Saturday, October 17, 2009
Whidbey Island Afternoon: Hiking the bluff 'n beach at Ebey’s Landing
I’ve always loved going places I’ve never been before. Don’t you? Sure, I dream of exotic, far-flung adventures. But it could also be something as simple as driving down a different road in my neighborhood.
Even though I’ve lived here most of my life, there are still plenty corners of the Northwest I’ve yet to see. Recently I made my first trip to hike the shoreline bluff at Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve on the westernmost point of Whidbey Island. This wonderful spot on the western edge of Whidbey offers stunning views of the Olympic Peninsula, Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands, and east and south to the Cascade Mountains. Best of all, you can do it year-round.
On a partly cloudy, breezy Friday, we catch a mid-morning ferry from Mukilteo to Whidbey. After swinging through Langley to fuel up at Useless Bay Coffee, we head up island on Highway 20 (part of the Cascade Loop scenic drive).
Although traffic is thicker on the island than it used to be, it still feels like a trip back to a slower time. We pass through evergreen forests, sweeping vistas, and bucolic farmland. When we arrive at the reserve’s beach parking lot west of Coupeville, one spot is open, just for us. “I have good parking karma,” Shari tells me.
Hiking the bluff
Before we start, I dash to the beach and dip my toes in the breaking waves. Just because. A light but steady, salty sea breeze blows across my face, refreshing and invigorating.
Right away the trail heads up wooden steps through a tangle of native shrubs like snowberry and Nootka rose. Within 10 minutes, we’ve hit the bluff top, which then angles gently upward.
The trail skirts preserved historic farmland and drops off steeply to the beach below.
Like a ghostly mirage, Mount Baker and elusive Glacier Peak float on the eastern horizon above lesser Cascade peaks such as Whitehorse Mountain and Three Fingers. We meander north up the bluff, passing tidy fields of golden grain that roll gently in sinuous waves. Part of the purpose of the historical reserve is to preserve this farmland from development, thus maintaining farming that’s gone on here for over a century.
Another 10 minutes or so up the bluff we enter the Robert Y. Pratt Preserve, a Nature Conservancy property. The whole Ebey’s Landing complex is actually a patchwork of National Park Service, Nature Conservancy, state park, and conservation easement land.
“I especially like this hike because you pass through the interface of four distinct landscapes—the farmland, the bluff, the lagoon, and the beach,” says Elizabeth Davis, a friendly retiree volunteer we meet on the trail. (Elizabeth isn’t crazy about having her picture taken, but she obliges. I think she’s quite lovely.)
After gradually climbing upward along the bluff, we top out at the edge of a mature lowland forest. Some of the Douglas firs here are as old as 200 years. From here the trail winds through tall grasses along the edge of wind-stunted trees.
Several little trails wind into the inviting green forest, but none of them go very far. “Those aren’t official trails and we discourage people from using them. They don’t really go anywhere,” Elizabeth tells us.
Whoosh! A big osprey flies overhead and drops like a stone into the tall grass below me halfway down the bluff. I think of the poor field mouse that probably just met its demise.
Don hikes at a brisk pace, but I can’t keep from stopping often to gape at the wondrous views down to the lagoon, across the Strait, and north into the San Juans. With the bracing fresh air and the lovely, unspoiled setting, I want to linger longer.
As the bluff trails angles downward, we switchback and head down to the lagoon (Perego’s Lake). At Elizabeth’s recommendation, we walk back along the lagoon’s edge instead of the beach just yet.
Brown and white killdeer float in bunches along the water surface. The saltwater lagoon is home throughout the year to lots of migrating birds and waterfowl.
We hop over the driftwood protecting the lagoon and walk the beach the rest of the way back. Several times I almost stumble on flocks of small brown birds that blend a little too well into the sandy beach. Each time they burst upward and fly together in formation farther down the beach, peeping in alarm. We hopscotch together down the beach.
About 2 hours after we started, we’re back at the car. Overall we covered close to 3 miles and got a good stretch of the legs. Now we’re off to Langley for dinner.
When You Go
This Nature Conservancy page has a map and directions to the beach at Ebey’s Landing. We spent a little over 2 hours there, but you could easily spend a few more with binoculars and bird or native plant guide in hand, your camera and tripod, or a sketch pad. Click here to donate to the Nature Conservancy.