Van Go: Solo Travels on Whidbey Island
By Julie Snyder
Decades ago, on the eve of my wedding, a long-married friend took me aside to share her take on the institution I had dodged for forty years. “Being married isn’t better or worse than being single,” she declared. “It’s just different.”
The essence of her observation applied to my solo camping adventure on Washington’s Whidbey Island. Traveling alone in Van Go wasn’t better or worse than sharing the journey with my husband, Joe—it was just different.
Whidbey Island tucks into the narrow arm of lower Puget Sound some thirty miles north of Seattle. Oddly shaped (I heard it described as a seahorse), the island is forty-five miles long and skinny. No point is more than five miles from the surrounding waters. Settled by Coast Salish tribes, it’s a medley of dramatic headlands, tranquil forests, windswept beaches, quiet meadows, and bountiful farmland.
My interest in Whidbey was three-pronged: I wanted to learn how I would fare traveling in Van Go on my own; I’d never explored the northern two-thirds of the island; and most importantly, a visit with my long-time friend Susan, who lives in Langley, was seriously overdue.
Joe wasn’t interested in joining me for this particular journey. Still, he wasn’t especially comfortable with my taking off to the wilds on my own in our unpredictable mechanical beast. To ensure Van Go was in optimal working order, he had our mechanic give it a once-over.
To further put his mind at ease, I asked him to walk me through all the procedures I needed to follow for a safe trip. From the proper fridge setting for propane, battery, and shore power, to ensuring the pop-top was tightly closed. And the all-important alarm disabling so Van Go didn’t wake up an entire campground in the middle of the night.
I diligently wrote down each step of every process in a small notebook, along with his other reminders: only premium unleaded gas; combinations for the bike and steering wheel locks; and contact details for our mechanic if Joe was unreachable. The night before I left, I read the contents of my Van Go bible back to him.
He seemed satisfied that I was well-prepared yet followed up with a few niggles by text while I was on the road: “Keep an eye on the temperature gauge when running the AC.” And “Ask the rangers about bear sightings.”
Of course, on the morning of my departure, my trip bible was nowhere to be found. An hour later, we had scribbled a second version, and I joined the rush hour traffic I’d hoped to avoid. Four hours later, I was traversing Deception Pass Bridge, a steel cantilever-truss structure that links Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands.
Constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the bridge towers 182 feet above the water. Every year, several million visitors park on either end and walk out to peer far down at the turbulent water and whirlpools. Alas, I couldn’t spot a spot to park, so I decided to return the next day.
Curious about the waterway’s name, I learned it was called Port Gardner when first sighted by George Vancouver in 1792. When he discovered that the inlet was actually a tidal passage between two islands, Vancouver renamed it Deception.
Deception Pass State Park claims 3,854 rocky, rolling acres on Whidbey and neighboring Fidalgo Island. By the time I’d set up camp at Quarry Pond, one of the park’s pair of camping areas (both on Whidbey), I detected a deception of my own—the promise of quiet.
Highway 20, the main road on this end of the island, bisects the park in a noisy, non-stop flood of cars, trucks, campers, and motorcycles. And a few miles down the road, Whidbey Island Naval Air Station is the source of sporadic screaming fly-bys and sky-painting contrails. My campsite neighbors—a family with a rambunctious quartet of young boys and two barky dogs—were adorable. But not quiet. One noise was absent—the ringing of cell phones. No service? No problem. Disconnection was blissful, even if it did mean walking to a nearby service station to find reception and say goodnight to my husband.
Yet, the noise was a small trade-off for the fragrance of pine and the sweet late summer breeze that embraced me as I relaxed in my camp chair with a glass of wine and Paul Theroux’s Last Train to Zona Verde. The temperature dropped quickly after sunset, and a fire ban meant no blazing warmth to accompany my dinner. Still, I ate outside, snug in a down jacket and blanket draped over my knees.
Inside, Van Go felt empty without Joe’s size 16 shoes to trip over. And the 43-inch-wide bed suddenly felt enormous. Between the extra space and our cushy new memory foam mattress, I slept like an angel. (Don’t tell Joe.)
A morning hike introduced me to the forest cradling the campground. The trail led through the woods, and along the misty water, to the Deception Pass Bridge. The bridge structure was shrouded for painting like a Christo installation and completely socked in by fog. So much for my second attempt to take in the view.
Instead, I climbed to the top of Goose Rock, the highest point on Whidbey Island, where the panorama featured the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Mountains. I took advantage of cell service to check in with Joe, my 96-year-old mom, and an Oakland friend who just happened to Facetime while I perched on the bedrock.
That afternoon, still determined to take in the view from the bridge over Deception Pass, I biked across Highway 20 to North Beach. Locking my bike to a tree, I followed a narrow trail along a cliff until I was on the bridge—again. This time the sun was shining, but vertigo took over before I ventured too far. My third attempt for the perfect photo was more a letdown than a charm.
I pedaled around the Forest Loop and Lower Loop campgrounds and along West Beach, then stretched out in the sun on a picnic bench next to Cranberry Lake. I asked a passing fisherperson what was biting. “Don’t know. Could be rainbow trout, could be large-mouth bass, could be yellow perch,” she said without slowing down—a woman on a fishin’ mission.
Leaving the lake, I stopped to chat with a young man from Fairbanks, Alaska, while he browned sausages over a camp stove. He was on a road trip to the Olympic Peninsula with his five-month-old Belgian wolfhound, who he’d trained to answer commands in Swahili.
“Swahili? Seriously?” I asked. “Yup,” he said. “And I learned Norwegian commands to train my last dog.” I’ve been to Fairbanks. Let’s say that on cold Arctic nights—and even temperate Arctic days—there’s a dearth of diversions. So why not learn Swahili?
The Alaskan road tripper was one of a coterie of characters I chanced upon during my solo sojourn. Two couples my age traveling in Van Go lookalikes were camped a few sites from me. We shared stories about our quirky, beloved vehicles. One couple had traveled cross-country in their van, camping all the way. “I don’t know that my marriage would survive that many consecutive nights in such close quarters,” I confided. ”Every few days, we need some airing out.”
The following morning, Van Go and I eased quietly out of the campsite just before dawn to catch the sunrise at West Beach. Jabbering seagulls crowded the rocky strip of sand backed by mounds of bleached driftwood. For a long time, it was just me and the birds, basking in the sun and the briny air. As other vehicles drifted into the parking lot, the birds flew off, and so did I.
In the navy town of Oak Harbor, I strolled the deserted main street (it was still early), grabbed a cuppa at Whidbey Coffee, and followed a self-guided walking tour of the Garry oak trees for which the city of 22,000 was named. Most oaks were lost to logging during the last century; those remaining are protected, including a grove of almost 300-year-old trees in Smith Park.
Leaving town through a maze of mini-malls and fast-food joints, I headed for Joseph Whidbey State Park, a blink of lawn with a deserted expanse of beach. Nearby, a long single row of homes perched on a narrow stretch of real estate between the road and the sea. I wondered if they would still be standing in a decade or two or gobbled up by rising tides before then.
I meandered along back roads to the north side of Penn Cove, along lanes lined with red-barked madrone trees. Pulling off at a small beach, I strolled the sands and chatted up several locals walking their dogs. When I asked for a lunch recommendation in nearby Coupeville, they were unanimous—Front Street Grill for Penn Cove mussels.
“See the floating pens?” one said, pointing. “That’s where mussels grow in clusters on fat lines. Can’t get much fresher than that.”
An hour later, after taking the scenic route to the south side of Penn Cove, my mouth was watering for those mussels. I sat at the bar in the Front Street Grill, ordered a bowl of Coconut Curry Mussels—“most popular item on the menu” chirped the waitress—and consumed every one, along with garlic focaccia dipped in the broth. Yum!
Dating to the 1850s, Coupeville is the second oldest town in Washington and named after sea captain Thomas Coupe, who, in 1852, was the first to sail through Deception Pass. (The oldest is Steilacoom, a tiny town on the Puget Sound between Olympia and Tacoma.)
After lunch, I wandered the waterfront along Front Street, where colorful Victorian architecture housed boutiques, gift shops, and restaurants. I dipped into the Kingfisher Bookstore and the Island County Historical Museum, where woolly mammoth bones embody the region’s deep history. A much-needed caffeine boost awaited at Coffee on the Cove in a cheery red building at the end of the Coupeville wharf, also home to a marine education center and services for boaters.
Coupeville is a treasure within a treasure—a historic district within a historical reserve. In 1978, area residents and governments partnered with the National Park Service to create Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and sustain the pastoral nature of a 22-square-mile swathe in the heart of Whidbey Island.
Taking another tip from the beach dog walkers, I searched for Cemetery Road and the Prairie Overlook. As far as I could see, farms fanned out along a horizon punctuated by Mount Baker to the north and Mount Rainier to the south. In a bit of serendipity, a pair of Backroads vans hauling trailers pulled in next to me. I introduced myself to the fit young leaders as a former company employee, and we chatted about their trip on the island and the people we knew in common. It was another bright spot on an already sunny day.
My home for the evening, Fort Ebey State Park, was only a few miles away. I checked in, set up camp, and headed past the World War II gun batteries to the beach. The Bluff Trail called my bluff when it left water views behind and plunged down a corridor of purple-fruited huckleberry bushes. “Ugh,” I thought, my energy on the wane. “Hiking back up will not be fun.”
While soothing my bare feet in the frigid water, I chatted with Jean and Ray, a couple who had moved to Langley from Virginia seven weeks earlier. A bit later, as we were saying our goodbyes, Jean asked if I would like a ride back to the campground. “You are lifesavers,” I said.
Soon I was savoring my solitary cocktail hour. My campsite was isolated at the end of the park next to a thicket of softly swishing pines, and the quiet was delicious. The single interruption was a young man who rode in on his bicycle. “I have good news,” he said. “Jesus died for your sins.” And then he pedaled away.
After watching a croquet match in a small field next to restrooms and a grandpa huffing behind two youngsters making tracks on their bikes with training wheels, I tucked in for the night. The surf rumbled in the distance while critters rustled in the nearby bushes.
Early the next morning, I backtracked to Coupeville for a magical meander through the Price Sculpture Forest. A pair of aptly named loops—Nature Nurtured and Whimsy Way—wended through century-old trees and surprised with art at every turn. I encountered a stainless-steel eagle in attack posture with talons bared; a pair of human legs in walking position, milled from oak logs and sans upper body; and a toothy T Rex, its hide crafted from tree bark.
Each installation’s signage displayed a QR code that activated a video of the artist discussing their sculpture at its site. I had the forest to myself, which made the video interaction with the artists all the more intimate.
Opened in October 2020, the sculpture forest is part of a sixteen-acre wooded wonderland anchoring Penn Cove. Scott Price and his family had intended to build a home there but instead donated a permanent Conservation Easement that prohibits future development or logging. Price partnered with sculptors, volunteers, and community organizations to create this marvelous marriage of nature and art.
Still euphoric from the sculpture forest, I navigated Van Go along lanes trimmed with Queen Anne’s lace, wild sweet pea, and sunny cat’s ear to Fort Casey Historical State Park. From a bench on Admiralty Head, I drank coffee, ate an apple, and watched the ferry approach from Port Townsend. Kids crawled around in the World War II gun batteries built into the earth, but I was more entranced with the kites dancing above them.
My next stop on this ping-ponging exploration of Whidbey Island was South Whidbey State Park. Its eighty-five acres of old-growth Douglas fir and Western red cedar are home to black-tailed deer, foxes, and bald eagles, none of whom made themselves known to me. I followed a steep winding trail that descended to the beach. The staircase to the sand was a crumple of off-kilter steps and railings, so I grasped branches and clung to rocks to safely skid down to the sand. On the return trip, I gabbed with a guy who’d recently moved back to the island and was making it a point to explore his backyard. And such a glorious backyard it was.
Up to this point in my adventure, I had been exploring new ground. Now I was heading into more familiar territory. I welcomed a return to bucolic Greenbank Farm, another island treasure rescued from development. On my last visit, I satisfied my Christmas shopping list with purchases from its art galleries and charming shops. However, this time, I was focused on culinary art and made a beeline to Whidbey Pies bakery for a sweet hostess gift.
Triple berry pie secured, I parked Van Go beneath a tree overlooking rolling fields and gardens for a lunch break. Mike and Mona from Orange County tooled up on their bicycles, adding to my collection of colorful characters. About the same age, we laughingly shared our physical woes and agreed that exercise was keeping us young-ish.
My last stop before Susan’s home in Langley was Mukilteo Coffee Roasters. I hoped to pick up some savory beans at its off-the-beaten-path Café in the Woods near Whidbey Airpark, but I arrived minutes too late. Kibitzing in the parking lot with a departing barista, I got the scoop about the coffee company’s new collaboration with Seabiscuit Bakery. Next time I’ll be on time.
My friend Susan has called Langley home for more than 20 years. It’s easy to understand the attraction. The sense of community is palpable in this endearing artists’ village that hugs the Saratoga Passage waterfront on the east side of Whidbey Island.
During my Langley days, we dropped in at favorite haunts: the Rob Schouten Gallery & Sculpture Garden, a wellspring of works by Northwest and Whidbey Island artists (including the proprietor’s); and Gregor Rare Books, where the owner and author David Macgregor signed a copy of his book, Hundred Waters, for Joe.
We indulged in delicious take-out from Gordon’s on Blueberry Hill and a tasty veggie pie from Village Pizzeria, meals taken up a notch with Triple berry pie for dessert. On Saturday morning, our destination was Bayview Corner for breakfast amid greenery at the Farm and Garden store. We poked our noses into the historic Cash Store and bought rhubarb jam from the 3 Generations farmstand for my mom.
Country drives netted wildlife snapshots—three fawns and their mother nibbling in a garden; and dozens of noisy pelicans sunning in Deer Lagoon. We also spied a red-white-and-blue oddity—an extraordinary number of American flags flying behind homes along Useless Bay.
Early Sunday morning, it was time to point Van Go toward the Mukilteo Ferry dock for a shuttle to the mainland. And four hours later, Van Go and I were safely home and sharing tales of my solo camping adventure. Not better, not worse, just different.
But next time out, I look forward to tripping over those size 16s again.
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.