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Sam Juan Islands - Washington

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 Page 2: Lopez and Shaw Islands | Island Nature
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Orcas Island

Orcas Island takes its name not from its whale shape but from the 1792 Viceroy of Mexico. East Sound, the channel that nearly cuts the island in two, creates great views from anywhere along its coastline.

The most prominent landmark on the island is Mount Constitution, the highest point in the archipelago. Much of the mountain, including the summit, is part of Moran State Park, given to Washington by Robert Moran, the World War I shipping and shipbuilding magnate, who built the estate that became the Rosario Resort. From the summit of Mount Constitution one can see the entire archipelago; north to Vancouver Island; and south to the Olympic Peninsula. On a clear day, and there's a good chance you'll have one, you'll be able to see Mount Rainier to the southeast, and Mount Baker to the east.

Moran State Park offers several walking and hiking trails, where the visitor can experience the island wilderness. Although Orcas is mostly a busy place, getting off the roadway into the forested areas of the park provides a sense of what island life was like before the arrival of resorts, restaurants, and sightseeing excursions.

It's a five-mile trip to the summit of Mount Constitution from the park entrance, and it is possible to drive all the way on a paved road. Even hardy cyclists have a challenge attempting the steep roadway. Hiking trails start at mid-mountain, leading to the summit, and a viewing tower built during the Depression from a design commissioned by Robert Moran, who had seen this type of stone lookout tower in the Caucasus mountains.

Mount Constitution is only one of several attractions in this large park. Cascade Falls is an impressive waterfall. Mountain Lake, near the summit, is a fishing lake, and a 3.6-mile walking trail circles the lake. Twin Lakes are small and secluded lakes, that are reached by walking beyond Mountain Lake on the Mount Constitution trail.

At the bottom of the mountain is Cascade Lake, which you pass just after entering the park. Developed campsites are in this low-level area, which attracts people for its boating, canoeing and fishing, plus swimming and hiking opportunities.

Eastsound, the island's largest community, is situated on the thin sandy piece of land that joins the two halves of the island. The village has retained its period charm over the years, and it has a tranquil, laid-back ambiance. The ferry landing is in Orcas, at the island's southeast corner.

The "tail" of the whale-shaped island is at Obstruction Pass, where there is a small park with a public beach. Nearby Doe Bay Village features a "hot" spring resort, near the tiny town of Olga. Two of the three mineral baths contain hot sulphur water. The other pool is cold. This is a cold spring, with the water heated without the help of nature. The resort has accommodations, in cabins, along 2,000 feet of waterfront. There are fine views from the tubs and the resort's redwood decks, and the management also offers guided kayak tours to a nearby wildlife sanctuary.

The most accessible public beach on the seashore is at Obstruction Pass, on the southeast side of the island -- a half-mile walk from the road. This is a scenic, secluded beach with a small camping area and a picnic site. There is also a short stretch (60 feet) of beach just north of Eastsound at the end of North Beach Road. Several other beaches around the island are accessible by boat.

Lopez & Shaw Islands

Lopez:

This smaller island normally provides a day adventure for most travelers. It's a handy stop as the first ferry landing on the San Juan Islands ferry trip, permitting tourists to drive off the ferry and spend a few hours on the island, and then go on to stay on Orcas or San Juan. There are two parks on the island -- quite different from the natural areas on the larger islands.

The gentle landscape of Odlin County Park, on the west side of the island near the ferry landing, features 82 acres of woods and beach with picnicking and boating opportunities. A small campground is located in the park (30 sites) and with only one resort hotel and a couple of B and Bs on the island, this is where many people stay.

Spencer Spit State Park offers a different view of the ocean from the northeast side of the island. With a mile-long sandy beach, Spencer Spit provides walking trails, a covered picnic area and 42 campsites. The spit connects Lopez with Frost Island at low tide and popular pastimes here include clamming, fishing and crabbing. The public campsites are perfect as bicycle camps. The campsites, however, are fairly primitive and don't offer much in the way of conveniences.

Lopez Village is in the north-central section of the island, and there are cafes and stores here for obtaining camp supplies and picnic food. The slow and out-of-time ambiance of the island is characterized by the down-home restaurants and the soda fountain at the Lopez Island Pharmacy.

Shaw Island

This is the smallest of the islands served by the ferry system, and the least-visited. It has no overnight accommodations except for a few campsites, so most visitors have to plan for a visit and then catch a later ferry to another island, or back to the mainland. There is no restaurant on the island.

Shaw lies in the center of the group of islands and thus has sheltered water all around. The island is eight square miles in size and 100 people live there year-round. The only commercial enterprise open to the public is the Little Portion Store, beside the ferry landing. The store, post office and the ferry landing are operated by Franciscan nuns. The Shaw Island Historical Museum is a log cabin across from the historic one-room schoolhouse, at the corner of Blind Bay Rd. and Hoffman Cove Road, open on Saturdays and Mondays.

Shaw County Park is located at the south end of the island. It has one of the best beaches in the San Juans, and this is one of the few places in the island chain where the water gets warm enough for swimming. There are 12 campsites, a boat ramp, toilets, and drinking water. Nature trails lead along the shoreline and through the woods.

Island Nature

With a few exceptions, there are few locations on San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez islands which have not seen changes by human hands. The backcountry of Mount Constitution is the major exception, and there you can escape, on a path into the wilderness, where you can spot belted kingfishers, Vaux's swifts in the virgin forest, eagles setting down on treetops, plus ospreys, common loons and dippers.

Whale watching -- from land -- is probably at its best in Lime Kiln State Park, on San Juan Island. In addition to pods of orcas, you can expect to see minke whales and porpoises just offshore.

Most of the islands of the archipelago are accessible only by private boat, and many visitors rent motorboats, canoes, and kayaks to see the "real" San Juan Islands. The chain of little, uninhabited islands starts just west of Anacortes. Cypress Island, north of Anacortes, has a large natural resource conservation area, with most of the island preserved by the state. Like most of the undeveloped islands, Cypress has no public facilities, or visitor program.

There are state parks where visitors are permitted. Northern Puget Sound State Parks system includes Socia, Matia, Patos, and Clark Island state parks, located north of Orcas Island. Turn and Poesy islands are state parks to the southwest and southeast of Orcas. Blind Island State Park is north of Shaw Island, at the entrance to Blind Bay. James Island State Park is east of Decatur Island. These state park islands have campsites and pit or vault toilets.

San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge takes in 83 small islands that are nesting and resting sites for many birds. Matia and Turn islands are also part of the national wildlife refuge, and these are the only islands in the refuge on which people are allowed to land. Colville Island is noted for its sea birds, including double-crested cormorants, which one may observe while paddling by.

The Nature Conservancy manages the San Juan Preserve System. While all of its preserves can be reached by boat (and only one from land), Yellow Island Preserve is the one island on which people are permitted to land. This island is near the northwestern shore of Shaw, and near the southwestern shore of Orcas. The ten-acre island features exquisite wildflower displays in spring, including blue camas, Indian paintbrush, lilies, and buttercups.

As if this weren't enough, the shore offers superb wildlife viewing: of porpoises, minke whales, orcas, bald eagles, and many species of ducks. This is one island where disinterest by early settlers meant that native vegetation was not threatened by imported species. Largely a grassy island, benign neglect has made it almost a modern miracle.

Island Hiking

The San Juan Islands are small, and not conducive to backcountry hiking. Backcountry activity is better done in a kayak or canoe, by paddling to an outlying island and camping in a primitive marine campsite. Short nature trails include a half-mile walk to Bell Point, on San Juan Island, reached from British Camp (see Mount Young Trail, below), and the Nature Trail at Jakle's Lagoon, from American Camp, at the southern site of the national park.

The following short hikes (the longest is three miles) will take you to a variety of natural areas, although you can't help meeting other people along the way. Because of their size and the number of summer visitors, these are sociable islands. Fall, winter, and spring all offer calmer moments to fully experience the beauty of the islands without a lot of distraction.

Mountain Lake to Cascade Lake

This is one of several hikes available in Moran State Park, on Orcas Island. Because this hike is either a steep descent, or a steep climb, down or up the side of Mount Constitution, we suggest that it be done from top to bottom. The hike is a three-mile trip, with little exertion required (if you're coming down the mountain). To get to the trailhead, drive into the park and turn uphill 1.5 miles past the entrance, on the road to Mount Constitution. Drive one mile, and turn right, onto a side road leading to Mountain Lake. The trailhead sign is off the right-hand side of the road.

The path wanders for a while, through forest, moving below the dam in the first mile. The trail begins to descend, leading beside and across the creek. At 1.5 miles, the trail leaves a meadow, with stands of alder, leading onto an old road. The trail leaves the road at a sign pointing to Cavern, Rustic, and Cascade falls. There are a number of switch backs before reaching the first falls, and then passing through a rich forest of Douglas-fir and cedar. The second falls are reached at mile 1.75. The largest of the falls, Cascade, is reached in a minute or two. There are views of the three-tiered waterfall, the largest in the park.

To complete the hike, take the lower trail, which has a wooden railing, descending through virgin forest and connecting with the paved highway. Turn right for 100 yards (an osprey nest sits on top of a tree trunk). There is another road (off the parking area) that leads to the campground and park ranger station.

Twin Lakes Trail

This 2.25-mile one-way walk also begins at Mountain Lake, but heads in the opposite direction, with an elevation change of 200 feet. The trailhead is to the left of the boat ramp in Mountain Lake Campground. The trail leads along the west shore of the lake, close to the water, past several picnic spots. Passing a blow down area, devastated by a violent wind storm, it leads to a meadow, the site of an earlier home. After a little more than a mile, the trail leaves the lake and comes to a junction. The right trail continues a loop around Mountain Lake. The left fork leads to Twin Lakes.

The path now climbs through forest, reaching another junction. The vegetation here is a wonderful mixture of tall, old Douglas-firs and younger hemlock, with a bed of ferns and flowers. Deer are often seen in this wooded area. Turn right to reach the two lakes. You have a choice of walking on a bridge over the stream that joins the two lakes, and making a loop around either or both lakes. A walk around either lake offers a stroll of about a half-mile. You can also take the left trail, which leads to the stone observation tower and the summit parking lot.

Mount Young Trail

This isn't much of a mountain, but its summit is the highest point on San Juan Island, and from it you have wonderful vistas of water and other islands. The top of Mount Young was sculpted by glaciers into a smooth, rounded shape. From the Friday Harbor ferry terminal, take the road toward Roche Harbor. Turn left (south) toward British Camp. The restored buildings of the British garrison are open to the public, and are part of the national park. The trailhead is at the end of the parking lot.

The trail leads through trees, to the highway, and to a cemetery. The men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry buried here were not casualties of the Pig War, but died from drowning and other causes. Beyond the cemetery, the trail ascends through maples and madrones (arbutus), to a sign board which interprets geological points of interest. This overlook is just below the summit. The total trip to the summit is one mile long, and the walk down to British Camp seems even shorter.

South Beach Trail

This trail, leading from American Camp, on the southern shore of San Juan Island, takes you to a beach with tide pools and fine views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The one-way trip is 1.5 miles, starting from Pickett's Lane, which branches south, off American Camp Road. There is a parking area with picnic sites beside the beach. The hike is along the beach, and you have a choice of walking east to Cattle Point and a lighthouse, or west to Grandma's Cove. In addition to beach scenes, you'll see lots of birds and the grassy vegetation which covers much of San Juan Island. This is not necessarily natural growth. The Native inhabitants of the islands often used fire to regenerate the vegetation.

This is a place for observing shorebirds -- plovers, gulls, turnstones, yellowlegs -- and even the turkey vulture. This, of course is not a shorebird, but is one of several raptor species found here, including hawks and eagles. A picnic area sits around the bend from the lighthouse, and tide pools are revealed at low tide.

Jakle's Lagoon is located directly across the peninsula from South Beach, on the other side of Mt. Finlayson, and is also accessed by trail from American Camp.

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