It’s a three-bridge, two-island drive from Kitsap County to bucolic Marrowstone Island in Jefferson County. And only 35 minutes by car.
The three bridges span bodies of water, each of them a geographic demarcation line. Hood Canal forms the boundary between Kitsap and Jefferson counties. Portage Canal separates Naval Magazine Indian Island (most of it off-limits to the public) from the rest of the Olympic Peninsula, and a salt marsh functioning as a tidal exchange and migratory salmon passageway connects Indian Island to Marrowstone Island.
With each bridge transition, the pace of life slows down incrementally. There’s less traffic. Fewer buildings. Plenty of wildlife sightings and almost no latte stands.
After arriving at the large, wooden sign on Flagler Road (State Route 116) that greets everyone’s arrival onto Marrowstone, a two-lane country road lined by thick woods and vistas of Kilisut Harbor and Mystery Bay leads from the island entrance to the island tip. Once past the entrance sign, it’s hard to resist the urge to meander — and that’s an urge you should embrace on your daytrip or weekend adventure.
Despite its size (the entire island is only 6 square miles) and tranquility, Marrowstone has plenty of experiences to savor. At the tip of the island, the road ends at Fort Flagler Historical State Park, a 784-acre former military installation. Along with Fort Worden in Port Townsend and Fort Casey on Whidbey Island, Fort Flagler was built to guard the entrance to Puget Sound.
Completed in 1899, the fort served as an Army and National Guard training center during both world wars. Today, it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a historic district, with its remaining barracks and officer’s quarters converted to conference facilities, a retreat center, event facility and hostel. The main complex, situated on a bare, scenic bluff overlooking Admiralty Inlet, also includes five historic houses available as vacation rentals, a museum and a gift shop and offers guided summer tours.
Turn left at the park entrance, and the road leads down to a campground located on Fort Flagler’s saltwater beach, which includes picnic areas and over 100 primitive, standard and RV campsites available to rent. The beach has two boat launches and a moorage dock for fishing, crabbing and wind sailing, and plenty of open spaces for kite flying. During the summer season, a small beach café serves up sandwiches and drinks.
A total of 6 miles of wooded and beach trails encourage visitors to explore the historic site’s former gun emplacements, scenic vistas and beaches. Make sure to check out the adjacent Marrowstone Point Lighthouse, the smallest lighthouse on Puget Sound and still an important navigation feature.
Tiny Marrowstone is also home to a second state park, the much smaller 18-acre Mystery Bay State Park, located just up the road from Fort Flagler. Primarily a marine park, it offers anchorage, moorage docks, picnic tables and 685 feet of shoreline. At one time, the bay was used for clamming by the area’s indigenous Chemakum people, and later became a Prohibition refuge for smugglers bringing in alcohol from Canada.
On the other side of the island is East Beach Park, a day-use county park whose facilities were built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. When Admiralty Inlet is at low tide, a vast expanse of beach is exposed for waterfront activities. The park has a convenient picnic shelter with tables and a stone fireplace.
Whether you needing picnic supplies en route to one of the parks or want to satisfy your hunger after hiking the beaches and trails, you’ll find the only grocery store on the island at the main road’s halfway mark in Nordland, which is also the island’s only hamlet.
Norwegian immigrant Peter Nordby, and enterprising Seattle businessman, founded Nordland in September 1892. He bought 10 acres of Marrowstone land, platted it into parcels and sold them without ever living on the island.
In the 1920s, the historic Nordland General Store was built as a trading post, post office and grocery store. That original building still serves as the island’s commercial and social hub. On cool days, a fire crackles in the stove at the back of the store, where a pot of coffee and a few chairs encourage a country store chat.
The shelves are stocked with convenience groceries (some sourced from the island), craft beers, a selection of wines and a display of antique toys and kitchenware. The shop even serves up lattes.
On New Year’s Day, the longtime owners organize the Polar Bear Dip on the dock in front of the store and on Memorial Day, every tractor owner in the community lines up in front of the building for the island’s annual Tractors Day Parade.
Marrowstone also has bragging rights to one of the five wineries in Jefferson County — Marrowstone Vineyards, an island fixture for the past decade. The current owner, James Holloway, has transformed the land and two-story building and grounds into a year-round boutique winery with tasting room, event spaces and a summer music series.
Holloway is not only the owner, but also the farmer, trucker, winemaker, crusher, bottler and labeler, turning out red, rose and white wines from grapes grown in his 2.5-acre island vineyard as well as those he trucks over from Eastern Washington.
The winery supports local environmental causes like the Jefferson Land Trust and Northwest Salmon Coalition, and prides itself on producing salmon-safe wines. Partnering with local food trucks and caterers for the summer music series and events hosted on the grounds, the venue has a tasting room with a deck and upper floor for socializing that provides scenic views of the vineyard and Admiralty Inlet. It would be easy to while away an entire Marrowstone day here.
While the island is the home of many artists, only one, Marrowstone Pottery Studio and Gallery, is open to the public for viewing and sales. The studio and home of potters George and Helen Tsitsas lies down a verdant, quarter-mile, gravel road. The couple turn out richly colored ceramic stovetop cookware glazed with George’s proprietary glaze, as well as handmade ceramics and stoneware pottery. They also offer pottery classes by prior arrangement.
If you have kids in tow or are curious about the origins of chevre — or if you have a hankering to run a dairy goat farm — the family-run Mystery Bay Farm is open for tours by reservation. The award-winning farmstead raises American Alpine dairy goats that produce chevre and yogurts available primarily in Jefferson County, including at Nordland’s General Store.
The farm offers a variety of tour possibilities, including an opportunity to view the milking parlor and cheesemaking facility, as well as more instructional tours for anyone interested in learning about the infrastructure of running a dairy goat operation.
There is only one vehicle entrance and exit to Marrowstone. Leaving takes you past the wooden sign and over the newly built Kilisut Harbor Bridge, the first indications that you are about to re-enter life as you knew it. Luckily, there are plenty of Marrowstone mementos to take with you — a bottle of wine, a hunk of chevre and a cellphone full of photos to remind you of life decelerated.