Saturday, November 17, 2012

Orcas Island Getaway: Hiking Turtleback Mountain

When I drive onto the Orcas Island ferry with a mere 30 seconds to spare, I know this is going to be good trip. 

After all, if I missed the ferry after driving an hour and a half north from Seattle, I'd have a four-hour wait until the next ferry to Orcas. Thirty seconds. A gift.

But I think every trip to the San Juan Islands is a gift.  This scenic and lovely archipelago 65 miles north of Seattle always feels touched with magic. Especially Orcas.

While the San Juans are heavy with tourists in the summer, I'm sneaking up for an overnight on a Wednesday in mid-November. If you want to feel the flavor of regular island life without the throngs, I suggest you head up here during the off-season, midweek.

Although I bring a book to read on the ferry, I'm usually glued to the deck with my camera and binoculars, scanning the sea for marine life such as seals, Dall's porpoises, waterfowl, and orcas (killer whales). Today I see some seals, bufflehead ducks, and something splashing and blowing just off Decatur Island in Thatcher Pass, but nothing surfaces.

Initially a marine cloud layer hovers low overhead, but the farther west we churn into the islands, the lightening sky reminds me of the classic Golden Age Dutch landscape paintings, like a Jacob van Ruisdael.

After disembarking on Orcas, I drive to Eastsound, the largest village at narrow top-center of the island, for a quick lunch at Mia's Cafe. Whilst I wish I'd brought my sea kayak on this sunny and windless day, I plan on hiking Turtleback Mountain Preserve this afternoon. The friendly lady at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor's Center in Eastsound gives me a map and tells me how to get to the north trailhead off Crow Valley Road on the west side of the island.

This afternoon mine is the only car in the parking lot, but because this is Orcas, I don't feel skittish hiking alone. As I start ascending the dirt road trail,  instead I feel embraced and comforted by the lush, mossy second-growth forest and occasional wetland and stream bracketing the trail.

After hiking up about 45 minutes at a leisurely pace, I reach the Waldron Overlook, where I scoot off the main trail 20 or 30 yards to a splendid panorama spread below.

Looking northwest toward Waldron Island and the Gulf Islands of B.C. beyond.

With darkness coming early this late in the year, I don't linger too long and continue upward on the main trail. But first I make myself stop for a minute and silently give thanks for being here on this beautiful day.

Although I told myself I'd head back down at 2:30 p.m., I'm drawn upward past my set turnaround time.  It's just too quiet and lovely up here.  

However, in a few minutes an explosion of rustling leaves and tumbling rocks erupts just below the trail, where I see two white-rumped deer leap and run into the forest. I'm not sure who is more startled, me or the deer.

In another 10 minutes the trail/road flattens out at a junction for the Raven's Ridge Trail beside a large wetland.  In hopes of getting to the 1,500-foot + summit and more views, I head on up at the junction.  But I just get deeper into the forest and finally turn around and head down (an island resident later tells me that the Raven's Ridge Trail loop does not lead to any viewpoints). I get back to the car at 3:45, 2 hours and 15 minutes after I started.

Icing on the cake for this perfect day is enjoying a beer and the sunset at The Madrona Bar and Grill with a friend who lives on the island. And then a party with local Orcas women at the home of another friend. So many wonderful artists on Orcas!

Overlooking Fishing Bay in East Sound, with Turtleback Mountain in the distance.
With another lovely morning, I thoroughly enjoy the ferry ride back to the mainland, just a wee bit sad that I have to get back to city life so quickly.  But more icing on this sweet getaway is the musician who parks at the front of the ferry to practice strumming and singing songs. Great accoustics up there.

Ferry music, real good for free
How about you? Have you hiked Turtleback Mountain?  What are you favorite spots on Orcas?  Jump in the conversation by leaving a comment below!

When You Go
I hiked the north side of Turtleback, but the south side has a few more overlooks and spectacular views, according to a local friend and island resident.  And thanks to generous private donors, Turtleback Head has recently been added to the preserve.  As of this writing, the Washington Trails Association has begun marking the location of a new trail from near the Waldron Overlook to access the head.


Gayle said...

You are making me hungry not only for Mia's, but Turtleback Mtn trails and all the other delights of Orcas in the quiet season. The south trail on Turtleback Mtn is not to be missed, if you are sans kayak next time too. May your ferry luck hold for many more moons!

jill said...

Thanks Gayle! Yes, next time I'll do the south side of Turtleback. And that ferry luck...makes up for missing the Vashon ferry last summer by 30 seconds.

Anonymous said...

I LOVED your San Juan post. My husband and I are trying to take next Thur/Fri off to go up to Decatur; not sure it will work but it’s worth a try and your blog gave me inspiration to try harder!