Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Orcas Island Hiking: Turtlehead Turns Heads

While Washington's San Juan Islands are known as a boating and kayaking mecca, Orcas Island offers miles of well-maintained trails through forest and mountain peaks. A splendid addition is the new trail (opened late 2013) off the north end of Turtleback Mountain out to Turtlehead Preserve (aka Orcas Knob).

On a brilliant spring day my friend Steve, who lives on Orcas, took us up the new trail for the breathtaking view from Turtlehead Preserve. He was involved in the effort to secure funding via the San Juan Preservation Trust and San Juan County Land Bank for this beautiful addition to the Turtleback Mountain Preserve. (For specifics on the effort, this story in the Island Sounder provides more detail.)

We meet at the North Trailhead of Turtleback Mountain Preserve (off Crow Valley Road, next to the historic schoolhouse) and head up the gentle grade (an old road bed) through the forest.  After about 1.5 miles, the short detour to the Waldron Lookout is worth a quick trip for the first of fantastic views.

When I hiked here last (November 2012), the trail to Turtlehead Preserve just past the Waldron Lookout detour wasn't yet openBut today we take the well-marked cutoff at the saddle and plunge into the woods through what appears mostly second-growth and remnant old-growth forest.

Save for a couple young women we pass, we're the only ones out here on a gorgeous sunny weekend afternoon. Nothing beats getting outdoors on off-peak days/season to avoid crowds of like-minded hikers.

After meandering through the forest for about a mile, with a bit of up and down, partly along an old grade and winding through trees, we get glimpses of the glorious island views.  I pick up the pace.

Soon we scramble up onto the balds to an open native grass savannah, with "tiered" rocky outcrops. Needless to say, the panoramic views of the Salish Sea and islands are SPEC-TAC-ULAR.

Looking south, Olympic Mountains in the distance on the Olympic Peninsula.
While up here gulping in the magnificent day/panorama, we try to be mindful of the delicate native grasses and flowers. Things are still green and flowering in April, but by midsummer things are likely much drier and brown up there.

And then it's an easy amble back down to the trailhead.

Big thanks to all the organizations and volunteers who helped plan, develop, and build this marvelous trail (the San Juan Preservation Trust, San Juan County Land Bank, Washington Trails Association, Washington Conservation Corps, and  local volunteers)!

Have you been to Turtlehead yet?  Would love to hear your Orcas/San Juan Islands hiking experiences in a comment below. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.
Happy hiker!

When You Go
Here is an excellent trail map with specific information at the San Juan County Land Bank website. I think overall we hiked a little over 4 miles, and this is not a challenging or difficult hike (but I did break a sweat). Turtlehead is at 1,005 feet above sea level.

Methinks that the south access trailhead to Turtleback Mountain is more popular, with more open views.  To get to Turtlehead, we hike through a few miles of woods until we're rewarded with the views. For this reason, this will probably stay a lesser visited trail. And for this reason, a good reason to go.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for all your posts Jill, I've got to get out there one of these days.

jill said...

Thanks Anonymous! Yes, hope you do get out there, glorious stretch of weather we're having right now too!

Charlie@Seattle Trekker said...

The photos are gorgeous and the information was really helpful. I am always looking for tips and suggestions to explore and enjoy the Pacific Northwest.

jill said...

Thanks Charlie! Glad you enjoyed and found helpful, that's one of my goals. Happy trails.