I needed a quick reset so took a short trip up to Deception Pass State Park last week, getting in the last of off-season cabin rates. (Some people are forever young; I am forever thrifty.)
With the return of Amtrak Cascade’s full schedule, this is probably one of the best (longish) day or multi-day transit treks you can do in western Washington. It’s a fairly quick trip if you use Amtrak, or are based in Bellingham or Everett. Deception Pass is a large park with many miles of trails both beach and forest, some of which allow bicycles. Nearby, mostly quiet back roads of north Whidbey Island offer more bicycling. Swimming in Cranberry Lake. Crabbing and fishing (in season). Kayak rentals. I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Not up for tent camping? Rent a simple cabin, with nearby access to showers and restrooms.
On my first visit, in March of 2021, I took two days to bicycle to the park, via the Bainbridge Ferry, the Kitsap Peninsula, and the Coupeville Ferry, then via Whidbey’s back roads. Peak-pandemic Amtrak schedules were either non-existent or I didn’t want to be indoors for hours at the time, masked or not, so my itinerary minimized transit, planning just a couple of short bus rides for the return trip.
Amtrak Cascades reverted to its full pre-pandemic schedule in early March, which made this trip a lot quicker and easier than my earlier trip.
The trip from King Street Station to Deception Pass is about 2.5 hours. That includes a 30-minute layover at Skagit Station, just enough time for a quick trip to the Skagit Food Coop a few blocks away in downtown Mt. Vernon. If you opt to chill in the station, it has all the basics: restroom, water fountain, and some seating (but no longer has a coffee shop).
It is possible to do this trip via public transit in a bunch of different ways (details on a couple of those below). But this Amtrak-based itinerary cuts out at least 2 transfers for those starting south of Everett. You can do these trips Monday-Saturday, though Saturday schedules are more limited — you’ll want to plan your return accordingly if you are doing a day trip, or plan to stay over through Sunday if you are weekending.
From Seattle or points south via Amtrak
- Amtrak Cascades to Mt. Vernon/Skagit Station. Roundtrip fare ~$30 & up, ~90-minute ride from Seattle; some runs are via buses, which are comfy and have bathrooms on board
- 30 minute layover at Skagit Station
- Skagit Transit 40X to March’s Point. $1 each way; leaves at 15 after on the hour; ~ 25-minute ride and little to no layover. Don’t panic that the 40X is scheduled to arrive at the same time the 411W is scheduled to depart, because the 40X typically arrives a few minutes prior than its scheduled arrival time unless there is major traffic disruption. If you’re concerned, ask the driver about it. If in the unlikely event you miss the connection, there’s a coffee shop across the street at March’s Point where you can wait for the next 411W, which runs hourly. Or, if you brought a bike, you have an hour to ride up to the Tommy Thompson Trail and enjoy the ride across Fidalgo Bay and back.
- Island Transit 411W to Deception Pass State Park/Coronet Bay Road; Fare-free, ~ 10-minute ride. This is the first stop after the bus crosses the bridges over Pass Island between Fidalgo Island and Whidbey Island, and is just after the stoplight at Coronet Bay Rd, the main park entrance. Island Transit does not make any stops near the Fidalgo side of the park or the pass (you can walk and hike or bike from the Whidbey side, though).
From Bellingham or Everett
Amtrak won’t save you much time if you’re coming from Bellingham or Everett. County connectors are good options unless you prefer the more cush ride on Amtrak.
- From Bellingham Station, take the connector route 80X to Skagit Station, then catch the connections as described above. This bus is operated jointly by Skagit Transit and Whatcom Transit Authority, so look for the route number, not the transit agency “livery.” $2, 45-minute ride
- From Everett Station, take the county connector route 90X to Skagit Station, then catch the connections to Deception Pass as described above. $2, 35-minute ride
If Amtrak feels pricey or you don’t mind a longer journey, below are some fairly direct transit options from Seattle to Mt Vernon/Skagit Station that are considerably cheaper.
From south Seattle, anywhere along the Link 1 line, or UW
- Link light rail to Northgate Station, then Sound Transit bus 512 to Everett Station, then county connector route 90X to Skagit Station, then catch the connections as described above
From Downtown Seattle and points north without good access to Link
- King County Metro RapidRide E to Aurora Village Transit Center, then Community Transit SWIFT Blue line to Everett Station, then county connector route 90X to Skagit Station, then catch the connections as described above
Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but these are among the most direct options from the Bellingham, Everett, and Seattle areas.
My Amtrak (bus) fare was $30 roundtrip from Seattle booked the day before I left, leaving the total roundtrip fare around $35. The 7-minute walk in the rain to catch the route 12 home on my return trip would have been fine had I not overpacked, so I splurged and caught a yellow cab from King Street Station to Capitol Hill, which with a tip came to $13.92.
Train fares often cost more, but vary. (Frustratingly, the Amtrak bus runs skip Edmonds, Mukilteo, and Stanwood, all good hubs to connect to other outdoor adventures.)
NB! Skagit, and Whatcom don’t use ORCA so either bring small bills or download their fare payment apps.
If you want your bicycle with you at Deception Pass — there are some nice back roads near the Whidbey side of the park, and if you don’t mind riding SR 20 for short sections, a bike comes in handy if you don’t want to hike to the Fidalgo side — Amtrak Cascades buses do allow two standard-size bikes to be put in the luggage compartment. You must book that space when you book your ticket. Cascades trains have 10 spaces for standard-size bikes; you also must book ahead. $5 each way per bicycle (bus or train).
For a long time the question of whether bikes needed to be boxed to be stowed in the bus luggage hold was unclear, but as of this writing, I finally feel confident saying that on Amtrak Cascades bus runs, there is no need to box your bike. Folding bikes like Bromptons that meet size requirements (max 34x15x48) can be carried on as part of Amtrak’s baggage allowance and should not require a separate reservation or fee. (I have done this on trains, but not buses, but I would feel comfortable putting the Brompton in the bus’s luggage hold.)
Cyclists could plot a route from Mt Vernon to Deception Pass that takes you through Skagit County farmland, or find someone’s Ride with GPS route to follow, so long as you don’t mind some sections of SR 20 where shoulders narrow. Riding the more direct highway routes from Mt Vernon is not IMHO that great (speaking not from experience but from scouting this as a possible outing). If you can get to Edmonds, a great bike option is to take the ferry to Clinton and ride back roads to Oak Harbor before putting your bike on the bus to Deception Pass on the 411W, or to take the Island Transit 1N from Clinton to Oak Harbor and take back roads to the park. Assuming you’re not up for the near-century ride all the way to the park.
Regrettably, at this time there aren’t any good transit options for non-standard assistive cycles and other non-standard bicycle sizes.
There are hiker/biker sites between the Lower Loop and Forest Loops campgrounds, although they tend to be hard to find and don’t offer any prime real estate. Call ahead in the winter, though, because the Quarry Pond campground is the only one open in the off-season, and there are no hiker/biker sites listed on the map. (I think I confirmed verbally back in 2021 that they are available? Best to call ahead.) The most important thing to note about hiker/biker sites is that they do not require a reservation — these sites are first-come, first-served, and, according to a ranger/staff I spoke with in 2021, these sites rarely fill up, even in peak season. They are typically priced lower than standard campsites, too.
If you want a more scenic campsite in the peak season, you can book standard campsites in advance, or book one of the cabins at Quarry Pond. A private resort catering mostly to RVs (and does not allow tents at all) North Whidbey RV Park does have two rental cabins that sleep 4 persons each, with kitchens and full baths. It’s adjacent to the main park entrance near the Quarry Pond campground.
— This is a popular park in peak season (and somewhat in the off season). If you prefer not to use a hiker/biker site, you’ll want to reserve well in advance.
— As noted above, the 411W between March’s Point and the main park entrance at Coronet Bay Road doesn’t make any stops, including flag stops, on the Fidalgo side of the park. You can hike or bike from the Whidbey side. A couple of the hiking trails allow hikers to avoid crossing or walking along SR20 to reach the bridges to the Fidalgo side. However, you’ll need to navigate the narrow bridge walkway as well as short sections along the SR-20 where day trippers park to gawk briefly at the pass. It can get crowded and can require walking through or around the parked cars uncomfortably close to SR-20 traffic. If there are better options, they are not obvious. The only option for cycling to the Fidalgo side is to use SR20, which has zero shoulder along the bridge and requires a left turn onto Rosario Rd. on a section of the highway that has limited visibility.
— Ask for the printed park map at the
ranger station park administration office (on SR-20 and reachable on foot via the Quarry Pond campground) it’s super helpful. Usually there are a few in the brochure case outside.
— A small convenience store with gas station is located within walking distance of the Quarry Pond camping area. (This is also the closest place to catch the 411W northbound back to March’s Point).
— If you’re doing a longer stay and need to stock up, the 411W will take you to the many services in Oak Harbor, including two larger grocery stores. Catch this at the same stop you got off at, the main intersection at the park entrance.
— During winter, only the Quarry Pond campground is open.
— There are some seasonal concessions in the park, a coffee stand being perhaps the most important.
— Seasonal canoe, kayak, and standup paddle boarding rentals are available.
— You’ll likely hear and/or see noise from the jets flying out of nearby Whidbey Naval Air Station. During my 2021 visit, these were incredibly loud and fast. This time around, whatever exercises they were up to were markedly less loud.
— The park’s website says there is a mile or two of ADA-standard trails; I believe this is between the Sound and Cranberry Lake. The trails I’ve hiked in the park, other than this one, don’t appear to be above-average accessible in any respect.
— I find the check-in instructions at Quarry Pond confusing. You might call ahead to confirm exactly where to check in. In my case, I was staying at a reserved cabin, and was able to go straight there. But I would have been confused by what to do when camping.
This post was edited to tidy some errors and add information about walking and biking between the Whidbey and Fidalgo sections of the park.