Hiking in our incredibly gorgeous State of Washington is its own reward. Every cell in your body gets energized, your heart is pumping and after an especially steep stretch, your body is flooded with endorphins, making you feel happy and giddy to be alive. Then there is hiking on San Juan Island with its clean, salty air, tons of wildlife and beautiful surroundings. Just when you think, it can’t get any better than this with the eagles, the foxes and the wildflowers, you come around a corner with such a spectacular view, it might just take your breath away.
Here are those hikes:
1) Mt Finlayson – 3.5 miles round-trip
Park your car at the Jakle’s Lagoon turnout on your left, about 5 minutes into American Camp National Park and head straight into the woods on a former logging road. Wander through thick Douglas firs with glimpses of Jakle’s Lagoon on your left. Keep your eyes out for wildflowers in the Spring and mushrooms in the Fall. A little after a mile, follow a small, steep trail on your right up the hill towards Mt Finlayson. It gets steeper, the forest gets thicker. You might have to bribe the littles with ice-cream and tell yourself that the steep part is only half a mile. A long half mile. Then you exit the forest and find yourself in the deep prairie grass, dotted with lone wolf trees on top of Mt Finlayson, the wind in your hair and the wild Strait of Juan de Fuca at your feet. That’s the moment! Make your way back through the prairie trail. It’s all downhill from here with ocean view and the snow-covered Olympics in the background.
2) Mt. Young – 2.2 back-tracking route
Drive to English Camp National Park and look for the Mt. Young trailhead in the parking lot. The lovely little trail will lead you by ancient Garry Oak forests and English Camp’s tiny cemetery on a spur trail, with weathered headstones from more than a century ago. Then it gets steep. Concentrate on the absolute silence and listen for bird calls. When the lush forest floor gives way to moss covered granite, you are almost there. Step out of the forest and that’s the moment: panoramic views of the Olympic Peninsula, the Canadian Gulf Islands, Henry Island, Pearl Island, Spieden Island and Garrison Bay. Look for Bald Eagles’ nests on top of the mountain. Go back the way you came from.
3) Mt. Grant – 1 mile round-trip
About 5 miles out of Friday Harbor on Beaverton Valley Road find the turnoff to Mt. Grant Preserve. San Juan Island’s highest, publicly accessible mountain, a mighty 740 feet, just barely escaped the fate of becoming a sub-division for a few. The San Juan County Land Bank is in the process of establishing trails and interpretive signs and healing the wounds from the almost development. Climb the steep trail through old-growth Douglas Firs to the top with one peekaboo view more beautiful than the next. Enter the plateau and that’s the moment. You’ll have a 360-degree view and see three of Washington’s five volcanoes: Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier & Glacier Peak, as well as the fertile valleys of San Juan Island, the Gulf Islands, the Olympics and the Cascades. Watch Bald Eagles ride the thermals below you and observe pileated woodpeckers, band-tailed pigeons and red-tailed hawks. Take the paved road, leisurely winding through the woods, back to the parking lot.
4) Dead Man Bay Preserve - 2.5 miles round-trip
Drive out Westside Road towards Lime Kiln State Park. Make sure not to miss the pull out above Dead Man Bay right after a particularly hairy curve. Park your car and find an unmarked trail leading into the woods. There is an incline (and a road crossing) for a quarter of a mile, then the trail flattens out. Wander through mixed forest with the most astonishing Madronas growing at peculiar angles. After another quarter of a mile, you’ll come to crossroads. Go straight. Soon the terrain changes from forest to lime cliffs. You’ll go downhill by ruins of the former lime kiln operation along this coast. And that’s the moment: lime quarry in your back and the deep, clear sea far below you, visible through Madronas just barely hanging on to the mossy cliffs. Soon you’ll enter Lime Kiln State Park and find a rebuilt Lime Kiln a historic lighthouse, lovely trails, an interpretive center and a snack bar. Follow signs to Dead Man Bay along the cliffs to get back to your car.
5) Cattle Point Lighthouse – however long you want
On the south end of San Juan Island on the far end of 2000 acres American Camp National Park, on the side of Cattle Point Road, find the historic Cattle Point Lighthouse. Park at the pull out closest to the lighthouse and walk to it on the short trail through dunes. Turn right and follow the trail along the cliffs.Make sure to mind fenced off parts of the trail. The bunny population in the park is eroding the cliffs and some trails are closed off for a reason. The trail hugs the coastline and that’s the moment: when you see South Beach, the island’s longest beach, deep below you and the majesty of the Salish Sea stretching as far as you can see to your left and lush prairie and Mt Finlayson arising to your right. Watch your step while counting bunnies, foxes and watching Orcas frolic in the wild waters yawning below you.