A treasured attribute of island living is the miles of marine coastline waiting to be explored. From mud flats to towering bluffs, historic deep-water ports and glacial moraines to accessible beaches and rocky shorelines, Fidalgo Island captures the fascinating variety where land meets sea.
A dynamic past shaped Fidalgo into a geological crazy quilt, much of it exposed and accessible on public lands. And where this land intersects with marine and human habitats, you’ll find a microcosm of the interconnected web of animal, vegetable, and mineral, an ever-changing venue of fascinating natural and human stories.
The adventurous visitor can sample it all from the winding roads that crisscross and circumnavigate Fidalgo and the island’s numerous opportunities for public access.
Let Trail Tales interpretive signs inspire your exploration by beginning with a walk or bike ride in downtown Anacortes on the project’s paved shoreline routes along Fidalgo Bay and Guemes Channel. A guide and map is available at the Anacortes Visitors Information Center, located at 810 Commercial Ave, Ste A. While there, grab a Fidalgo Island map as well. Then box up your favorite lunch (think chowder, deli sandwiches, tacos, gourmet salads, or smoothies), and hit the road by car, bike, or on foot. Exploration of Fidalgo’s unique, varied, and fascinating shorelines can fill an hour, a day, or a week. For some, it’s a lifetime.
To extend your adventure, book a stay at a B&B or inn along your route or at any of the many lodging venues in Anacortes. Walking beaches, climbing around tide pools, hiking shoreline trails, and learning about new cultures is a great way to transform an often indulgent getaway into a restorative adventure.
Here’s your guide for ’round-the-island coastline exploration.
Fidalgo Bay Aquatic Reserve
The body of water embraced by Anacortes and March Point is Fidalgo Bay, home, over time, to Indian foraging grounds, lumber mills and log storage, and pleasure and working boats. Today, as the coastline has been cleaned of past industrial damage, the bay’s extensive mudflats and eel grass beds have earned it designation as one of eight Washington State Aquatic Reserves. It is home to over 200 species of birds and six species of juvenile salmon.
Both local Coast Salish tribes and crab fishermen gathered clams from the extensive mudflats of Fidalgo and Padilla bays. Native peoples cultivated the bulbs of spring-flowering blue camas on March’s Point, land where Fidalgo’s first non-native settlers also put down stakes. A Great Blue Heron colony, believed to be the largest nesting colony in western North America, lies along the shore of Padilla Bay on March’s Point’s east side. Herons from some 700 nests forage on three nearby estuary bays (Fidalgo, Padilla, and Similk) and two river deltas (Skagit and Samish).
The Berentson Bridge, also referred to by the locals as “Twin Bridges,” over Swinomish Channel makes Fidalgo an easily accessible island. Before much of the surrounding land was filled and diked for access and farming, Fidalgo was loosely knit to the mainland by an extensive marshland, sliced by channels of the Skagit River delta.
Similk Beach/Similk Bay
Today’s Swinomish Golf Course, bordered by Similk Beach on its south end, was once a traditional canoe portage between Fidalgo and Similk bays. The driftwood beach and expansive southern views became a popular recreation area in the early 1900s, anchored by an old ship, pulled onshore to entertain with a bowling alley and beach pavilion. Oysters were later farmed here.
Before the opening of Deception Pass Bridge in 1935, a ferry run by Washington’s first female ferry captain, Berte Olson, provided the main connection between Fidalgo and Whidbey islands. It connected Yokeko Point at the western reach of Dewey Beach on Similk Bay to Coronet Bay on Whidbey.
Deception Pass Park
Fidalgo’s south end coastline is anchored by the northern section of Deception Pass State Park with its iconic bridge—products of the Civilian Conservation Corps that put young men to work in the depths of the Depression. Picnic tables, beaches, and trail heads at Rosario Beach and Bowman Bay are each worthy of a day-long stay. Low tide at Rosario offers beach naturalists and a marked trail through an exceptional tide pool world of sea anemones, limpets, and dozens more visible marine critters. Continue on to the park’s famous bridge where you may be lucky enough to witness a traveling orca pod, intrepid kayakers braving the eight-knot current through the pass, or simply marvel at the fog winding gracefully under and over the 180-foot-high span. A day-use Discover Pass is required to park; entry is free, however, on June 6, National Trails Day and June 13, National Get Outdoors Day.
An easy hike offers a window into a lush low wetland (listen and look for the distinctive Red-winged Blackbird perched atop the cattails) followed by expansive views of the San Juan Islands from a dramatic bluff. Always tread carefully on thin bluff soil—it nurtures an explosion of spring wildflowers.
Skyline Marina in Flounder Bay
Bike or take a stroll along the north end of Burrows Bay. Explore marina activities, a restored beach, and a winding hillside neighborhood. Enjoy expansive views of Burrows and Allan islands and the Olympic Peninsula. The site once housed the E. K. Wood Mill that milled and shipped Sitka spruce for ship’s spars and airplane construction. Only the Quonset hut-like former planing shed remains, now used for dry dock boat storage.
This dramatic 200-acre peninsula, a City of Anacortes park, offers beaches, playgrounds, a boat launch, and evidence of past glacial activity. There’s, a leisurely two-mile walking and driving loop, miles of woodland trails, overnight camping, and inspiring vistas at every curve. Free access; fees for camping and boat launch.
Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve
Tucked between the Washington State Ferry Terminal and Edwards Way is a boardwalk through a 25-acre freshwater wetland bordering 2,000 feet of sandy beach coastline and sub-tidal eel grass beds. Once the site of a prosperous cannery, SHIP is now preserves habitat for Great Blue Heron, Dungeness crab, hawks, and small mammals. Instead of waiting for the ferry in your car, hop on the trail, which ends on the north side of the ferry lanes.
Guemes Channel Trail
Access this recently expanded trail at the foot of Edwards Way in the San Juan Passage subdivision, east of the Washington State Ferry terminal. The level, paved, multi-use (walkers and cyclists) trail follows a former railroad bed along Guemes Channel coastline, rewarding with an easy grade and expansive views of Rosario Strait, Bellingham Channel, and Mt. Baker. Plans are to continue the trail into downtown Anacortes to connect with the Tommy Thompson Trail, providing complete off-road, cross-island passage.
Kiwanis Waterfront Park
1708 6th Street
Two acres of developed parkland with picnic tables, benches, and paths make for an easy way to enjoy views of Guemes Island and boat and ferry traffic on Guemes Channel.
N Avenue Park
2nd St and N Avenue
This half-acre, undeveloped, street-end beach offers a breath of restored shoreline and recovering aquatic habitat in the midst of the Port of Anacortes working waterfront. Views include port activities as well as the diverse boat traffic through and natural surprises of the narrow but challenging channel between Fidalgo and Guemes islands.
Cap Sante Overlook
Put Fidalgo’s jigsaw shoreline in perspective from this forested and rock-capped promontory, whose fascinating glacial and cultural history is described on Trail Tales interpretive signs located on Seafarers’ Way. A short walk or drive from downtown Anacortes, the headland’s overlook offers panoramic views that span from the Cascades, Mt. Baker, and March’s Point to Fidalgo Bay across forested central Fidalgo and downtown Anacortes to and the San Juan Islands.
701 T Avenue
A 1.5-acre park along the north shoreline of Cap Sante Marina includes a paved walk to the marina breakwater with picnic tables and a shelter. A trail from the coastline shelter leads up to the Cap Sante Overlook (see above). This north end of the marina was once a marsh that separated Cap Sante from downtown; along Cap Sante’s edge was the small community of “Little Chicago,” razed to dredge the marina and create a safer harbor for the region’s large fishing fleet.
To learn more . . .
The Anacortes Museum, Maritime heritage Center, and W. T. Preston Snagboat offer fascinating looks into Fidalgo’s and Anacorte’s past and present and publications on local history, geology, and culture.
Breazeale Interpretive Center at Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve offers live marine exhibits, classes, and volunteer opportunities related to its tidal bay and uplands environments.
The Trail Tales website captures the historical, environmental, and cultural information presented on over 30 interpretive signs along Fidalgo Bay and Guemes Channel.
originally written June 1st, 2015 by Jan Hersey, updated July 5th, 2018