For a little effort, the payoff is big: From grassy crests and rocky promontories, take in 180-degree views out across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, encompassing the entire range of the Olympic Mountains in one direction.
LOPEZ ISLAND, San Juan County – “Island time” is what you come to appreciate once you get off the ferry and feel your heart slow as you encounter the first passing cars whose drivers wave as you go by.
It’s what you experience as you wait — and maybe wait some more — while the supermarket clerk chats happily with a passing neighbor. Maybe you start to get irked, and then you remember it: “I’m not in the city, so what’s my hurry?”
When you’re on island time, it might seem unnecessary to seek out even greater isolation on a hike. But Lopez Island affords one easy walk through enchanting woods to a wild, salty viewpoint that might just be the high point of your trip.
The hike: An almost-flat round trip journey of 2.2 miles, with less than 200 feet of elevation gain from Watmough Bay to Point Colville, the southeasternmost spur of Lopez Island and one of the more accessible pieces of the newly designated San Juan Islands National Monument.
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For a little effort, the payoff is big: From grassy crests and rocky promontories, take in 180-degree views out across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, encompassing the entire range of the Olympic Mountains in one direction. Turn the other way for a surprising peek at arching Deception Pass Bridge, almost 8 miles away, across Rosario Strait. (Binoculars help.) Expect windy drama, and, on a stormy day, dress for it.
Accessibility: Not wheelchair-accessible. The first half of this loop can be completed easily by children and less-hardy adults. Leashed dogs OK; no bikes or horses.
Along the way: The best parking is at nearby Watmough Bay Preserve, and you’ll miss a treat if you don’t start or end with a stroll to the bay, following a tunnel-like path through alders, sword ferns and nettles, and past a cattail marsh alive with the cheerful “chirr-eee” of red-wing blackbirds. After 5 minutes of walking, you’ll emerge at a driftwood-strewn sand-and-pebble beach.
A protected cleft with a view of snowy Mount Baker bordered by a soaring rock cliff, the bay is a good prelude to the awe you’ll feel at Point Colville (named for the 19th-century governor of the Hudson’s Bay Co., which developed agriculture in the San Juans.
Return to the parking lot, walk back up the entry lane 0.1 mile and turn left on Watmough Head Road. You won’t go far before reaching a sign declaring that “county road ends” — as will the pavement. From there, you’ll find a dirt lane, rutted and bumpy enough to make you glad you left the family sedan behind. (Besides, the trailhead has sparse parking.)
In about a half-mile, you’ll hit an unmarked trailhead among giant, fire-scarred Douglas firs. (A gate leading to a private home is a cue if you’ve gone too far.) Go right into the trees and you’ll quickly find a trailhead sign (hidden from the road, oddly) and a thoughtfully provided bike rack (cycling is prohibited on the trail ahead). On the day we visited, there were also loaner dog leashes emblazoned with “San Juan Islands National Monument” available.
The trail meanders through 100- to 200-foot-tall firs and cedars – don’t trip over the braided roots. Lush salal soon surrounds you. The fir-needle carpet makes these old woods hushed and eerie, save for the occasional overhead roar of jets from nearby Whidbey Naval Air Station. Bring bug repellent for this stretch, which deviates from the bucolic pastureland of much of Lopez.
At an unmarked fork, go right for the easiest route; it’s a loop.
The trail soon hits crests where native grasses grow, alongside in-season wildflowers typical of the San Juans, and dramatically wind-sculpted blue-tinged spruces. Underfoot, spare the delicate lichen on rocks as you find a perch for the best view. When I visited in June, tiny blue bellflowers and low-growing Oregon grape also accented the straw-colored slopes.
Here, the forest silence dissipates as the open hillside erupts in robust birdsong.
“Oh, this is lovely!” exclaimed my daughter at almost every turn.
To the right, wander down to a spur that travels above shore rocks. It’ll take you to a viewpoint that resembles an amphitheater for marine life at low tide. The day we went, we spotted pulsing jellies, swaying sea lettuce and beds of bull kelp tangled like Poseidon’s hair after a night of drinking.
Beyond, signs mark the end of public lands.
Bring binoculars to peer at sea birds diving and swimming off nearby Castle Island (aptly named). Pigeon guillemots, with their distinctive white wing stripe, dart in and out of roosts on the cliff face.
As we munched on sack lunches on a high rock, a whale-watching boat from Anacortes zoomed past, its deck crowded with hopeful day-trippers.
For your return, follow the path eastward around the point, which requires sturdy footwear — there are some precarious toeholds on striated rocks above sheer drop-offs. Hang on tight to dogs and little ones. You can also go back the way you came for a less challenging walk.
Rewards of the more challenging route include a nice view of Mount Erie, Mount Baker and Deception Pass just before the path returns to forest. Listen for the gentle clanging of a bell buoy on Rosario Strait.
Details: No permits required. Watmough Bay is jointly managed by San Juan County Land Bank and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. Vault toilet at Watmough Bay parking lot.
Getting there: Take Washington State Ferries (wsdot.wa.gov/ferries) from Anacortes to Lopez Island. On the island’s south end, follow Mud Bay Road southeast to a right turn on Aleck Bay Road. In a half-mile, continue straight on Watmough Head Road, and in 0.9 mile, go left at the small sign for Watmough Bay Preserve.
More information: San Juan Islands National Monument: blm.gov/or/resources/recreation/sanjuans/, or San Juan County Land Bank: sjclandbank.org/watmough-bay-preserve-lopez-island/