Friday, July 31, 2015

Camping at Deception Pass State Park

Washington State has a fantastic system of state parks and Deception State Park is one of the largest, oldest and most popular.  My first memories of the park are from camping trips with my parents when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and it remains one of my favorite camping places.

Deception Pass Bridge and Deception Pass State Park

Where is Deception Pass?

Deception Pass State Park is about 80 miles north of Seattle via either I-5 or by taking the Mukilteo - Clinton Ferry and then driving north the length of Whidbey Island.



Personally, I recommend driving north on I-5 because of both the cost and time spent taking the ferry. Although the ferry ride itself is short the waiting times to board the ferry, especially on weekends, can be long.

The Deception Pass Bridge

Completed in 1935, the Deception Pass Bridge was funded by the WPA and built with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps.   The bridge is actually two spans which connect Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands.  The north bridge crosses Canoe Pass which separates Fidalgo Island and tiny Pass Island and the south bridge spans Deception Pass which separates Pass Island and Whidbey Island.  There are several turn-outs on the curving road on the Fidalgo Island side near the approach to the bridge that provide good vantage points to see the bridge, but they are small and often full on a weekend or summer day.

Pass Island and the Deception Pass Bridge - Photo credit:  "Deceptionpass bridge2" by Jet Lowe - Historic American Engineering Record, Library of Congress - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons  

Deception Pass Bridge Facts

  • Built in 1934-1935 with funding from the WPA
  • Opened July 31, 1935
  • Height from water to the bridge deck: about 180 feet, depending on the tide
  • Road - State Highway 20 with two 11-foot lanes, one in each direction
  • Pedestrian Access: There is a 3 foot sidewalk on each side 
  • Bridge Width: 28 feet
  • Total Bridge length (both spans): 1487 feet 
  • Number of Vehicle crossings: an average of 20,000 per day
  • Cost of Construction: $482,000
  • In 1982 the bridge was designated as a historical landmark



The swirling waters below the bridge are even more treacherous than they appear.  During ebb and flow tides the water travels through at over 9 miles per hour and has has numerous small islands and submerged rocks that cause dangerous eddies.  Traveling through the pass in a boat is not recommended for anyone but experienced navigators.   Before the bridge was built travelers used a ferry to commute between Whidbey and Fidalgo Island.

Deception Pass History Sign  - Wickipedia Commons (Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
On the Whidbey Island side of the bridge is a large parking lot with a large rustic sign with information about Deception Pass.  It is a good place to leave your car to walk across the bridge to enjoy the views, take photos and get some exercise.  It is about a half-mile round-trip to cross the bridge and return.  Be aware that parking in this lot does require purchase of either a Washington State Park day-use pass or the display of an annual Washington State Park Discover Pass.  Overnight campers are given a receipt to display when they check in that provides access to all areas of the park without purchasing an additional pass.

Deception Pass State Park


Deception Pass State Park Sign

Deception Pass State Park is 4,134-acres in size with portions on both Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands with entrance gates near the two ends of the Deception Pass Bridge.  It is the most visited state park in Washington State with over 2 million visitors each year.  The park is open year round for both day use and overnight camping and I especially enjoy camping there in the winter.   The proximity to the water keeps the temperatures mild enough for enjoyable winter camping and it is much less crowded.
Although there are several camping areas, my favorite is the forest loop in the Cranberry Lake Campground.  I admit that my opinion may be biased because of the fond memories from camping there in my childhood. Since Deception Pass State Park is the most popular state park in the State of Washington, don't expect to just drive in and find a camping spot in the peak summer camping months.  You may get lucky, but to avoid disappointment, I recommend making a reservation.

Deception Pass State Park RV Camping Area
The large camping sites are arranged along a meandering road under towering old growth evergreen trees.  For those who want to get out and stretch their legs, there are 38 miles of hiking trails in the park. Or if you prefer to ride bikes, in addition to the roads, there are 3 miles of bike trails.

Deception Pass State Park Camp Site
The Cranberry Lake Campground has two loops with a total of 147 tent sites and 83 RV sites with water and electrical hookups.  There are no sewer hook-ups but a dump station is available.  Maximum RV length is 60 feet.   I think those who are planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest with their RV will find this brand new camping guide, Moon West Coast RV Camping: The Complete Guide to More Than 2,300 RV Parks and Campgrounds in Washington, Oregon, and California (Moon Outdoors) to be helpful.


Beautiful Cranberry Lake is just a short walk from the campground and also accessible from the road with a boat launch.

Cranberry Lake - Deception Pass State Park
Cranberry Lake offers opportunities for fishing, boating, canoeing, kayaking and swimming.  The park also includes access to 2 other lakes -  Pass Lake and a small piece of shoreline along Campbell Lake for a total of 33,900 feet of freshwater shoreline.

Cranberry Lake

One of the most unique features of the park is the proximity of Cranberry Lake to the saltwater of Puget Sound.  The two bodies of water are separated by an access road and few hundred yards of sandy beach.

Deception Pass Saltwater Beach 
As kids we would play and swim in the cold saltwater (approximately 50 F. year round) as long as we could tolerate the cold and then run across the narrow strip to Cranberry  Lake which felt as warm as water in a bath tub after being in Puget Sound.


 The park has a total of  19 miles of saltwater shoreline for walking beach combing and watching the creatures in the tide pools like the ones on the rock in the photo.   Going out to the rock does require paying attention to the tide.  With high tides it is often surrounded by deep and dangerous swirling water.

Bald Eagle at Deception Pass
The strong currents don't seem to bother the bald eagles who can often be seen swooping down to grab a fish.  Deception Pass is a great place to go for those who enjoy watching birds and other wildlife. Visitors to the park have recorded sightings of 174 varieties of birds. It is not uncommon to see seals, sea lions, orca whales, humpback whales, gray whales, deer, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits and numerous other species.


If you don't have time (or a reservation) to spend the night, Deception Pass State Park is a great place to spend the day.  There are numerous picnic tables along the saltwater beach or some lovely shady picnic areas like this one along the shore of Cranberry Lake near the entrance gate to the park.


Weekend Travel Inspiration