GEOLOGICAL HISTORY, NATURAL SCULPTURES AND BEAUTIFUL VISTAS DEFINE A SAN JUAN ISLANDS FAVORITE
FOR ARLENE AND ME, ONE of our much-loved stops in the San Juan Archipelago is Sucia Island Marine Park. Considered the crown jewel of the San Juan Islands, it’s a favorite of many recreational boaters, receiving more visitors than any other Washington State Marine Park. Though it’s isolated in the southern reaches of the Strait of Georgia, during the summer months it’s common for 500 boaters to visit on a weekend. We enjoy visiting during the off-season when it’s less crowded, and it’s not unusual to have one of its bays all to ourselves, as was the case when we moored Easy Goin’ to the all-season dock in Fossil Bay on our last visit.
The entire 564-acre island has plenty to offer, with 48 mooring buoys, two docks (640 feet), two linear mooring systems and ample anchorage scattered throughout its six bays. Although the bottom is generally sandy mud, in some locations a thin bottom, eelgrass and seaweed may make setting anchor difficult. Ashore, visitors enjoy 55 campsites, group camp areas, large fire pits, picnic shelters, and wonderful sand and pea-gravel beaches. Also available, when in season, are Dungeness crabs, lingcod and salmon.
What draws us back to Sucia time after time are the 10 miles of intersecting hiking trails. I can’t count the number of times we’ve come back for more. The trail system is well marked and is composed of park service roads and walking paths. The maximum elevation gain is only 100 feet, making most of the trail difficulty ratings “Easy.”
To really enjoy the park’s trails, visitors need to have an awareness of the island’s geological history. Sucia Island is composed of two very different rock formations that have been brought together by low-angle faulting. Fifty-million-year-old river sediments (Chuckanut Formation) have slid over 70-million-year-old marine sediments (Nanaimo Group Rocks).
The fault zone is only a short walk from the Fossil Bay campground. The beach-cliff-exposed Nanaimo Group sedimentary rock has been crushed and deformed into S-shaped folds as a result of friction. The fault contact with the younger Chuckanut Formation sandstone is obscured by soil. The island’s horseshoe shape is the result of folding of the two bedrock layers into a U-shaped trough. The beds have also been tilted at a steep angle, a feature geologists refer to as “plunging syncline.”
As a result, the island is made of sandstone carved by years of subsequent tidal and wind action into impressive formations. Fossils can be discovered in the sandstone, but remember it’s illegal to disturb or remove them.
NORTH SHALLOW BAY-CHINA CAVES-ECHO BAY LOOP
From Fossil Bay, several interconnecting paths can be followed. One popular route is to walk the forest road to South Shallow Bay and follow the beach past the Ghost Forest (an area of dead standing trees) to reach a short, steep path that ascends a rocky hill. Descend to a narrow strip of forest that separates Echo Bay and Shallow Bay. The trail continues one-quarter of a mile to the road that leads to China Caves. The potholes in the cliff are a result of microclimate erosion. They were named for the time when Shallow Bay was used as a hiding place for Chinese workers illegally imported as laborers, but the immigrants hid in the adjacent forest, not inside these tiny easy-to-see caves, as some believe.
Ambitious hikers can walk the beach the beach past the Ghost Forest (an area of dead standing trees) to reach a short, steep path that ascends a rocky hill. Descend to a narrow strip of forest that separates Echo Bay and Shallow Bay. The trail continues one-quarter of a mile to the road that leads to China Caves. The potholes in the cliff are a result of microclimate erosion. They were named for the time when Shallow Bay was used as a hiding place for Chinese workers illegally imported as laborers, but the immigrants hid in the adjacent forest, not inside these tiny easy-to-see caves, as some believe. Ambitious hikers can walk the beach to nearby Shallow Bay campground, where a half-mile trail contours along Lawson Bluff. To return without backtracking, follow the service road back to Fossil Bay. Most trail junctions are clearly marked. Round-trip distance is approximately 4 miles.
From Fossil Bay, follow the road past Fox Cove. Be on the lookout for Mushroom Rock, a natural rock sculpture the result of “surface hardening” on the cove’s southeastern shore. This unusual phenomenon occurs when weathering causes certain types of rocks to get harder rather than softer. At some of Sucia’s beaches, weathering has caused some of the minerals in the sandstone to dissolve, releasing iron, calcium, silica and other elements. If these elements precipitate near the rock surface, they have a cementing effect, strengthening the sandstone. If the hardened exterior zone is breached, the weaker interior stone erodes, producing a mushroom shape.
A short, rocky trail ascends the crest of the forested ridge, leading to open viewpoints. There is no beach access at the point. Round trip is one and a half miles.
EV HENRY POINT
Follow the road past the grass area between Fox Cove and Fossil Bay. The trail begins on the left and ascends steeply to reach the forested crest. The rolling trail leads to a viewpoint on the southernmost point of Sucia Island. The last part of the trail is a scenic loop of the tip of the point. Round trip is one and a half miles with moderate difficulty.
EV HENRY POINT BEACH WALK
At low tide, the beach can be followed from Fox Cove to the tip of Ev Henry Point. Here, an impassible cliff prevents one from rounding the point. The hike offers some of the best rock tide pools on the island. The beach tends to be windy but very scenic. The walking is easy, but beware of slippery rocks in the intertidal zone, and you must remain aware of the incoming tide. Round trip distance is 2 miles.
Take the service road dividing the marsh area and Mud Bay past the park homestead. The path follows a forest ridge to reach the rocky apex and expansive meadow. Here you will be rewarded with spectacular views to the south and east, including Mount Baker. Round trip is two and a half miles with moderate difficulty.
SNORING BAY/WIGGINS POINT
Snoring Bay’s driftwood sandy spit lies in a narrow valley between Mud Bay and Snoring Bay and can be reached by a steep path that branches from the trail to Johnson Point, but for a more scenic route, at low tide follow the beach that begins at the head of Mud Bay, near the park homestead. Round-trip distance is one and a half miles. For the more adventurous, a rough trail leads a half mile to a cliffbounded viewpoint at Wiggins Head.
The hike to the island’s outermost point rewards visitors with a sandy beach, rock headlands and a chain of small islands. Follow the road past the park homestead going uphill and along a ridge to Echo/Shallow Bay. Continue along the road to the turnoff to Ewing Cove trail at North Echo. From there, a one-and-a-half-mile trail contours the north side of Echo Bay and offers good views south to the Finger Islands and Johnson Point. Round trip is five and a quarter miles with moderate difficulty. When planning your next San Juan Island cruise, make sure Sucia is included in your float plan.