Lopez Island sends up its praise with rolling farmlands often fenced with hedgerows of briars and Nootka rose along the roadside and with thickets backed by towering trees lining the pasture’s distant border. The wayfaring stranger or newcomer to the island, however, could easily miss this ecological treasure that offers a taste of wilderness buried in the heart of Lopez Hill on the east side of the island where it stirs to life almost secretly from a lowland forest.
Recently I joined a delightful Spring Ramble through this island jewel. Aware that many on the island will soon face the annual summer stream of visiting guests, I would like to recommend your own ramble through this remarkable asset, one that offers quite a different experience from the sense of wild beauty and stunning views and hikes at our other incredible asset, the shoreline National Monument sites.
Where the road comes to an end, the trail begins. Curious wanderers, we soon brush by salal and a twisting limbed alder, both stretching toward the remaining shafts of sunlight. The trail shortly narrows with its closeness of green undergrowth braided together as we amble along. We pause below trees heavy with new growth where Odlin Park’s ranger, David St. George, abruptly pauses and with his astute hearing teases out the sound of a Townsend’s warbler, the first of many birds we will encounter on this day’s journey.
We meander through a staggeringly beautiful terrain of forest, observing a pleasant mix of trees quietly breathing and quietly growing. Surrounded by a grove of alder in a wetland, an occasional hemlock tree scarred by lightning strikes of yesteryear hover over stumps frayed from rot. Our steps take us over a grand root of a cedar, re-bronzed by the wear of feet traipsing this way over the generations. Another fallen tree chisels a small bridge over a wet area, perhaps eons ago a flowing streambed. Often we glance into a tangle of branches where our eyes capture the hardened curve of parasites hugging tree trunks. Or we stop abruptly to ponder a bed of bones in the lee of a tree, where once an aging deer hunkered down amidst a bitter winter storm.
Our botanists, Adrienne Adams and Beth St. George, draw our attention to a colorful array of spring wildflowers in swaths of carpeted moss, others clinging to rocks sunk along the path’s edge. Soon the names are tripping off our tongues for Siberian miner’s lettuce, foam flower, great camas, spotted coralroot and—for me, a new one—a heart-leafed twayblade, a member of the orchid family.
As the day grows shorter, we glimpse sun-slanted fingers weaving a shadowy pattern on the bark of hemlocks and firs. We discover, as the incline increases slightly, Rocky Mountain maple trees flourishing in place of the familiar vine maple of other northwestern landscapes. Here, lacey light cascades through the larger leaves of these maples, their branches yet another haven for birds. Wherever we wander, our intrepid ornithologist detects high above the songs of more birds darting in the afternoon light, including the Pacific-slope flycatcher, Wilson’s warbler, red-breasted nuthatch, Pacific wren and several others.
We sprint on, ascending through wind-blown, branch-gnarled native shrubs as we head toward the fresh and cool air that greets us atop Lopez Hill. More wildflowers beckon us to appreciate their sheer beauty while we rest on large flat rock formations, possibly shards of ancient sea-ledges. At last we chat with one another now that we are out of the single-file formation the path has demanded of us all afternoon. We agree we can easily imagine the incredible views of the Salish Sea that our ancestors must have cherished when this forest was clear-cut for the growing needs of the city far to the south along its shoreline.
After this brief respite, our guides, Tim Clark from the San Juan County Land Bank and Mike Moore from the Lopez Island Trails Network, lead us down through the ochre, green and darkening sienna woods. At the parking lot we offer abundant thanks and part ways, sheathed now by the tranquil beauty of one of Lopez Island’s finest treasures.
Thanks to the collaborative efforts of the BLM, the Friends of Lopez Hill and the San Juan County Land Bank who have persevered in preserving this natural gem, with color-coded signs and well-maintained trails. As the days of summer approach, islanders and our summer visitors will shape their own sense of place and spirit as they hike this stunning hillside of wilderness.