At the west end of Sunset Avenue, just under 3 miles from the downtown core of Anacortes
I’ve had Washington Park on my list of places I’d like to visit ever since noticing it on a map a few years ago. In September I was house sitting for my mom in La Conner, which is less than half an hour away, so it was the perfect opportunity to check it out.
The 220 acres of Washington Park look and feel similar to a state park, but it’s actually a city park. For a small town of around 15,000 people Anacortes has an impressive collection parks, with Washington being the crowning gem. Because it’s a city park, no special passes are needed and there are no fees unless you need to park a boat trailer or are camping overnight.
Fidalgo Island is only separated from the mainland by the Swinomish Channel, which is crossed by bridges at Highway 20 and in La Conner, making this an inexpensive and doable daytrip from Seattle. You can get to Washington Park from Seattle in about 1.5 to 2 hours, depending on where you’re starting from and how well traffic is moving.
Though if you want to include a ferry ride and some extended sightseeing as part of your trip, rather than speeding up I-5 as fast as possible you can take the ferry from Mukilteo to the southeast end of Whidbey Island. From there you drive up the length of Whidbey, stopping whenever you feel like it along the way, to the north tip of the island where it connects to Fidalgo via the Deception Pass Bridge.
To get to Washington Park take the Highway 20 Spur to Anacortes and follow the signs for the San Juans ferry terminal, which is located slightly over two miles west of downtown. When you approach the ferry terminal stay to the left and keep following the road straight ahead and it will become Sunset Avenue. Sunset Avenue ends at the Washington Park entrance.
As already mentioned this is a 220 acre park, which is big, but it feels even larger than that. It is located on a heavily forested headland that is surrounded by water on three sides. There are three separate areas in Washington Park, so I’m going to break this preview up into sections to make coverage easier. You may only be interested in one of them, or you might want to bring your tent or RV along and partake of all three. The three sections are Sunset Beach, Loop Road, and the campground.
Maps of the park are available on the park website. Link is at the bottom of this page.
Sunset Beach is the waterfront area of Washington Park and is like what you expect to see at a typical beach park. There are two main parking areas for Sunset Beach.
When you reach the end of Sunset Avenue and see the park signs, if you take the first immediate right you will arrive at a gravel parking lot. The lot is elevated above the beach area, and you can go down some steps or walk down grassy slopes to get to the park below. This parking lot is the closest and most convenient if you’re going to the picnic shelter than can be reserved by groups.
The beach is much more accessible from the second parking lot for those with mobility issues. Head a short distance into the park and take the second right. Signs point to the beach and day use parking. This road takes you to a parking lot that is right at the beach and there is one handicap spot available. The drawback of this lot is that it’s small, with room for only 14 vehicles.
Sunset Beach has a little something for everyone. Tall trees for shade, renovated playground, view benches, an open area for tossing a ball or Frisbee, three picnic shelters, lots of uncovered picnic tables, beachside tables with firepits, gravel saltwater beach with a north-facing view of the islands and Rosario Strait, boat launch, and rocks for clambering around on.
There are two small porta potties near the reserveable picnic shelter. For a reason I can’t fathom, the real bathrooms are not convenient to the beach. The building is located up past the boat trailer parking lot on the other side of the park road just before it heads into Loop Drive. Coin-op showers are available along with real toilets. If the walk up from the beach is too much, there is beach overflow parking along the road next to the bathroom, including two handicap spaces.
Sunset Beach is a nice enough picnic area and beach, but it’s not that different from beach parks in many Puget Sound cities. So it alone isn’t unique enough to prompt a special long distance trip to see Washington Park. But Sunset Beach does help make for a complete park experience, especially if boating, playing in the water, or a cookout are part of your plans.
Things to Know
6 am to 10 pm
Lots of picnic tables and several benches.
Two porta potties near picnic shelter.
Main bathrooms up on the main park road past the boat launch parking.
First lot is a gravel lot to the right at the park entrance.
Second lot has spaces for 14 cars and is right next to the beach. Take the 2nd right to get there. One handicap spot.
Third lot is for vehicles with boat trailers using the boat launch. Parking fee in this lot is $9 at the time of this writing.
Fourth lot is for day use overflow. It’s a paved strip of parking along the park road above the boat trailer lot near the bathrooms. Two handicap spaces next to the bathrooms.
For most of the year parking is easy enough to find. But on nice summer weekends the park gets very busy and all lots may fill up. For the size and popularity of the park in summer the lots aren’t that big.
Sunset Beach is heavily used by locals, people from towns within a large radius, and tourists. I was here on a Tuesday morning in mid-September with a marine layer overhead and I saw over 20 people in the area, including those using the boat launch.
According to online reviews from locals the beach becomes extremely popular in summer, and is busiest on weekends from July to September. If you’re making a special trip to the area and can choose when to go, I’d recommend avoiding weekends during those months to make sure you have no trouble with finding parking and have plenty of room to play in.
Rocks, boats, birds.
Best light: morning and afternoon.
Most of the headland where the park is located is covered in thick forest. There is an extensive trail system in this area for those who prefer to go hiking through the woods.
But the main attraction is Loop Road, which is a 2.2 mile paved loop around the headland. The one-way road is narrow with a speed limit of 10 mph. Once you start on the loop you have to follow it the entire 2.2 miles until you’re back at Sunset Beach. There are no shortcuts or places to double back. If you don’t make any stops it takes 10-15 minutes to drive the full loop.
However, you definitely do want to make stops when traveling this scenic route. I’d recommend allowing a minimum of half an hour for driving the loop. I was in no hurry and stopped at four viewpoints. I ended up spending about an hour and a half on the loop from the time I left Sunset Beach until the time I returned. If you want to patiently wait on the possibility of seeing wildlife, spend more time on photography, have a picnic, or hike a trail, you could easily be out on the loop for more than 2 hours.
Loop Road is shared between pedestrians, bicycles, and motorized vehicles. Because of the viewpoints along the way and ease of travel on the paved road, many walkers prefer using the loop rather than the forest trails. Some use a combination of both.
The road opens at 6 am, but only for pedestrians and bikes. Motor traffic is not allowed on the road until 10 am. The road closes to everyone at dusk.
Because of the vehicle ban, I highly recommend that anyone wanting to walk the loop go early enough to complete most of it by 10 am. This will provide the most peaceful and relaxed experience possible. It also means you’ll have the best light for photography.
For those curious about the terrain to help with deciding if they should walk or drive the loop, much of the road is on gradual grades, but there are some places where the road is steeper as it climbs up and down small hills. Most people experienced with doing hikes of this distance that are rated as easy shouldn’t have difficulties.
After 10 am when the loop opens to vehicles everyone needs to be careful and alert. The road is narrow. It is the responsibility of drivers to have patience and make sure there’s enough room for walkers to get out of the way, and it’s the responsibility of walkers to listen for vehicles and get off the road so they can pass you.
Because of how narrow the road is, how small the pullouts are, and the sharpness of a few turns, no trailers of any kind are allowed on the road. Vehicles over 25 feet are also prohibited. Though I’ll note that you’ll be happier driving the loop with a shorter vehicle than that. There is no height restriction.
Loop Road has multiple viewpoints, most of them minor with just a small place to pull a single vehicle off the road and sometimes a bench. There are three major viewpoints that everyone should plan to take the time to stop at even if you skip all the minor views.
The first major stop is at Green Point. There are several spaces to park single cars in between bushes along the road, including one marked handicap spot. Across the road from the point near the south end is a small dirt lot in case all the single car spaces are already taken.
Green Point is a large open lawn with a western view. The lawn is bounded by rocks along the shoreline and there are places where you can scramble out on the rocks if you’re spry. The point has several picnic tables and benches.
Green Point is a great place to go for sunsets, wildlife viewing, and boat watching.
Wildlife possibilities include seals, bald eagles, harbor porpoises, sea otters, and whales. It’s pure luck whether you will actually see anything interesting. The day I was here the most exotic thing I saw was a large group of cormorants flying by.
The next stop is just past Green Point at West Beach. Since there is only space for 2-3 cars in the gravel pullout here, you can leave your car at Green Point and walk over if you prefer.
You can just enjoy the view from the top here like I did. There’s a bench if you want to sit for a while. But for those not hampered by mobility issues, stairs lead down to the water below. While the stairs go down a steep bank, the bluff is not very high here so it’s not a massive climb when coming back up.
At the bottom of the stairs are rocks you can walk out on and a good-sized gravel and sand beach in a shallowly curving cove.
Loop Road continues along the shoreline for a little way past West Beach, then it heads inland. This section accounts for about one-third of the loop. While lacking in scenic vistas, this part of the drive/walk is still very pretty, especially if sunlight is filtering down through the trees to illuminate parts of the moss-draped forest.
The road eventually brings you out to the third major stop at Burrows Channel Viewpoint, which is located about 75% of the way through the loop. The view here is quite stunning.
The paved pullout has room for about six or seven vehicles, and on busy days additional cars park along the road nearby wherever they can.
The viewpoint is an open area of exposed rock at the top of a high bluff. From here you can see Burrows Bay, Burrows Island, Burrows Passage, Skyline Marina, and Mt. Erie. The water of the passage is a beautiful green, with lots of boats passing by on nice days.
The viewpoint has one picnic table right next to parking, one bench near the parking, and another bench down in the lower right part of the viewpoint that at first glance looks like it’s part of the fencing.
From here the road is rather uneventful as it takes you back to the Sunset Beach area of the park.
Things to Know
6 am to Dusk
Pedestrians only 6 am to 10 am.
Road opens to vehicles at 10 am.
Benches at several locations, including a few minor viewpoints.
Picnic tables at the Green Point and the Burrows Channel viewpoints.
The lack of bathrooms anywhere along the route could be a concern for some people, especially if you’re planning a picnic as part of your outing. It’s not like a regular city park where you can hop in your car and drive a few blocks down the street. Here you must travel the entire 2.2 mile loop each time you want to go in and out.
Small pullouts for single vehicles in multiple places around the loop.
Several spaces for single cars in the bushes at Green Point. A small dirt lot across the road from Green Point at the south end.
Room for 3 cars at West Beach viewpoint and stairs.
Room for several cars at Burrows Channel Viewpoint.
Parking availability depends greatly on time of day, day of week, season, and weather. If you want to be certain of being able to park wherever you want along the route, drive the loop as soon as it opens on a weekday morning outside of summer.
Loop Road gets heavy use year-round. Lots of locals use it for their regular walks. Lots more come from further distances to enjoy the scenery, and there are usually some tourists mixed in as well. Summer weekends can see some heavy traffic.
My recommendation if you plan to walk the loop is to do it before 10 am. That way you don’t have to worry about cars and can simply enjoy yourself.
If you plan to drive the loop the best time to go is right at 10 am when the road opens to motor traffic. If you don’t stop and you don’t get behind other cars you can drive the loop in 10-15 minutes. But that’s a waste. You should plan to spend at least half an hour on the loop. For a leisurely tour with multiple stops allow at least an hour.
Wildlife, boats, views, trees, rocks, sunsets.
Best light: morning, sunset.
The problem with the fact that morning light is the best for photography here is that you have to walk to your shooting destination from Sunset Beach since vehicles aren’t allowed until 10 am.
I didn’t drive through the campground, but you can see photos of the campsites on the park’s webpage linked below.
The Washington Park campground is fairly large, with two loops. There are a total of 68 campsites, 46 of them with water and electric hookups. There is a dump station on the main park road near the boat launch turnoff. Fees for 2018 are $27 per night for hookup sites and $21 per night for non-utility sites.
There is also a group campsite that can be reserved. The group site can hold up to 30 people and up to 8 tents. No RVs are permitted in the group campsite.
43 of the 68 campsites are reservation only. Reservations must be made at least 14 days in advance. The remaining 25 sites are first-come, first-serve. 19 of the first-come sites have utility hookups.
Availability of the first-come sites is supposedly updated three times a day on the recording played on the park’s information phone line. But this isn’t always accurate and the best way to see if a campsite is available is to show up in person and drive through. You can see a map of the campground on the website to see which spaces are first-come and which are reservation. The maximum stay is 14 days.
Ship Harbor Preserve, Cap Sante viewpoint, Mt. Erie, Deception Pass State Park.