at the Anacortes Visitor Information Center and campgrounds) through the San Juan Islands is a real treat, especially without the hassle or expense of driving your car or RV onboard. Do not be surprised to see dolphins playing in your ferry’s wake.
Kent R. Davies is a travel writer who now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, but lived in Anacortes for six years.