Exploring the Salish Sea Islands

From lighthouses to mountain vistas, these favorite hikes offer tranquil waterside Northwest scenery

By Lissa Brewer June 23, 2022


This article originally appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Seattle magazine.

In the islands of Western Washington, breaker waves fall among the calls of seagulls. Quiet trails lie within old-growth forests, in wildflower meadows and on driftwoodcovered shores. These are places where time seems to slow, with schedules dictated only by the tides and the ferries. Washington is home to more than 170 islands, including many reachable only by seaplane or kayak. Fortunately, many accessible islands are home to a vast network of trails, ripe for exploring in the spring and summer months.

Pack a pair of binoculars for this 3.5 mile scenic loop trail to gaze out at the Olympic Mountains from Whidbey Island’s cascading western bluffs. Situated within Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve, this trail offers multiple entry paths from high and low elevation points. From the shoreline, follow a set of wooden staircases to a prairie, where a wide trail slowly ascends through grasslands to reveal expansive vistas alongside patches of hemlock and pine trees.

In summer months, the Bluff Trail is lined with bright yellow mustard and violet vetch blooms. In winter, look for snowberries and rose hips, especially on the initial incline. As you look out to Perego’s Lake below, be sure to scan branches and snags nearby for perching eagles before descending by switchback to the shore.

From Seattle, access Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve by ferry from Mukilteo. The Whidbey Island route features Washington State Ferries’ first new waterfront terminal in more than 40 years, designed by LMN Architects in collaboration with local Coast Salish tribes.

Settle in after a day on the trails at Captain Whidbey Inn, a 1907 historic lodge featuring cabins redesigned in collaboration with local artisans, as well as a full restaurant offering locally sourced and seasonal tastes of the region.
Photo by: Lissa Brewer  – Kayaking is one of many activities off the Rosario Head Trail.

Deception Pass State Park, spanning more than 3,800 acres across Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands, is the most visited state park in Washington. But with nearly 40 miles of hiking trails, there’s always a quiet cove to be found.

For a scenic hike along the park’s headlands, take the 4.7-mile loop trail to Lighthouse and Lottie Points, just north of the iconic Deception Pass Bridge. Start your journey at Rosario Head. As you pass its tide pools and driftwood shores, continue south along Bowman Bay. From there, head out to Lighthouse Point for hemlock-framed views of the bridge. You’ll also find Douglas fir, cedar and spruce trees along the route. For an extended hike, or shorter route on its own, head across the bridge for a peaceful walk along the 1.8 -mile North Beach Trail, which leads from the bridge to a beach and picnic area on the northwestern shore of Whidbey Island.

After exploring the park, head to nearby Anacortes to dine at Adrift Restaurant, A’Town Bistro or the Calico Cupboard Café. Stay nearby at the Majestic Inn & Spa, a boutique hotel dating back to 1890. It once housed an office and hardware store.

Central Fidalgo Island is home to two forested peaks, each with expansive vistas that stretch across Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains. While some viewpoints at Mount Erie are accessible by car on a paved road leading up the mountain, the best way to take in these sights is on the area’s extensive network of trails.

For a full view of the landscape, try the 4.7-mile loop trail, which circles both peaks. Along the journey, you’ll find tall pines, thriving ferns, rock formations and even wild mushrooms. The shorter 2.1 mile out-and-back trail along Sugarloaf Mountain offers a chance to explore views toward the San Juan Islands.

After this hike, head to nearby La Conner, a picturesque waterfront town that sits along the Swinomish Channel. Dine out at The Oyster & Thistle Restaurant and Pub, a classic Northwest seafood option, or the more casual La Conner Brewing Co. for an excellent pizza alongside a glass of local wine or craft beer. Then head over to the unique La Conner Ice Cream Tower, shaped like a lighthouse, for a treat.

To end the night, plan a stay at the La Conner Channel Lodge, the town’s sole waterfront inn. If you happen to visit in the springtime, a visit to the nearby Skagit Valley tulip fields is also a must.

Board an open-air ferry and sail across the narrow Guemes Channel from Anacortes to reach Guemes Island, a tranquil outpost housing one resort, a general store and a community center. From the ferry dock, follow South Shore Road by car or on foot to the Guemes Mountain trailhead.

Lush ferns form a forest floor bed to begin this 2.4-mile out-and-back hike. The trail is a recent project resulting from the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust, Skagit Land Trust and Guemes Island residents. A lightly traveled route, the trail leads through a forest of Douglas fir and western red cedar to reach a prairie vista at the mountain’s peak. This pinnacle, which is Guemes’ highest point, offers views of the San Juan Islands, Mount Baker and even the Canadian Cascades. In late spring and early summer, look for wild roses and other brightly-hued wildflowers among the grasslands.

After your descent, enjoy a meal at the Guemes Island General Store, which doubles as the island’s only restaurant. Book a stay at the Guemes Island Resort and drive the island’s 13 miles of roads, looking out for blue herons and peacocks wandering along the island’s quiet streets.
Photo by: Lissa Brewer – The Lime Kiln Lighthouse serves as a functioning navigational aid.

Wind through an upland forest of Pacific madrone trees, twisting in hues of silver and rust over beds of lush moss, on this series of historic trails extending through San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Preserve. Connecting in loops with varying grades and narrow detours, this trail system offers a chance to explore abandoned rock quarries, serene wetlands and the park’s namesake lime kiln. The simplest route to follow is the Kiln Trail, a 1.4-mile loop that follows a wide path from the park’s main entrance.

After exploring the uplands, head toward the iconic Lime Kiln Light, a working navigation aid watching over the island’s western shore. In the summer months, the light houses an interpretive center, gift shop and tours. This coastline also boasts a unique distinction for wildlife viewers. Because of its water depth patterns, the site sees breaching and spy hopping whales just feet from the shoreline.

Next, take the road to Roche Harbor Resort for seafood and sandwiches at the Lime Kiln Café on the resort’s marina. Across the street, find the historic Hotel de Haro alongside a sculpture garden and selection of shops.

Situated within Orcas Island’s 5,200-acre Moran State Park are five serene lakes, the largest of which, Mountain Lake, can be circumnavigated via the Mountain Lake Trail, a 3.9-mile loop that stays mostly flat throughout its route. This is a relaxing trail that can be explored at any speed.

Along the way, expect to be greeted by wildlife, including native bird species such as blue herons, ospreys, ducks and kingfishers. You may also run across a serene group of black-tailed deer or even a red fox. Look up to observe the tree canopy and see views of Mount Constitution, another popular spot for hiking and a summit with access via paved road.

After wearing out your camera’s memory card, stop by the Doe Bay Café for a bite along the water’s edge, or venture into the town of Eastsound to dine at Hogstone’s Wood Oven, featuring organic, farm-to-table fare. Spend a night at the Rosario Resort & Spa, which features an in-house museum and appears on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wander through a forest floor of bright ferns and moss-covered boulders on the 400-acre Lopez Hill Preserve, home to a network of interconnected trails. These lands, owned by the San Juan County Land Bank and maintained by the Friends of Lopez Hill, are home to many species of birds and small mammals, as well as lilies, orchids, mushrooms and other plants.

The lightly traveled 2.3-mile Lopez Hill Trail, designed to protect the area’s wild landscape, features prominent tree roots and steep grades. The view, however, is rewarding. Ascending the 535-foot hill, the trail offers a scenic lookout to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but its plants and wildlife are just as rewarding to see. On the subject of wildlife, equestrians are also welcome.

When your hiking day is done, delicious dining awaits at Ursa Minor, featuring a selection of artful Northwest fare with a focus on Lopez Island’s seasonal harvests, including fresh berries, oysters and garden vegetables. For a memorable stay, explore the seaside Lopez Islander Resort & Marina, offering traditional rooms, camping sites and vacation rentals.

However you explore, the islands are sure to comfort.

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