Sunday, March 5, 2017

Goose Rock

Olympic Mountains and Whidbey Island shoreline from Goose Rock
3 miles loop, 800 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required

Goose Rock is the highest point on Washington State's Whidbey Island, making it a good location to survey the mountains and waterways in and around the Salish Sea. This hike visits the summit of Goose Rock in a loop around Deception Pass State Park. Goose Rock is a particularly good hike in the winter and spring months, as it's usually snow-free when the higher peaks of the Cascades and Olympics are snowbound. I combined this hike with a visit to the nearby Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, a unique floral display in the farms outside Mount Vernon each April.

I hiked this trail with my mom during one of her April visits to Seattle. We set out from Seattle early in the morning to beat the crowds at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, arriving at the opening hours of one of the two main tulip display gardens in the Skagit Valley near Mount Vernon. We spent the early part of the day exploring the Skagit Valley, dropping by La Conner for brunch after checking out the tulips. If you're heading over to the Goose Rock Trailhead at Deception Pass directly from Seattle, the most straightforward way is to follow I-5 north to exit 230 in Burlington, following Highway 20 west across the Swinomish Channel onto Fidalgo Island. At the branch point for Highway 20 just south of Anacortes, we took the left turn to follow Highway 20 towards Whidbey Island, then continued on that route until crossing the Deception Pass bridge. Soon after crossing the bridge, we took a turn on the right to enter Deception Pass State Park; once in the park, we made another right turn and followed the road to the parking lot at its end.

Tulips at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival
The trailhead is just uphill from Macs Cove. Two paths led out from the parking lot, the left branch heading down to the water and the right branch making its way uphill instead. We followed the trail on the right out of the parking lot. This trail quickly began gaining elevation as it climbed up and around the north side of a hill, with good views of Deception Pass and nearby islands just minutes from the parking area.

Deception Pass and Lighthouse Point
Immediately past the initial clearings on the trail came the Deception Pass Bridge. The trail passed beneath the bridge, with staircases ascending from the trail to pedestrian walkways on either side of the bridge. The Deception Pass Bridge was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the construction boom funded by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal; the bridge, which is actually two separate spans connecting Pass Island to Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. It's an impressive engineering statement, but today it is perhaps better loved for the excellent views of the Cascades and the San Juans from the bridge's pedestrian walkways. Visiting the top of the bridge requires slightly more elevation gain than reported in the hike description above.

Deception Pass Bridge
Deception Pass is the very narrow and turbulent waterway separating Whidbey Island from Fidalgo Island and the Washington mainland. During British explorer George Vancouver's forays into the Salish Sea, his crew initially thought Whidbey Island to be a peninsula after earlier explorations of the Saratoga Passage. It was after exploring Deception Pass itself with small craft and coming to the realization that Skagit Bay connected out to the Salish Sea here that Vancouver bestowed the name "Deception" for the narrow strait's role in deceiving Vancouver about the area's true geography.

Soon after we passed under the bridge, we arrived at a junction for two trails, both of which eventually to the Goose Rock summit. We took the trail to the left, opting to take the longer route to the highest point on Whidbey Island.

For the next half mile, the trail traversed east along the forested slopes of Goose Rock, generally staying high above the waters of Deception Pass below. As the trail swung south at the eastern edge of the island, it also neared the shoreline, staying just above a rocky beach with views of the waters of Deception Pass. Here, we followed a spur trail down to the beach itself for nice views of Mount Baker.

Mount Baker from beach near trail
The trail continued along the east shore of the island, staying just above the beach. While the official trail never came down to the beach, numerous use paths led down to the water, so we made frequent side trips down to the beach for views of Mount Baker, the waters of Deception Pass, and Ben Ure Island, a private island just a stone's throw from the beach.

Ben Ure Island
After a third of a mile along the island's eastern shore, the trail began to climb away from the shoreline up a grassy slope. The meadows here were a lush green and filled with blooming spring lowland wildflowers.

Spring wildflowers bloom near the trail
The trail itself rounded the southeastern ridge of Goose Rock and came to open, grassy south-facing slopes above Cornet Bay. The scenery here seemed almost remniscent of New England with a tidy marina, a small village, and an evergreen forest reaching the shoreline of shimmering water. The southern shore of Cornet Bay lies outside Deception Pass State Park.

Cornet Bay
Numerous madronas lined the shoreline below the grassy slope. Madrone trees are quite common on Whidbey Island and throughout the San Juan Islands, which lie in the rainshadow of the Olympic Mountains and are generally drier than most other parts of Western Washington. Madronas are generally more drought tolerant than other trees in the Western Washington forests, making them suitable to the drier climates of the islands and Vancouver Island; while the Pacific madrone is found only on the west coast of the United States, related madrone varieties are able to survive in desert conditions such as those found in Texas's Big Bend. Madronas are notable for both their sinewy trunks and their peeling bark.

Madrona near the trail at Cornet Bay
The trail descended back down to the level of Cornet Bay before coming to a trail junction between a trail heading towards Cornet Bay and one headed up Goose Rock. Here, I took the right fork, which led to a switchback climb towards Goose Rock. The trail switchbacked continuously as it climbed over 480 feet from the waterside at Cornet Bay to the summit of Goose Rock. Along the way, the trail climbed from forest slopes to the more open and grassy upper reaches of Goose Rock while passing under a set of transmissions towers.

Two miles from the trailhead, we arrived at the top of Goose Rock. The summit was quite wide, with two rocky viewpoints spaced over a hundred meters apart. The first of these viewpoints had okay views of Cascade peaks to the east, including the always prominent Three Fingers.

The second, western rock outcrop had much better views. From here, we could look south over the waters of Cranberry Lake to the rolling green farmland of northern Whidbey Island and the planes taking off and landing at the Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The blue waters of the Salish Sea separated Whidbey Island form the Olympic Peninsula; the Olympic Mountains formed a wall on the horizon, with prominent peaks in the northeastern part of the range such as Mount Constance and Mount Townsend vaguely identifiable from this distance.

View south from Goose Rock
To the west was tiny Deception Island and then the many scattered islands of the San Juans. Although there are many hundreds of islands in the San Juans, the main island visible from Goose Rock is Lopez Island, the southeasternmost of the San Juans. The San Juans are geographically and geologically related to the Southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia; the distinction in naming is due mainly to their locations on separate sides of the maritime boundary here.

San Juan Islands from Goose Rock
After leaving the summit, the trail descended in a direct fashion down the northwest side of Goose Rock until it rejoined the trail that we had come up on at the base of the Deception Pass Bridge. From here, we followed the trail on which we had come back down to the parking area. Before returning to Seattle, we made a short detour from the trailhead down the other path leading from the parking area to the beach at Macs Cove. The beach here provided an excellent view of the narrow straits bounded on both side by rocky island slopes.

Deception Pass from Macs Cove
We watched the later day sunlight dance on the calm waters of the sea before returning to our car and then heading back to Seattle. Deception Pass State Park is a beautiful state park with some of the more impressive coastal scenery in the state; Goose Rock is a good, easy, and family-friendly hike to explore the highlights of this Washington State state park.

Sunlight on the water at Macs Cove

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