Between the cities of Seattle and Vancouver lies Skagit County, Washington, a region of just over 100,000 people best known as an agricultural hub. But the Skagit Valley has much more than just farmland. Breathtaking saltwater views give way to tulip fields, accessed by an expansive system of hiking trails winding their way through the countryside. Add famous bridges, a restored silent movie house, and a few bald eagles and you get the perfect excuse to turn into an area many pass right through. These signature Skagit experiences beckon you to stretch out your next road trip through the Pacific Northwest to make some time in the Skagit Valley.
Brave the dizzying heights of the Deception Pass Bridge.
Hope off Interstate 5 and drive west toward the waterside town of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island. Here you’ll find the famous Deception Pass Bridge that connects Fidalgo and neighboring Whidbey Island. Depending on the tides, the pair of two-lane arched steel bridges sit approximately 180 feet above the water — which makes for breathtaking views of the swirling channel below. If you’re feeling gutsy, park the car and stroll across the bridge to snap a few pictures. Keep your feet stable if you do so, however, as the bridge shakes a bit when a semi-truck passes. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot boats, seals, and once in a while, even an orca or two.
Explore Washington’s most popular state park.
But don’t stop at the bridge. Head for Deception Pass State Park and discover the old-growth forests, hiking trails, craggy cliffs, and marine life that draw more than two million visitors each year. Without the $30 annual Discover Pass, you’ll need to pay a $10 fee to access the park. Once inside, the first must-see spot is Rosario Beach, where you can explore tide pools filled with little creatures, fill your pockets with colorful sea glass, and take in the Maiden of Deception Pass — a story pole carving based on a Samish legend. While you’re there, don’t miss Cranberry Lake, a beloved swimming and kayaking spot that’s separated from West Beach by a thin sand dune. Take a dip or simply wiggle your toes in the warm sand and then turn around and stroll less than 200 feet to watch the icy waves crash onto the shoreline.
See flowers. So many flowers.
For flower enthusiasts, a stop in Skagit County is the next best thing to a trip to the Netherlands. In spring, you can head to La Conner for the La Conner Daffodil Festival (March) or Mount Vernon for the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival (April) to see millions of in-season blooms. Beyond the festivals, Roozengarde and Tulip Town are the top attractions. The former boasts an authentic Dutch windmill and over 150 tulip varieties, while the latter features trolley rides and a memorial garden honoring veterans. Photo opportunities abound, just don’t walk into the flower fields themselves unless you want a stern talking-to.
Shop (and eat) your way through downtown MV.
Many cities in Skagit boast vibrant downtowns, but downtown Mount Vernon is something special. Browse used and out-of-print favorites at Easton’s Books, beef up your record collection at Lost in the Groove, and check out the art supplies and gifts at Tri-Dee Arts, home of the town’s giant “Make Art Not War” mural. Across the street, you’ll find the Skagit Valley Food Co-Op, which offers so much more than food — you could spend hours in the mercantile looking at jewelry, candles, art supplies, and incense. When hunger kicks in, choose from a dizzying array of food and drink options, such as Shambala Bakery & Bistro, where everything’s gluten-free and vegetarian, or the to-die-for crab dip at the Trumpeter Public House. For a craft cocktail, head to Valley Shine Distillery and try the Limoncello. Or, treat yourself to handcrafted chocolate at Forte and then walk off your meal at Skagit Riverwalk Plaza.
Take in a show at a historic theatre.
The nonprofit historic Lincoln Theatre in downtown Mount Vernon is a world away from today’s strip mall movie theatres, and catching a show here is sure to make you feel like you walked right into the roaring ’20s. This restored vaudeville and silent movie house, complete with a vintage Wurlitzer organ, is a historic gem. Depending on the schedule, you may be able to enjoy a concert, a play, a film, a musical, a stand-up comedian, or something else. Staff members are friendly and more than willing to chat about the theatre’s rich history, and the parmesan popcorn is delicious.
Hike, bike, or just take in panoramic views.
From central Mount Vernon, drive up a narrow road flanked by tall trees until you reach the top Little Mountain. Right from the parking lot atop Little Mountain Park, you can access the covered observation deck called the South Viewpoint, which offers sweeping views of farmland, the Puget Sound, and the Olympic Mountains. Then walk a few minutes to the North Viewpoint, designed to make you feel like a paraglider, for a panoramic view of Mount Vernon and Burlington, with the San Juan Islands and Mount Baker in the distance.
Once you’ve soaked up the views, hit the trails for a fix of hiking or mountain biking. You have several options, starting with the Bonnie and Clyde Trail, where you’ll encounter a cool old abandoned car. Another popular trail is the Sidewinder, which is made up of a series of switchbacks, as well as the renowned Up Only trail — try this steep hike at your own risk. Soak in the natural beauty of the moss-covered Douglas Fir, big leaf maple, and western hemlock trees and keep an eye out for little red mushrooms which bear an uncanny resemblance to Smurf houses. And try not to step on the slugs.
Take a ferry ride to Guemes Island.
If you really want to get away from it all without going too far, take the five-minute ferry ride from Anacortes to Guemes Island. You can drive onto the ferry or walk. Walking is cheaper, but whichever route you choose make sure to check the schedule, as you don’t want to miss the last boat back. Beach-combing right by the ferry dock can yield surprising treasures including seashells, agates, and lots of sea glass — and you’ll likely encounter some cool creatures, whether starfish or seals.
Enjoy a beach picnic at sunset.
On the western edge of Anacortes lies Washington Park, a 220-acre park where you can drive, bike, or walk the scenic loop road. A favorite among locals, the park is generally uncrowded and gorgeous anytime, but it’s particularly lovely at sunset. There are several viewpoints, including one with a long set of stairs leading down to the beach. Pack a picnic, spread a blanket over one of the warm flat rocks, and soak up the view.
Explore an abandoned mental hospital.
Once upon a time, Northern State Mental Hospital, on the eastern edge of Sedro-Woolley, was the largest mental health institution in the state. Now it’s Northern State Recreation Area — a sprawling site that’s equal parts magnificent and slightly disconcerting. As the informational signs explain, the area was once a self-sustaining community complete with a sewage system, greenhouse, laundry area, dairy, bakery, farm, and more. Now it’s essentially a ghost town. Wander through the fields, explore the crumbling buildings, and pay your respects at the cemetery. You may meet joggers, bike riders, dog walkers, photographers, and disc golf players, but sometimes it’s eerily empty.
Spot soaring bald eagles.
If you’re in town on a weekend, the Bald Eagle Interpretive Center in Howard Miller Steelhead Park in Rockport, a short drive past Sedro-Woolley, is well worth a visit. It’s open 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. You can join a guided nature walk, listen to a guest speaker, or simply glean some good info on the best places to spot bald eagles along the Skagit River. Even if you’re not into birdwatching, there’s something magical about seeing eagles up close, and while Seattle and Vancouver undeniably have a whole lot to offer, you’re not going to see an eagle strolling the urban streets.