This awesome channel is between the canyon-like rock cliffs of Whidbey and Fidalgo islands at the north end of Skagit Bay.
The pass connects Rosario Strait to the west with often calmer inland waters of Skagit Bay on the east. It is used by many mariners cruising between the Strait of Juan de Fuca or the San Juan Islands and the greater Puget Sound area, as well as those from Bellingham and other points north. Boaters need to have experience with currents, weather and sea conditions before planning to go through Deception Pass.
The navigable width is only about 150 feet in the narrowest spot. Tumultuous seas and currents churn through the deep pass at more than 8.5 knots on the ebb and 7.9 knots on the flood, causing whirlpools, strong eddies and tide rips.
Without wind, the water is relatively calm through the pass at near slack water—even then there is a feeling of stunning beauty and energy in the chasm.
The centerpiece of Deception Pass is a two lane bridge towering 182 foot high above the channel, with intricate steel girders securing the bridge to concrete pillars. Vertical clearance at the center is 144 feet, high enough for even The Lady Washington to pass under.
The 4,134 acres of Deception Pass State Park spans the edges of both Whidbey and Fidalgo islands, encompassing the pass. The huge park includes boat moorage, docks, floats and buoys, a newly renovated large boat launch, nearly 15 miles of shoreline, over 200 camp sites plus three group camps. In addition, eight island parks in the area are administered by Deception Pass Park.
A caution: all of this area is well charted; good paper charts, current and tide tables on board are a necessity. Radar, GPS and electronic charts won’t substitute for charts and other information if the electronics suddenly quit.
For those who want a vacation filled with some incredible scenery, a challenging turbulent pass to cruise through, and some new and interesting places to visit, a trip to Deception Pass just might be in the future. It’s not far from just about any place in the Northwest, whether you keep your boat in Puget Sound, the San Juans or along the B.C. coast. If you’ve never been to Deception Pass you might consider driving to the park and get a really good idea of what it looks like before sailing there. It’s a unique experience for first timers.
Mariners traveling north from Puget Sound through Saratoga Passage, Skagit Bay or Swinomish Channel approach Deception Pass from the east side of Whidbey Island. Others coming from the north and west approach from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, through Rosario Strait .
We’re here to visit this glorious park by sea, so we’ll start by assuming most mariners will be coming from the south up through Skagit Bay. We’ll explore a couple of park islands before we even get to the pass, which will give the skipper and crew time to check weather, currents and charts and be ready to go.
Where to moor is a good place to start, because many like to know where they’ll spend the night. You might want to consider either of two state park islands before even reaching the pass area. Hope and Skagit islands are at the north end of Skagit Bay, part of Deception Pass Park.
Hope is about two miles north of the entrance to the Swinomish Channel and about two miles southeast of the entrance to the pass. The island is 166 beautiful acres with two miles of shoreline and 5 mooring buoys along the north shore. A beautiful spot with picnic tables, campsites, hiking trails throughout. There is also room to anchor, a really good gunkhole. It’s a great place to lay over before or after going through the pass.
Skagit Island is one mile north of Hope; 21 acres, two mooring buoys, picnic tables, campsites, hiking trails. Another good gunkhole, especially if you can get a buoy; be aware of currents and westerly winds. Check the chart for rocks off the northeast shore.
Both islands have old growth forests; there is no water on either island.
The east entrance to Deception Pass is one mile west of Skagit Island, between Hoypus Point on Whidbey Island and Yokeko Point on Fidalgo.
Hoypus Point, adjacent to the park, includes a Natural Forest area with a road and trails on the upland side to 395 foot high Hoypus Hill, a beautiful hike through old growth.
Mariners who are not going to head directly for the pass might want to go around Hoypus Point and into Cornet Bay, the site of Cornet Bay Park (Deception Pass Park). The facilities are along the Whidbey shore south of tiny Ben Ure Island.
On the other hand, if the weather, currents and sea conditions are right you may just want to go directly through the pass. When we go through passes Jo would just as soon go at slack, while Carl prefers to take advantage of the currents to help us along. Either way works as long as we plan ahead, weather permitting.
We consider that our run through the pass begins between Yokeko and Hoypus points. There is no recommended anchorage along the north shore of the pass. In just 0.7 mile we reach and pass Strawberry Island and we’re now less than 0.5 mile from the bridge.
The pass narrows and 0.3 mile ahead on the north shore is Pass Island. The bridge, often filled with tourists watching boats below, is just ahead. The intricate steel girders securing the bridge to concrete pillars and Pass Island loom high above us as we head through the channel between Pass and Whidbey islands.
Those in fast boats may choose the dog-leg of narrow Canoe Pass on the north side of Pass Island, but most larger boats and sail boats go through the larger pass. And suddenly we’re under the bridge.
Running through the pass at near slack water, it can be relatively calm with only small waves. In less time than it takes to tell, we’re through the pass and on our way towards Rosario Strait.
For those who cruise to Deception Pass and want to stay at Cornet Bay Park, three all new moorage floats have been installed west of the launch ramps, with 1,140 feet of moorage space. The first float is secured to a dock; the other two are anchored out. There are no buoys; float moorage fee is 50 cents per foot.
Cornet Bay’s main float is an extremely popular crab fishing spot. The float swarms with those tossing out crab rings and bringing them up, filled with flailing-legged crabs who would prefer to remain in the depths. We did note several crabbers were checked by Fish and Wildlife and State Park personnel when they failed to wear proper licenses or had undersize crabs.
Boats have first rights to tie to floats and crabbers and fishers are to move aside for those wanting moorage, say rangers. Signs are posted on pilings.
Anchoring is possible in Cornet Bay between park floats and Ben Ure Island. There is sometimes heavy boat traffic near ramps and floats. Except for those with local knowledge, mariners are discouraged from using the pass between Ben Ure and Goose Rock because of a 3 foot shoal.
Cornet Bay includes newly renovated launch ramps for trailerable boats: four ramps with five lanes, access floats, a low float for easy access to the water for kayakers, plus parking for 110 vehicles.
“The ramps have the same footprint, but they’ve all been ‘hardened’ and ramp lengths have been extended 12 feet to accommodate the lowest minus tides,” Rick Blank, assistant park manager, explained. Boat launch is $5 daily, but yearly passes may be purchased.
Other facilities at the park include a sewage pumpout station and a porta-potty dump station, restrooms with showers, picnic tables, barbecues and a children’s play area, but no overnight camping. An upgrade to this area is planned, which includes shelters and new restrooms, Blank told us.
There’s more to Cornet Bay, just west and adjoining the park.
Deception Pass Marina has guest moorage plus a delightful friendly small store. This is a great place with groceries, ice cream, hot coffee, sodas, beer and wine, warm sweatshirts, t-shirts and other clothes, magazines and some books. A marine chandlery also offers boating supplies, plus shrimping, crabbing and fishing gear and bait. At the marina you can buy gas, diesel and propane. Tel: 360-675-5411.
To enter the marina be sure and stay in the well-marked channel and follow the markers because it does get shallow, especially on minus tides. But for 70 cents per foot fees you get water, power and a secure moorage. Not only that, you may be able to hear coyotes howl during the quiet night from their dens at Goose Rock as we did when we were moored in the marina. Sent shivers up our spines.
Cornet Bay is also the home of Capt. “Big John” Aydelotte, owner of Marine Services and Vessel Assist just across the road from the marina. He’s a big, long-haired, bearded gentle giant, with an infectious laugh, a self-avowed “pirate,” with an unparalleled reputation for saving lives and boats in the Deception Pass area and the Strait of Juan de Fuca for close to 30 years.
His wife Trish, tiny beside his bulk, her hair also in a long braid, wears a hat that says “Woman in Command,” and has an equally infectious laugh. Trish dispatches for Vessel Assist, monitors radios and phones, and reassures distressed boaters by talking to them while help is on the way, and does uncounted other important duties.
If you are ever caught in a desperate situation on your boat, whether on a sunny day or a dark and stormy night, charismatic Big John is the man you can count on to rescue you. He and his team have received many awards for lifesaving from the Washington State Patrol, the U.S. Coast Guard, District 13, and have been awarded the Vessel Assist Woody Pollak Memorial Award. He has a lot of stories to tell.
Goose Rock at 490 feet towers over Cornet Bay, and has several miles of well-marked, often criss-crossed trails which go around the perimeter of the rock to the summit.
On the west side of Highway 20 (the bridge is on Highway 20) is part of the park not easily accessible for mariners, although if you tie up in Cornet Bay and want to do some walking or have bicycles on board, it’s a great place to visit. Views of the bridge stretching from one rock wall to another are fabulous from the North Beach area. There are also park offices, trails, an amphitheater, large camping area and Cranberry Lake, with a swimming beach and launch ramp on the east shore for kayaks, canoes, small sailboats and boats with electric motors, no combustion engines allowed.
There’s still more to Deception Pass Park on the northwest corner.
If Bowman Bay is your destination go past Lighthouse Point and turn right at Reservation Head. We’ve anchored several times in Bowman Bay; it’s shallow, about 1 to 2.5 fathoms and okay in calm weather. But since it’s exposed to the west, it’s obviously not the best place to be in a westerly. Even the five mooring buoys feel vulnerable. (Buoy fees are $10 per night.) Our advice, be very aware of weather and tides.
Bowman Bay has several charted rocky hazards. Coffin Rocks is .15 miles west of Reservation Head and .15 miles southeast of Rosario Head. We were up there just a few weeks ago and large westerly waves were crashing onto the rocks. There’s a small-boat launch ramp which is okay for small boats, near a fishing pier on the east shore of Bowman Bay. But it’s steep and not advised for larger trailer boats.
Sharpe Cove is on the north shore just inside Rosario Head. The cove has a pier with 256’ of moorage floats which are removed about September 30 before winter storms hit. They are back in place by May 15.
Gull Rocks reef is east of the Sharpe Cove floats and it too can be wicked. The rocks are quite obvious, especially at low tide. A good depth sounder is a must.
Both Bowman Bay and Sharpe Cove are exposed to winter westerlies and southwest storms.
It’s an easy walk along Bowman Bay Trail between Sharpe Cove and the beach at Bowman Bay. Hiking trails along the east side of the bay lead to Lighthouse Point on Reservation Head and Canoe Pass Vista Trail overlooking Deception Pass.
A trail from Rosario Head goes to Vista Point and Rosario Beach with terrific views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Rosario Strait. The south half of the beach is state park, the rest is private property.
The fascinating Maiden of Deception Pass, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot, is on the shore at Sharpe’s Cove. A whimsical legend of a Samish princess is depicted on the double-sided story pole on the peninsula between Sharpe Cove and Rosario Beach. Ko-Kwal-Alwoot holds a salmon high above her head. One side of the cedar pole shows her as an Indian maiden, while the other side shows her with long flowing hair turned into kelp from her life undersea.
Today, the guiding spirit of Ko-Kwal-Alwoot is a legacy for those who live on her shores. As currents run through Deception Pass sometimes her hair can be seen gently drifting on the water’s surface—the lovely legend lives on.
Legend of Ko-Kwal-Alwoot
According to legend, as she reached into the icy waters of Deception Pass to retrieve a fallen shellfish, the hand of the Water Spirit grasped her. He assured her he wanted to enjoy her beauty. Each time they met he told her of wonderful things in the sea.
Eventually, he went to her father’s house to ask to marry her. The father refused, certain his daughter would die if she lived underwater. The spirit said all seafood would disappear from the tribe unless she married him. When the seafood disappeared, Ko-Kwal-Alwoot’s father finally agreed to let her marry if she would be allowed to return and visit her tribe yearly.
The tribe prospered and seafood was again plentiful. Each time she returned her people saw she was unhappy, growing barnacles on her arms and face, and they agreed to let her go to the sea forever. The waters filled with fish and the people had plenty.
Naming Deception Pass
To the north of this narrow passage is Fidalgo Island, so named for Spanish explorer Lt. Salvador Fidalgo in 1791 by Spanish explorer Don Francisco Eliza. To the south is Whidbey Island, second largest island in the contiguous 48 states, which Vancouver, while exploring the region in June 1792, at first thought to be a peninsula. Further exploration conducted by him disclosed the existence of this intricate channel. Upon the realization that he had been deceived as to the character of the large island, Vancouver gave this channel the name of Deception Passage, and in naming the island he gave it his trusted officer, Joseph Whidbey.”
Deception Pass Bridge
Deception Pass Bridge was built in 1935. It is actually two bridges: the 976 foot southern span over the pass between Whidbey Island and Pass Island, and the northern bridge, 511 foot Canoe Pass arch over Canoe Pass, between Fidalgo and Pass islands.
Construction of the 1,487 foot long bridge took just one year. It was dedicated on July 31, 1935, when more than 12,000 people watched the ribbon-cutting ceremony in the center of the bridge. More than 700 cars passed over the span in the first hour. It is estimated now that over two million vehicles annually drive over the bridge. It was declared a National Historical Monument in 1982.
The bridge was built by Puget Construction Company and the Civilian Conservation Corps at a cost of $482,000. It now costs more to paint the bridge than it cost to build it.
Charts and other information useful in this article:
18421 Strait of Juan de Fuca-Strait of Georgia
18423 Strip chart, Bellingham to Everett, pages A, B, insets 3 and 4
18427 Anacortes to Skagit Bay, 18441 Puget Sound, Northern Part
Tidal Current Tables
Current Charts, Puget Sound, Northern Part
Jo & Carl are authors of Gunkholing in the San Juan Islands, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide Encompassing Deception Pass to the Canadian Boundary, and Gunkholing in South Puget Sound, a Comprehensive Cruising Guide from Kingston/Edmonds South to Olympia.