The outdoors, farm-fresh produce and more draw visitors year-round to this San Juan Islands outpost, even after cycling season is over.
LOPEZ ISLAND — This island in the San Juans is well-known for its pleasant cycling, with plenty of easy terrain and quiet roads. But when winds get too chilly for biking, there are other things to do, such as walking and eating — and then maybe walking some more.
And while those might sound like, ahem, pedestrian pastimes, Lopez’s collection of scenery-rich parks and preserves, farm stands and a few distinguished eateries elevates them both to excellent adventures.
Named for Gonzalo Lopez de Haro, the Spanish naval officer who was the first European to discover the San Juan Islands, Lopez bids farewell in the offseason to summer crowds and caters mostly to its year-round residents, numbering about 2,400.
That means it’s easier to get a reservation at Lopez Farm Cottages, where our front stoop looked out on a splendid meadow surrounded by cedars and alders. Deer and rabbits nibbled grass around a centerpiece of four giant boulders deposited by the last ice age but resembling a modern-art installation. On the pathway from the parking lot, as we trundled bags in a provided handcart, we waved to the resident sheep gathered around a heritage apple tree laden with red fruit.
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From there, my wife and I and some island friends headed out on a recent Saturday for the annual Lopez Island Fall Farm Tour, including a few spots where you can stop year-round for local produce, free-range eggs or hormone-free meats.
Breakfast in a barn
The tour started with breakfast served on picnic tables in the 100+-year-old barn at Midnight’s Farm, named for a beloved black dog whose silhouette graces the farm’s mailbox at the edge of Center Road.
With roosters crowing from seemingly every direction, we lined up as John Shaw, a lanky young man in a ginger beard and black-rimmed eyeglasses, arrived from the kitchen with a pan of deep-dish frittata made hearty and flavorful with potatoes, kale, caramelized onion and thyme.
For the morning’s lineup of tour guests, he used 150 eggs laid by the 80 free-range Rhode Island Red hens he oversees on the farm. (Eggs, $7 a dozen, can be purchased from the farm’s self-serve stand year-round.) He and Emma Carter, who was serving, share a little apartment in the barn, built from unpeeled timbers harvested long ago. This day, orange and green mottled squash and pumpkins festively decorated the barn’s interior along with festoonings of braided onions.
Back in the food line, another pan brimmed with escarole, chard and apple slices sautéed in apple-cider vinegar and seasoned with red pepper flakes and toasted sesame seeds.
“The sesame seeds were about the only thing not local to this farm,” Shaw told us.
Also on the menu: scones made with pink sparkle apples (even the name is a treat to the tongue), plus other baked goods from Barn Owl Bakery, a tiny wood-fired bakery based on the farm that supplies superb bread and pastries to the island.
Barn Owl uses only organic ingredients, including some grains grown at nearby Horse Drawn Farm (where the land really is tilled by horse-drawn plows) and stone-milled by a local business called Island Grist. Instead of relying on commercial yeast or chemical leavening, the bakers use wild leaven, which they say is rich with bacteria and yeasts. (Look for Barn Owl’s crunchy-crusted baked goods year-round on Lopez at Blossom Grocery or Southend Market, in summer at Lopez Island Farmers Market and offseason at the island’s Sunnyfield Farm Little Winter Market.)
After breakfast, owners David Bill and Faith Van De Putte gave a talk about Midnight’s Farm, including plans to more than double the size of Barn Owl’s 200-square-foot bakehouse.
Van De Putte gave an example of how the farm, which raises pigs and cattle and includes a major composting operation and a yoga studio, strives to recycle and reuse.
“Leaven from (the bakery) is fed to our pigs. Pig poop goes into our compost, and pork goes out to the community. Our compost goes on our neighbor’s blueberries, and the blueberries are used by the bakery.”
It doesn’t always happen so poetically, however.
“Once we had a yoga retreat at the same time we had a beef slaughter, so the systems don’t always work together,” Bill said with a grimacing smile.
Cider and fiddles
A tour stop at Fruit City Farms included a sample of freshly pressed apple cider (made as we watched, from the farm’s 16 apple varieties) with a chance to sit around a bonfire where musicians roused the crowd with fiddles and a banjo.
Offered for sale were freshly harvested apples — Ginger gold, Liberty and King — and Bosc pears.
“The pears are lovely, nice and vanilla-y, and just in their prime!” seller Stacy Torres told us, slicing samples.
At another table, Lopez resident Madrona Murphy was doing a sort of “Antiques Roadshow” duty, offering to identify apples that islanders brought in from their property. All over Lopez, ancient orchards have survived many decades, proving their resistance to pests and disease. That makes them worth identifying and preserving, Murphy said.
Holding up one large striped apple, she said, “This is one we haven’t been able to identify, so we’re calling it The Striped Mystery.”
Up the island to the shore of Shoal Bay and we got a look at how oysters are farmed in a shallow lagoon. Lopez Island Shellfish Farm & Hatchery, 203 Shoreland Drive, offered oysters in the shell, including silver-dollar-sized Olympia oysters, native to the Northwest and raised in the lagoon here, for $16 a dozen. (The retail stand is open in spring and summer primarily. Picnic tables and a pizza oven are in the plans for summer 2018.)
When it came time to explore, we ventured to the southern tip of Lopez, where Iceberg Point juts like a big toe stepping into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
We had a glorious, sunny autumn day, and after a short hike through woods on a 3-mile loop trail we emerged on a rocky, shoreside bluff with a horizon-filling view of the Olympic range. Below us, a vast field of bull kelp glistened like green noodles in a soft boil on the water’s surface, while seals and sea lions perched on rocks near mounds of bleached drift logs. At a far point, we could walk up to a numbered, triangle-shaped red navigational marker, taller than my six feet, warning oil tankers off these rocks.
For an evening meal, there was no need to settle for average, boring or anything that wasn’t local. With our friends, we decided to try Ursa Minor, a recent addition to Lopez Village dining choices. The restaurant specializes in small, shared plates sourced from Lopez or nearby.
Here, looking across the road to Fisherman Bay, four of us sampled almost the entire menu (which changes daily). Our seven shared plates included such combinations as fermented corn with chanterelles, dried chili and a poached egg; celery root with radish, fish sauce, hazelnut and urchin; and salmon with cultured cream, beets and green strawberries. Dessert? Hay ice cream, with apples, yeasted caramel and hazelnuts. (Yes, flavored with hay, like from a barn. Clean hay. Vaguely made me feel like whinnying.)
With wine and tip the meal cost $300; for us it was a novel splurge, but if your wallet’s feeling light, the farm stands and local grocers provide a more economical taste of Lopez. (Good idea: Get a vacation rental with a kitchen.)
After our night out it was time to plan another walk for the next morning. Walking and salt air are free, and on Lopez Island there’s plenty of payback whatever the time of year.
If you go
Here’s a sampling. Expect self-serve, cash only (bring small bills):
• Among the best-stocked stands is at the end of a long gravel drive in a barn at Horse Drawn Farm, 2823 Port Stanley Road. Seasonal produce and farm-raised meats.
• Midnight’s Farm offers grass-fed beef, organic pork and free-range eggs, 3042 Center Road, midnightsfarm.com.
• Lopez Island Farm sells lamb and pork free of hormones and antibiotics, plus jams, syrups and chutneys, 193 Cross Road, lopezislandfarm.com.
• Sunnyfield Farm, 6363 Fisherman Bay Road, has goat cheese, yogurt and milk, sunnyfieldonlopez.com.
• For other farm products, download Lopez Community Land Trust’s guide and map, with many “call ahead” options: lopezclt.org/farm-products-guide
• Alternating Saturdays, November to January, look for the Little Winter Market at Sunnyfield Farm, with goat cheese and milk from Sunnyfield, baked goods from Barn Owl Bakery, fresh eggs and more. 6363 Fisherman Bay Road; park along the road and walk in. 360-468-2764.
• From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays, May to September, look for Lopez Island Farmers Market on Village Road in Lopez Village; lopezfarmersmarket.com.
• Lopez Farm Cottages and Tent Camping, lopezfarmcottages.com
• To prepare your own meals using local ingredients, get a rental with a full kitchen, such as Field House at Midnight’s Farm; midnightsfarm.com/farm-stay.
• More listings at visitsanjuans.com/lopez-island/accommodations
A few to try:
• Fine dining at Ursa Minor, ursaminorlopez.com, and Haven Kitchen & Bar (with sandwiches, too), lopezhaven.com, both in Lopez Village. (Ursa Minor will be open only sporadically in January and February; check website.)
• Southend Market & Cafe, Mexican food, 3024 Mud Bay Road, southendmarket.net.
You may reserve a space for your car on Washington State Ferries from Anacortes on the way to Lopez Island, but the return trip is first-come, first-served. An early-afternoon Anacortes-bound ferry serving only Lopez can take more vehicles. Ask locals for advice on when to get in line, or check the ferry website: bit.ly/lopezferry.
• Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce, lopezisland.com
• San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, visitsanjuans.com
Lopez Island hikes
Here’s a sampling. Beware of deer hunters in some areas in fall; wear bright colors.
Shark Reef Sanctuary: Half-mile trail through high salal to rocky ledges looking across swirling San Juan Channel to wild Cattle Point. Offshore rocks teem with seals.
Spencer Spit State Park: Two miles of trails through woods, bordering a lagoon and a sandy spit on Lopez Sound. parks.state.wa.us/687/Spencer-Spit
Watmough Bay Preserve: A short, shady walk to a sandy beach where high ramparts frame a view of Mount Baker. bit.ly/watmough.
Hummel Lake Preserve: A short ADA-accessible trail through cedar forest and open fields to a dock for fishing and bird-watching. bit.ly/hummellake.
Otis Perkins Park: On a slender spit bordering Fisherman Bay, explore one of the longest public beaches in the islands.
Lopez Hill: The island’s highest point has more than four miles of trails open to hikers, horses and mountain bikers. See lopezhill.org/lopez-hill-trails.
Iceberg Point: Park at Agate Beach Park, walk past the end of the county road and turn right at a handmade sign. Trails navigate woods and emerge to dramatic water and mountain views.
Upright Head Preserve: Once your car is in the ferry line for the ride home, walk to the old conifer forest and dramatic rocky shores of this northernmost point of Lopez. Enter by foot on Penny Lane, opposite the ferry terminal.
To find these and other natural areas:
• Pick up a map from the Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce, on Lopez Road in Lopez Village, or see lopezisland.com/maplopez.htm.