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Take a Slow Day: Escape to Nearby Vashon Island

Go city to country in just 20 minutes for an easy day trip

Published on: June 05, 2018

Point Robinson light house credit Orin Blomberg
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.

Riding the ferry to Vashon
Riding the Vashon ferry. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

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 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.

Boys playing on the beach
Amid the driftwood on the beach. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

From the parking lot, a short wooded trail leads to the beach, where the majestic view of 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 $1,653 a week during the summer). 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.

View of Rainier from Vashon
Vashon's view of Mount Rainier. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Stopping for a bite

Vashon Island’s teeny tiny downtown, with one blinking stop light, is also named Vashon, although 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.

Kid-friendly Zombiez (17705 Vashon Hwy. S.W.) is an easy burgers-and-fries option that has a model train running around the ceiling. 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.

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 Seattle were going to speed up island time.

Lunch at Snapdragon on Vashon Island
Lunch at Vashon's Snapdragon. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

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.

Island life

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 ferry
Vashon ferry. Credit: dirtsailor2003 via Flickr CC

“Vashon is not an easy place to get to or do things on. People move here or live here because of that,” Marsh says.

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,” Urban says. “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

The Vashon Sheepdog Classic, June 7–10, at Misty Isle Farms: If your kids loved reading “Charlotte’s Web,” they’ll love seeing real working sheepdogs in competition. Buy advance tickets — adults $10, kids 10 and under are free — because the event sells out. Look for a children’s tent with felting activities, workshops and demonstrations.

Vashon sheepdog credit Kim Farrell
Sheepdog at the Vashon Sheepdog Classic. Credit: Kim Farrell

Vashon Island Strawberry Festival, July 20–22, in town along Vashon Highway: 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 70 years ago. 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, reports indicate the bike has been vandalized recently.)

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.

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