Beautiful Secret Mess: South Whidbey State Park

CLOSED FOR THE SEASON. A metal gate bars access to the campground at South Whidbey State Park. It’s not so far off the high summer season, and the weather holds fine; I suspect budget cuts. The park’s main car lot is still open – and still requires my Discover Pass – but there is no evidence of recent human presence.

The lot is not very promising: crumbling at the edges, strewn with moss and small pieces of tree. Some of the biggest bigleaf maples I’ve seen are pressing in close on all sides, glowering or devouring, I’m not sure. Supposedly, several trails traverse this park. I’m uncertain I wish to stay long enough to search them out, so I choose the trailhead right next to the car. We’ll give it fifteen minutes, I think, which is the rule Jeremiah and I observe with new films.

Dinosaur trail

I might have chosen this trail anyway; it’s the one that goes to the beach. A partial Bay Area childhood and ten years lived in close proximity to the Santa Barbara coast have left me with a permanent longing for the curl of sea on shore. Portland is a wonderful place to wash up, but you do that from the Columbia or Willamette Rivers. Sea lions swim up to our fine port sometimes, but they do not bring the ocean along. When I travel, I seek out salt air.

The path leads down a canyon down a bluff, but it’s only half a mile and not very steep. We’re down in fifteen minutes, easy.

The maples continue to dominate, crowding out everything else and casually displaying prehistorically large leaves. Macrophyllum, indeed. The sun is rising fast on the eastern side of Whidbey Island, but here in the west we are deep in the pre-dawn still. It can’t have rained in days, but no one told that to the mud slicks, cannily hidden in the shadows.

Leaves Of Unusual Size

The last bit of bluff is negotiated via a steep set of slick wooden stairs. We come on them suddenly, and then stand there a while, cocking our heads to the side, glancing at each other. Somebody says it first.

“Are those…?”

“…Tilted? Yeah.”  

They’re actually sort of twisted, and significantly tilted, so that if we walk on them, we’ll be at an unusual angle to both ground and slope. It’s like a piece escaped from a Hogwarts-themed funhouse, and we can’t decide if it’s real. I get out the camera to check – you know how it shows what you “really” look like in that dress you’re thinking about buying? It can’t see the tilt, but when we touch the first board, we feel it. Pretty good illusion.

The beach itself is sublime. I admit this is mostly because we are the only people on it. There is something about an early morning stretch of sand that feels secret. Especially one this size: it’s maybe 30 feet from pebbly waveline to thick forest growth. We spend an hour or more walking it, and in that time, the quiet tide advances. On the return journey, our messy little shore has shrunk.


This is the other feature of this beach that I love. Such a small space, filled with so much of interest, is bound to feel a little bit cluttered. It’s like the home of a friend long on wonder and short on housekeeping. (Shall I tell you which of those I value more?)

There are stippled pieces of seaweed, striped in red and white, like the tatters of a Viking sail. There’s a dead fish, consumed down to its tiny perfect skeleton by small hopping insects that still swarm in yellow crowds over the vertebrae. There are small exquisite stones everywhere: cedar green and ochre and quartz that glints like opal. Some lie encrusted with barnacles, many more bear the curious white traceries of former barnacle habitation. Some sport clusters of what look like roots: failed holdfasts, still gripping their anchor though their stalks float helpless in the open sea.

Sticks and stones

A single kingfisher is the loudest thing down here. He keeps flying in a semi-circle over our heads, chattering like that old red Audubon bird call twisted round and around, very fast. A solitary osprey doesn’t fish, though she talks about it from the branches of the biggest alder I have ever seen. The alders I know reach a slim maturity of 100, maybe 150 years. This one must be twice that. Her smooth gray limbs twist heavily and droop sandward.


The drone of an engine in this well-trafficked channel isn’t abnormal, but this one is early, insistent. And invasive. It echoes off the forested bluff. It turns out to belong to the Victoria Clipper out of Seattle. Its wake takes long moments to reach us; by the time it arrives, the ship itself has faded into the Strait, and we’re alone again with the soft wash of baby waves. The time-delayed wake reaches further than most, running musically onto the rocks as up a scale.

I am used to the crashing percussion of the Oregon coast, and the operatic breakers that rip the sand from Southern California beaches in winter. All the waves in Puget Sound seem sweet to me by comparison. Their music on a calm day is delicate, pianissimo. Insistent, unceasing, as waves ever are, but these understand the power of lowering your voice to command attention.

music everywhere


The secret hours of morning only last so long. Soon, there are others on the beach, just a few, and we are traipsing back with the rising tide. The funhouse stairs are occupied by a mother and her small, unwilling son. She talks him through the tilt, but he glances back reproachfully from the safety of the sand. I see what you did there, steps.

We climb the return trail quickly; I have a mission today, and this is not it. This park was a distraction, semi-randomly spotted from the road. I’ve enjoyed it fully, and now I’m moving on, back to the real itinerary.

At the head of the path, though, in sight of the car, I turn back. The place is still a mess, the risen sun has done nothing to decrease the maples’ hungry glare. I’m wise to them now, though. Distraction has opened an unseen path. Not every place reveals itself just because you show up: impress me. This one wanted its fifteen minutes first: a little risk of time wasted, plus a little scrambling in the mud.

And now I know the secret.


South Whidbey State Park is accessed from Smugglers Cove Road, a few miles off the main highway that runs down Whidbey Island. That highway is called 20 in the north, 525 in the south. The park is technically contained by the municipality of Freeland, WA. You can buy your Discover Pass (good at all Washington State Parks) at the automated kiosk installed in the main parking lot.


One thought on “Beautiful Secret Mess: South Whidbey State Park

  1. What a nice discovery. Giant big leaf maples and alders…intriguing. I love trees. Not certain how I would do navigating the “tilted wooden stairs”…perhaps I would try them. Can’t say until I see them. Once again, thanks for sharing your morning walk!


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