Turtleback Mountain | Orcas Island

When I was a kid my Dad owned a boat. Nothing fancy, just a boat with a cabin to sleep in and a table and a small stove. We would travel all over Puget Sound, spending nights in the marinas in the San Juans, or mooring off the shores of small and uninhabited islands where we would row our inflatable raft to the beach and scramble over the forest-y rocks without seeing another soul (unless you count raccoons). My sister and I would run wild all day, and often bring back dinner at the end of it. We learned to drop and pick up the crab pots ourselves, and sometimes we just waded in and picked the angry rocks crabs off the bottom. My Dad fondly recalls the time we brought him 10 pounds of shrimp, passing them through the boat window to him as we filled up our buckets right from the docks. Weekends spent on the boat were quite literally magic to me, and my experiences out in the Sound have shaped who I have become – my love and respect for nature, my hands-on approach to curiosity, and my constant need to get back to the sea and re-set myself.

I vividly remember our last summer with the boat before it was sold. I must have been about 11 or 12, and with nothing else planned for our break from school we spent weeks at a time out on the water, stopping in a different harbor every night. The last night was spent in Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, on a perfect day at the end of July. After dinner I sat on the bow of the boat with my sketchbook, respecting the quiet that comes over the water at sunset. Someone a few slips down began playing a mandolin. I sketched as I listened, trying to capture the muted greens of the hills around the harbor, Turtleback mountain peeking up over the tops, the water glassy and calm, and the sliver of a crescent moon in the pale pink sky. I felt the most profound sense of being home in that place, in that moment, and I feel it again every time I’m back in the San Juans. Exploring everywhere else is nice, but that’s the one place on earth where I always feel like I’m meant to be.

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Getting to the islands now is a bigger undertaking. An hour long drive, an hour long wait for the ferry, and an hour and a half ferry ride makes for a pretty long day. I never mind the travel time, but the hubs and the kidlet aren’t too fond of sitting around for hours. But, this weekend I finally convinced them to come along, with the promise of a good hike and some ice cream after. And really, the adventure starts when you get to the ferry dock and can start making friends with beach animals while you wait around.

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There are plenty of gorgeous spots to see in the San Juan Islands, so it can be a little hard to choose where to start. If I had the whole weekend I would have island hopped to try to get many of the small hikes in on Lopez, San Juan and Shaw Island, but for this trip we only had one day. We chose to hike Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island for a few reasons: It’s the only nature preserve on Orcas I haven’t already explored, it’s a short hike with moderate difficulty which was enough to be satisfying on a day trip, and it is one of the less visited hikes on the island, making it still a peaceful getaway on a busy holiday weekend. My motivation for getting us there was purely to revisit the island and feel that heart-swelling sense of “home”, but the hike itself turned out to be a much more worthwhile little trek than I had realized when I picked it.

Apparently, Turtleback Preserve is a unique habitat in Washington. It is one of our few remaining Garry oak savannahs, and it is, like all of the others, being encroached upon by Douglas fir forests now that wildfires are an infrequent and controlled occurrence. Garry oak trees, and the prairies in which they grow support a number of plants and animals that struggle to survive in other habitats. This landscape is similar to the Mima Mounds, which we visited last year. There is a different atmosphere here, though – the rocky soil and coastal breeze cultivate thick mosses and lichens and madrona trees are abundant. On this 75 degree day the air was perfumed with the scent of saltwater and the toasty smell of the woods in the sun – oak and madrona and fir and wildflowers. I wish I could bottle it and carry it around with me all summer!

The hike was a HIKE for sure, but as we were huffing and puffing up the forested trails we would be treated to occasional views of the water from mossy outcroppings. The lower elevation path is all streams and ferns with shoulder-high nettles and candy flowers. Once you get up into the rocky prairies the few swathes of shade become more welcoming, and the undergrowth becomes more sparse, except for the coast manroot vines climbing everywhere.  At one overlook, we thought we had finally reached the top and started heading back down, and were confused when we came upon another fork in the path. Thankfully, we took the short dead end trail first and wound up at the real overlook at Ship Peak – a breathtaking view of the entire island. We hung our feet off the edge of the cliff and watched swallows and turkey vultures soaring on currents far below us.

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I’ll hike anywhere, explore anywhere, and find something to enjoy about it, but a sweeping vista at the end of a long and tiring climb is a highly motivating reward, for sure. By the time we made it back down to the car we were all aching and ready for ice cream. We lazed around on the beach in Eastsound for a while, taking in the beauty as the light turned golden. We caught the ferry just in time to watch the sunset, and as the sky turned pink I caught that little sliver of a crescent moon again, reminding me that the island will always be here for me when I need it.

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Places Visited: Turtleback Mountain Preserve on Orcas Island, WA | 3 miles | 850ft elevation gain.

If you go: Plan your hike according to what you’re comfortable with. We chose to do the south loop to Ship Peak because the north trail is slightly harder, and we had a 9 year old in tow. If you hike the south loop I recommend going up the Lost Oak trail and down the main trail on the old fire road. Lost Oak is more shaded and has a lot of switchbacks for the ascent, but the main trail is mostly straight up in full sun. That being said, the main trail is also pretty hard on the knees on the way down, so that may be worth considering as well.

Species observed: Canada goose, Pelagic cormorant, Great blue heron, Turkey vulture, Red-tailed hawk, Pigeon guillemot, Rock pigeon, Anna’s hummingbird, Olive-sided flycatcher, Northwestern crow, Purple martin, Violet-green swallow, Barn swallow, Chestnut-backed chickadee, American robin, European starling, Cedar waxwing, Yellow-rumped warbler, Song sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Spotted towhee, Dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, Red-winged blackbird, House sparrow, Harbor Seal, Black-tailed deer.




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