So I think I’m asking a typical, even boring question: “What flowers bloom out there?” when the young botanist falls silent and turns positively scarlet as she wavers between the desire to talk about beloved Lopez Island wildflowers and a reluctance to mention them to a journalist.
“Well, let’s see,” Madrona Murphy relents, “blooming at Iceberg Point in August: blue-eyed grass, sea thrift...” A guy passing by blurts out another flower name. Murphy blushes again. “Gee whiz, I wasn’t going to mention that!”
How, exactly, at a potluck at the Lopez Island Community Center, do I find myself in a scene from The Orchid Thief? And why are grown men and strong women on the verge of tears as they talk about their favorite haunts? After all, we’re here to toast the creation of a National Monument in the San Juan Islands, which means more tourism, and that’s a good thing, right?
“These spots have always been well-kept secrets by the locals,” says Tim Seifert of the San Juan Preservation Trust. “The joke on Lopez is that locals send visitors to the county parks. They are already on the map.”
But this summer, many “secret spots” will be on the map, too, thanks to President Obama. On March 25, he created San Juan Islands National Monument (sanjuanislandsnca.org), a collection of 75 special places—tiny islands and rocky promontories—protected forever for critters and humans to enjoy in their natural state.
OK, are you ready to see your freshly minted monument? Sure, these places have long been public, but having been unofficially protected by locals and now by federal edict, they have a special, off-the-beaten-path allure.
We begin with Iceberg Point on south Lopez on a sunny day, which reminds one (of a certain age or cinematic hipness) of that scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen strives for a word better than “love” for Diane Keaton. “I lurve you,” Woody says. And that’s what you’ll say when you emerge from a Hansel and Gretel forest into a bright Connemara landscape, where grassy prairies turn rocky and drop into the cream-blue waves. Look for the rare and awesomely named slender crazyweed, with fuzzy, pale yellow blossoms, which grows rampant on the point. (This stroll is about three miles round-trip, starting from the parking lot at Agate Beach County Park.)
The next pair of strolls is even further under the radar. Drive unpaved Watmough Head Road, on the southeast part of the island, about four miles east of Iceberg Point, until it heads steeply downhill. Park on the left and look for the sign marking the preserve. Walk a gentle trail for a half-mile to the sandy beach blessed with bleached driftwood logs from which to sit in awe of Mount Baker, perfectly framed between rocky headlands.
The final Lopez Island walk (but not the last National Monument site on the island) is about a half-mile farther east from the Watmough Bay trailhead, down Watmough Head Road. Find the trail to Point Colville by keeping an eye peeled for a burned old-growth fir leaning over the road. This land is not for humans. It is for 500-year-old trees and puffy reindeer lichen and seals and maybe fairies. The views from the terraces of Point Colville sweep from Mount Baker, across the Olympics and out along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and they’re all yours, even in the crush of August.
Stay: There are a few VRBO (vacation rental by owner) homes on the island, including the eclectic and comfortable Tower House, a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath rental house overlooking Agate Beach. It’s an easy walk to Iceberg Point. 360.378.3048; vrbo.com/449234
Eat: The freshest arugula salad on the planet is reason enough to come to the twinkling Bay Cafe, where the white linens on the tables are dressier than the patrons. Do not miss the local halibut. 9 Old Post Road, Suite C; 360.468.3700; bay-cafe.com
Got picnic? You do after visiting Southend General Store and Restaurant, a little miracle of a market/deli perfectly located between monument sites Iceberg Point and Watmough Bay. 3024 Mud Bay Road; 360.468.2315.
SAN JUAN ISLAND
Picnic on Cattle Point
The Monument’s easiest section to explore is Cattle Point on San Juan Island. Keep driving past American Camp to the most southeastern point on the island. Suddenly, it seems like you can see forever. Wonder why? “Cattle Point is in the rain shadow, that’s why,” says National Park Service ranger Mike Vouri. “It’s open, south-facing prairie that only gets 19 inches of rain a year.”
You could admire windswept Cattle Point Lighthouse from the car, but it’s so worth hoisting a picnic, later breaking out the baguette and Gruyère on the sandy bluff, and then taking a nap. You awake with a start: Is that someone laughing at you? No worries—it’s just sea lions gossiping on the next rock over.
Paddle Around Posey Island
We are kayaking off Posey Island when San Juan Outfitters guide Jacob Wagner holds up a pretty sea creature, glistening and purple. “This is an ochre sea star, and this is its mouth. And this is its anus,” he says pointing to nearly the same spot. OK, Jacob, put it back. That’s the kind of detail you get when you take a kayak tour 25 minutes from the whitewashed village of Roche Harbor on the northwest end of San Juan Island and set foot on cute, 1-acre Posey Island. The island is uninhabited, in that humans don’t live here, but plenty of other critters do. We see bald eagles, harlequin ducks, and river otters chomping some kind of sushi, perhaps ochre sea star.
Stay: Ah, the aroma of old money wafting through the rose gardens, tennis courts and yacht-packed marina at Roche Harbor Resort (248 Reuben Memorial Drive, Roche Harbor; 800.451.8910; rocheharbor.com)! And yet the resort can be fairly affordable if you stay in the charmingly crooked 1886 hotel. How lucky that the closest place to stay near Cattle Point is Olympic Lights Bed and Breakfast (146 Starlight Way, Friday Harbor; 888.211.6195; olympiclights.com), a yellow farmhouse tucked away down a private lane with dreamy Olympic Mountain views. Ask co-owner Lea Andrade to make the chili puff with eggs from her chickens.
Eat: It’s a sunburned boaters’ party every night, starting with martinis in the tiny bar at Roche Harbor’s McMillin’s Dining Room (360.378.5757), which has totally delicious prime rib, salmon and such.
Explore: San Juan Outfitter, Roche Harbor Marina; 360.378.1962; sanjuanislandoutfitters.com. San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours, Spring Street Landing in Friday Harbor; 360.298.0012; sanjuanislandwhales.com
Solo on Stuart Island
There’s a photograph of a lighthouse that’s a poster child for San Juan Islands National Monument. Turns out, it’s Turn Point on Stuart Island and even prettier than the picture. But you gotta want it, because the ferry doesn’t go to Stuart, and Turn Point is a six-plus-mile hike from where a boat hired in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island will drop you.
When Captain Hobbes Buchanan of San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tour leaves me on the dock at Reid Harbor with the promise to return six hours later, I feel kinda scared. No houses in sight, or stores, or Starbucks. You feel like you’re walking back in time. There’s the one-room school house with two students, Prevost Harbor fringed with homestead, still-working farms, a rusted 1930s car with a tree growing out of the rumble seat, and then there’s the power and the glory of Turn Point. Look—people! The day I visit, volunteers are frosting the confection of the Victorian-lighthouse keeper’s residence with fresh white paint. A museum in the barn opens this summer, too, brimming with stories of life on the edge of civilization, including one called “There’s Blood in the Potatoes!”
What to look at next: the light station? The view? How about that ripping current in Boundary Pass separating the U.S. and Canada? Or the yacht. OMG, is that Paul Allen’s super-yacht slinking by with a Coast Guard escort? We’ll never know, because it’s time to hike back. I don’t want to miss my ride. --Jenny Cunningham
Ferry: Anacortes to Lopez Island; Friday Harbor
Frequency of sailing: Sporadically
Travel time: 50 minutes; 1 hour and 5 minutes
Fare: One adult, walk on, $12.45 (both); drive on, $40.30 and $57.35