Get in line with millions, enjoy our state parks

Rock dwellers have certainly noticed the many more cars and RVs on our two-lane highway this summer.

We Rock dwellers have certainly noticed it. So many more cars and RVs on our two-lane highway this summer, many of them with those state parks Discover Passes dangling from the rear view mirror. Our tourism promoters call our Rock “the shortest distance to far away.” And from the looks of it, a growing number of folks are making that not-so-giant leap.

I wondered what was attracting our visitors and where they were parking and staying, so I checked with Chris Holm, area manager for the Central Whidbey state parks, and Jason Armstrong, area manager for Deception Pass State Park. Here’s something I hadn’t realized until I talked with them. There are eight state parks on Whidbey Island. Count ‘em, eight! In order from south to north: Possession Point, South Whidbey, Fort Casey, Fort Ebey, Ebey’s Landing, Joseph Whidbey, Dugualla and Deception Pass.

Our island has about 169 square miles of land and a permanent population of about 70,000 people, yet in 2021 an estimated 4.6 million visitors came to a Whidbey state park. And the number is expected to be roughly the same this year. Deception Pass, the most visited park in the state system with its iconic bridge, had an estimated 3.2 million visitors last year and the other eight had an estimated 1.4 million. Stated another way, somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million vehicles of all kinds entered the state parks on our Rock, each with two, three or more people onboard.

Of course, we Rock dwellers also visit our state parks but even if each of us made 10 visits that would only add up to about 16% of the total. Most of the visitors are from elsewhere.

“Last year was insanely busy and every weekend felt like the Fourth of July,” Armstrong said. “This year may be a little less but not by much.”

Holm’s parks had a 20% increase in visitors in 2021 versus 2020 and, “we’re as busy right now as then but we were a little slower earlier this year because of all the rainy weather.”

This much is clear, however. Campsites are almost always full at our Whidbey state parks, most of them reserved as much as a year in advance. Part of the issue is the relatively small number of campsites here. Only Deception Pass, Fort Casey and Fort Ebey have campsites; the other five state parks on Whidbey are day-use only.

Deception Pass has 360 sites and “and in the summer we are always sold out,” Armstrong said. Fort Ebey has 50 campsites and Fort Casey has 35, and they have been at least 96% occupied every weekend so far this summer, Holm said. “You can try to get a site first-come, first-served but you’ll only get one if you’re very lucky.”

Armstrong added, “If we cancelled every reservation in the park today, they would all be filled in a day or two.” Demand is that strong, with people checking the online reservation system regularly — sometimes hourly.

The relatively small number of campsites means that the vast majority of our state park visitors are day trippers here for a hike or a picnic or a swim, to enjoy the view from Ebey’s Landing or to take a selfie on Deception Pass Bridge.

Last year’s whopper of a visitor increase at our parks over previous years was due in large part to the pandemic receding and people determined to get away and enjoy the outdoors after more than a year cooped up at home. Some had expected traffic to slow down this year, especially as gas prices rose above $5 a gallon. But it hasn’t happened.

Whidbey has been discovered by millions as a quick getaway, a destination, a “retreat from the craziness,” as Holm described it. And those from farther away, even with big RVs getting two miles to the gallon, are heading here as a “reward” for having survived the pandemic.

Whidbey has camping, hiking, fishing, whale watching and kayaking, but it also has restaurants, historical sites and interesting shopping. In addition to eight state parks, it has Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve and a number of rural properties maintained by the Whidbey Camano Land Trust where people can hike and explore.

“When I arrived here three and a half years ago and met some park managers in other areas, I would tell them I’m on Whidbey and many would say ‘Wow! That’s one of the most desired places to be a manager.’” Holm became the Central Whidbey area manager in 2018, having moved from San Antonio, Texas.

Of course, having millions of visitors at our parks takes its toll. “By the end of summer season, our campsites are pretty tattered, worn down and the grass is gone,” Armstrong said. “But the biggest impact on Deception Pass is on our aging infrastructure, which is 80 to 100 years old in terms of water, sewer and electricity.”

The park has 27 sewer vaults with lift stations that need to be constantly monitored. As Armstrong puts it: 350 campsites with an average of three people per site means up to 1,800 showers per day in the aging restrooms. Deception Pass has a water bill of up to $30,000 a month during peak season. And its cost for sewage, which is processed by the neighboring Navy base, runs as much as $12,000 a month.

But for Armstrong, who became the park manager in 2017 after serving years as a state patrol officer, the joy of his job outweighs its challenges.

“I get to be the happy, friendly mayor of Deception Pass State Park,” he said. “We have great visitors who are very respectful and come here with their families to have a beautiful, peaceful time.”

And, despite the increased traffic, we Rock dwellers really do love hearing visitors tell us how lucky we are to live here.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and lives in Central Whidbey.