I went to school up in Bellingham, where you are more surrounded by trees and mountains than you are in Seattle! There are many popular outdoor spots–Whatcom Falls, Teddy Bear Cove, the Arboretum–but my favorite of all is the Oyster Dome hike.
Oyster Dome is a rite of passage for Western students, and I’ve done this hike maybe a half-dozen times between my years in ‘Bham’ and returning afterwards (and confess to borrowing some pictures here from older hikes when the weather was nicer–creative license!). Named for the oyster farming beds underneath the towering boulders, it is a challenging hike with jaw-dropping views–what’s not to love?
I have always done this hike by parking along Chuckanut Drive on the shoulder, darting across the street, and climbing upwards. However, there is now a new access point that the Department of Natural Resources would prefer you use. From I5 north or south, take exit 240 for Alger and head west. Take the first left onto Barrel Springs Road and after about a half mile, turn right onto the dirt road at the sign for “Blanchard Forest Block”. Not quite two miles later there is a sign for “Samish Overlook”–turn left, pass through the yellow gate (open one hour before sunrise to one hour past sunset) and continue to the parking area. This trailhead does require a Discover Pass.
I admittedly have never used this route, so I can’t talk about the beginning. My mileage here might be off too–the new trail is a different length than the old (some people say it’s longer and some say it’s shorter). On the old route, about a mile in (which really feels more like a mile *up*), there is a bench with a gorgeous outlook. A great place for your first rest, it also teases you with a glimpse of the view to come at the end. Just after this marker, the terrain and trees change–the leafy trees and brush are replaced with swordferns and tall firs and cedars while the path gets rockier and you encounter more scrambles.
There are a few creeks here and there, so be prepared for mud or wet crossings if you’re hiking after a big rain. As bad as these scrambles look heading up, I can promise you they are worse going down. Better have some Epsom salts and a foam roller ready, because your legs will be feeling the burn come tomorrow.
Some parts of the trail have signs, others do not–once you join the Oyster Dome trail from the trailhead, if you remember to keep left, you’ll do fine. Oyster Dome is part of a network of trails (the beginning is even a bit of the Pacific Northwest Trail), so if you want to avoid the crowds or get tired of the dome, there’s tons of beautiful lake hikes to choose from in the area.
Like much of the Pacific Northwest, this land was carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. Around the tail end of the hike, the evidence of this is hard to ignore, as house-sized boulders are scattered amongst the trail. Some people climb them, but the thick layer of moss draping them makes them fairly slick, so I recommend against this.
After the fork, you only have about a quarter-mile climb to go! It will feel much longer as you go through the punishing climbs. The trail thins as a toothpick-like grove swallows the trail and it’s a bit confusing. But as you ascend this last hill, to your left you see light streaming through–you’re at the top. Walk towards the light and be greeted by an open area on top of the biggest boulder yet. If it’s sunny out, this boulder heats up nicely, and I feel a bit like a lion lounging on it.
The powerful views of the bay and San Juan islands can overwhelm the senses, but look at the whole 180-degree view–trees, as far as the eye can see, swelling up and down the rolling hills. I am fairly certain in the spring you can even see tulips off to the left, growing in the Skagit Valley (bring binoculars!). Many people enjoy taking a break at the top–I’ve even seen backpackers camping and hammock-users…hammocking? If it’s been raining, this rock is very slick, and it is a long fatal fall down. Leash dogs and hold on to children.
I consider Oyster Dome to be my personal favorite hike–and after seeing the views for yourself, you might too.
Distance (according to WTA): 5.0 miles (This seems to be up for debate)
Elevation (according to WTA): 1050 feet (if you do use the Chuckanut trailhead, it is far steeper)
Parking: Discover Pass
Bathrooms: Pit toilets at trailhead
Best Beer Bets: Anywhere along the Bellingham Tap Trail