Charming Whidbey Island is located just a short drive from Seattle in the Puget Sound, and it makes a wonderful day trip or longer getaway for the entire family. With miles of public beaches, bucolic farm and forest land, and several historic waterfront towns there is something for everyone to enjoy here. We visit every year, and these are our favorite activities.
Before you go. Recently, Island County moved into Phase 3 of the COVID-19 “Safe Start” program, which means that non-essential travel is allowed. If you choose to visit, please be mindful of the local community and its residents, and follow all recommended social distancing and hygiene guidelines to keep everyone healthy. More information on Island County’s COVID-19 response here.
Getting there. Whidbey Island is divided into south, central, and northern communities. This post is focused on visitors arriving via the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal who are exploring the south and central island. With many visitors arriving from the urban center, waits can be extremely long at the ferry during peak hours and peak times, so plan accordingly. Walking or biking on and off the ferry is easier, and Island Transit offers bus service throughout much of the island.
When to go. Clearly, summer is the most pleasant time to visit Whidbey Island weather-wise, but it is also the most crowded as packs of day-trippers and weekenders visit from the city. In general, for the most relaxed ferry experience, avoid peak travel times and peak travel dates. Arriving at the ferry on a Friday in the summer or before a holiday weekend can be at least a 2-3 hour wait. On the flip side, leaving Clinton on a Sunday can also be a long wait, so adjust your trip dates if you can. While it’s never fun being stuck for hours in a ferry line, the good news is, there are a few pleasant things to do at both docks. At the Mukilteo Ferry Terminal, you can walk down to Lighthouse Park, or grab award-winning fish and chips or a soft serve cone at Ivar’s while you wait. At the Clinton Ferry Terminal, there is a small public beach, including a nice little toddler’s play area with sand toys. COVID-19 update: Ivars takeout is still available, and their sit-down restaurant is operational with reduced capacity seating.
A few ideas of what to do in one day:
Enjoy the ferry ride! The ferry ride to Whidbey Island, in and of itself, is fun for people of all ages. Enjoy the sea breezes and stunning views (including of the Cascade Range) while you take the short trip (about fifteen minutes+) to the island. COVID-19 update: At this time, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it is safest to minimize contact by purchasing your ticket online and remaining in your vehicle for the short ferry trip. The ferries are spacious, though, with plenty of room for social distancing as well as offering clean restrooms.
Visit one (or more!) of the public beaches. Depending on the ages in your party and goals for the day, my favorite three beaches are as follows, with descriptions of what to expect:
(1) Maxwelton Beach/Dave Mackie Park. Just an 11 minute drive from the Clinton Ferry Terminal, this small public beach has magnificent views of the Olympic Mountains, and a little playground and picnicking area to enjoy. If you want a shorter beach stop combined with other excursions or perhaps just a dip, this beach will likely meet your needs, but if you are looking for a lengthier day at the beach there are better options farther north. I also like popping down to Maxwelton Beach simply to catch the amazing sunset over the sound and mountains before catching the ferry back to the mainland.
(2) Double Bluff Beach. Just slightly farther north on the island, 14 minutes from the Clinton Ferry Terminal in the town of Freeland, Double Bluff Beach is considered one of the best beaches on the south end. With a long sandy stretch of beach for walking and sunbathing, good clam digging, and safe swimming it is a fun place to settle in for the day. It is also very dog-friendly with off-leash exploration allowed for your fur baby. If you want to spend a longer stretch of time at the beach, this is a very good option, and very family-friendly.
(3) Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve. Ebey’s Landing, with magnificent panoramic views, is a bit farther up the island (37 minutes from the ferry) near the town of Coupeville. At Ebey’s, you can enjoy a long stretch of public beach, or embark on a more ambitious hike which climbs up a bluff overlooking the Puget Sound through working farmland and loops back along the sandy beach to the trailhead. This moderate to more ambitious hike, 5.2 miles, is feasible with older kids. The stunning panoramic views and beachcombing opportunities are well worth the slightly longer drive. More information including a map and directions here. After a visit to Ebey’s, make sure to stop by Greenbank Farm (a former working loganberry farm), for pie to go at Whidbey Pies.
A few more ideas of what to do during a longer stay:
Enjoy a hike through native forestland at the Whidbey Institute. At the Whidbey Institute, a “home for transformational learning and a 501(c)(3) nonprofit” located on the south end of the island near Clinton, the 106-acres of public trails are open to the public from dawn until dusk. Please note that no dogs are allowed on the property. For directions, click here, and for a trail map click here.
Visit Castle Park and the skate park at South Whidbey’s Community Park. Castle Park, part of South Whidbey’s Community Park and Sports Complex, is fun for kids of all ages. The community park also features baseball fields, soccer fields, and miles of hiking and biking trails.
Take a stroll through native forestland at the Saratoga Woods Trail. The Saratoga Woods trail, just a short drive from downtown Langley, offers brief kid and dog-friendly hikes through the local native forest. Directions and a map here.
Go clam digging! Sound Water Stewards, a local nonprofit, offers a popular “Digging 4 Dinner” clam digging class held at Double Bluff Beach. COVID-19 update: Unfortunately, the clam digging class will not be offered this summer because of coronavirus, but the stewards are keeping a list of interested parties in case the situation changes. If you choose to try clam digging on your own, you must get a license and check with the Washington Department of Health website to ensure that the beach is open for digging. More information in the link above about signing up for a class (wait list), where to get a shellfish license, and Washington Department of Health shellfish safety information.
Stop by Bayview Corner and Bayview Farmer’s Market for locally grown food and crafts. At Bayview Corner, you can visit a historical storefront with a taproom, stores, and galleries. A nice casual restaurant to try is Flower House Café. The Bayview Farmer’s Market, a local favorite, offers seasonal produce and other wares. COVID-19 update: Flower House Café is officially open for in-house dining, and also offers outside seating and takeaway options. The Bayview Farmer’s Market is open under special coronavirus precautions including offering pre-order options.
Visit Fort Casey Historical State Park. Fort Casey State Park is a sprawling park with camping amenities, beautiful views, and a turn of the century lighthouse. It was used as a military training facility up until the 1940s, and the creepy abandoned bunkers and mounted guns may be the greatest draw for many visitors.
Take the ferry to Port Townsend. If you have more time to explore, you might just hop a ferry to the Victorian seaport town of Port Townsend and perhaps on to the magnificent Olympic Peninsula. (The Coupeville-Port Townsend Ferry Terminal is located about 43 minutes up the island from the Clinton Ferry Terminal.) Port Townsend, with its historic Victorian buildings and fun shops and restaurants, can be explored on foot by walking on the ferry and going over for the day from the island. If you want to continue on by car, you can also drive onto the ferry, and it operates on a reservations system so make sure to book your reservation ahead of time if you want to be ensured a spot.
There is so much to see and do on this beautiful island, and this article is just focused on the south and central island. Have you been to Whidbey Island? What did you most enjoy?
(I am proud that a version of this article was recently featured in ROAM Family Travel Adventures.)
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