Orin Blomberg via Flickr CC
We pulled up to the Fauntleroy ferry terminal in West Seattle just in time to miss the ferry. But right next to the dock is a pocket of public beach, where the kids happily poked the sand with sticks and climbed on driftwood. Being forced to slow down turned out to be perfect way to set the tone for a day trip to Vashon Island.
The only way to get to Vashon is via ferry, a beautiful 20-minute ride from either West Seattle or Point Defiance in Tacoma. The island, named for British sea captain James Vashon, is rural by design. Unlike some busier islands, such as Bainbridge and Whidbey, Vashon doesn’t have any bridges connecting it to the mainland. And because of its low aquifers, the island can’t sustain the kind of massive urban expansion that’s walloped the rest of King County.
Vashon is intentionally cut off, and a nice change of pace from the city.
“One of the things we all love about this place is that we are lucky to live in a beautiful environment,” says Jim Marsh, executive director of Vashon’s Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve got forests, we’ve got water views, we’ve got beaches. There’s plenty of places to hike, to bike. And the nice thing is we are 20 minutes away to two major cities. That is, on a very basic level, one of the things that makes Vashon a special place.”
The island is only 13 miles long, but its 45 miles of shoreline make for a lot of great beaches. Put these on your list: a rocky beach at Lisabuela Park, a wooded beach at Fern Cove, or go to Jensen Point Park, where you can launch kayaks and boats. Once we ferried over to Vashon, we headed straight for Point Robinson on Maury Island, which is attached to Vashon by a man-made isthmus.
From the parking lot, a short wooded trail leads to the beach, where the view of majestic Mount Rainier will knock your socks off. The 1885 lighthouse makes a scenic backdrop for pictures, and the keepers' quarters are now vacation rentals (from about $200 per night during the off-season).
Point Robinson’s beach is perfect for kite flying and rock skipping, with a grassy picnic area for playing hide-and-seek. Orca sightings happen year-round. While we didn’t see any whales on our visit, we did see a lot of hopeful whale watchers.
Even with GPS on, we got turned around on the winding country roads. We spotted sheep grazing in roadside pastures… again and again as we accidentally circled back. With all the working farms on the island, you’ll drive by farm stands on every road. They pop up during harvest season (mid- to late summer) and operate on the honor system.
Stopping for a bite
Vashon Island’s teeny-tiny downtown, with one blinking stop light, is also named Vashon, though locals call it Uptown. (There are a total of four stop signs along the island’s entire main highway.) We drove in to town for lunch just as the rain started.
Snapdragon (17817 Vashon Hwy. S.W.) is famous for its baked goods, and our crew of four split a super-sized cinnamon bun while we waited for our entrées. And waited, and waited. Service was sweet but slow, and not even hungry children from the big city were going to speed up island time.
For a date night dinner, try Gravy (17629 Vashon Hwy. S.W.), which dishes up Americana food with Southern roots, or Bramble House (17123 Vashon Hwy. S.W.), where the farm-to-table fare is served by former "Top Chef" contestant Lia Lira.
In the lunch crowd at Snapdragon, we were the only ones in a hurry. We overheard a woman chatting with her neighbor: “You’re an artist?” On Vashon, that’s a pretty safe question. There’s a vibrant arts community and a progressive attitude to go along with it. A $20 million performing arts center opened in 2016, and Vashon’s residents include hundreds of painters, sculptors, dancers, musicians and actors.
Vashon has long held a reputation as a sanctuary for artists and hippies — and now lawyers, too. Nearly a third of the island’s 11,000 residents commute to Seattle or Tacoma for work, just a 20-minute ferry ride away.
But living on the island has its quirks. You have to be prepared to go without power, and be able to fix stuff yourself. Boats can be delayed because of orcas or weather, so you might not make it to work on time.
“Vashon is not an easy place to get to or do things on. People move here or live here because of that,” says Marsh.
Resident Mike Urban was born and raised on Vashon. Other than a stint at the University of Washington, it’s where he’s lived his whole life.
“In high school, most of my classmates just couldn’t wait to get out,” says Urban. “I couldn’t wait to stay. I recognized early how special the place was. I was telling myself at the age of 17 there’s no place else like this.”
Vashon special events and sights
Save the date for the Vashon Sheepdog Classic, typically in June, at Misty Isle Farms. If your kids loved reading “Charlotte’s Web,” they’ll love seeing real working sheepdogs in competition. Look for a children’s tent with felting activities, workshops and demonstrations.
Vashon Island Strawberry Festival, typically the third weekend in July, is also worth marking your calendar for. Vashon was the center for strawberry production in the early 20th century. Celebrate the island’s agricultural heritage with a street fair, a parade, local artists, music and the last strawberries of the season.
The bike tree: In the tallest tree just north of the Sound Food building (20312 Vashon Hwy. S.W.), spy a rusty bike sticking out. It's an odd landmark with an interesting backstory. According to Urban, the tree's owner, a family lost everything in a house fire in 1954. Someone donated a bike to the family, but it was a girl’s bike, so the boy left it in the bushes. Someone put the bike in a crook in the tree and over the years, the tree grew around the bike.(Unfortunately, the bike was vandalized in 2014.)
Vashon Farmers Market, Saturdays, 10 a.m.–2 p.m., on the Village Green: This is a great spot for families to shop for local produce, baked goods and crafts, and pet some llamas, goats and rabbits.
Island Center Forest: A 363-acre forest and nature preserve with an incredible network of trails. Walk though wetland areas, tall stands of firs and around two ponds. Bring binoculars for bird watching, as more than 70 species call the Island Center Forest home.
Vashon Heritage Museum, at 10105 S.W. Bank Rd.: The by-donation museum features photos and artifacts from Vashon history, from the First People and early settlers to the present.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2018 and updated for 2019.