The San Juan Islands are a wonderous retreat. While there’s nearly 200 named islands, the big ones–Lopez, San Juan, and Orcas–are easily accessible by ferry. Orcas is the most rugged of the San Juans in terms of hiking peaks and valleys.
Going in the off-season to the San Juans has its pros and cons. The cons are many restaurants in town were closed for their winter season, and that the weather will be a crapshoot. However, the crowds and strife with ferries is greatly reduced. If going in summer, I cannot stress enough the importance of booking a reservation, or walking on the ferry from Anacortes to travel. In winter, we easily drove on.
After swinging by Brown Bear Baking for a delectable pastry and coffee in Eastsound, we headed southwest to the trailhead. Confusingly, there are two summit hikes, Turtleback and Turtlehead, and miles of trails in the connected Turtleback Preserve land areas. When you see the area from afar, it’s obviously a turtle, but when mapping routes and picking trailheads, it can easily get murky. We choose Turtlehead Summit, as it’s listed as one of 100 Classic Washington Hikes in the 2016 edition. WTA reviews also seemed to indicate Turtlehead was the superior hike.
The easiest route to Turtlehead departs from the North parking lot. Even on an off-season Friday morning, this lot was full by the time we returned. Depending on day of the week, you might be sharing the trail with bikers (even calendar days) or horses (odd calendar days), but the beginning portion, an old logging road, is more than wide enough to easily share. The map at the board was nice, but I’m super glad I had my Gaia GPS app running too–but more on that later. It’s a gentle, gradual climb up from the lot. After about a half-mile, there’s a signed outlook North Valley Overlook spur overlooking Crow Valley. I’d recommend the mild effort for this one, as it offers some beautiful views with a curtain of madrona trees.
Back on the trail, we climbed a little more, to the next spur for Waldron Outlook, about two miles from the car. The wooded portion of this two miles wasn’t too thrilling, but this view was the most breathtaking yet. We both got “Welcome to Canada!” notices from our phones, not uncommon when on the islands (maybe put your phone on airplane mode if you get hammered on out-of-country data). We enjoyed looking at nearby Waldron Island, Sucia Island, where the boyfriendo still raves about camping at, and past Waldron Island, Canada.
However, we knew the summit would have the best values. Just after the outlook is a fork, with a large trail heading uphill and a small path going downhill. Assuming summit meant up, the boyfriendo wanted to go uphill, but I assured him our path was the downhill one. The uphill trail, the North trail, will eventually get you to Turtleback’s summit, but for Turtlehead’s summit, formerly known as Orcas Knob, you want to take the Turtlehead trail. Admittedly, a large downhill before going to a summit means future quad-burning, but the little gulley we went into was peaceful and serene. Once you leave the gulley, however, the climbing starts. You must regain all the elevation you just lost, but as the trees clear, there’s more granite chunks to let you know you are close. This trail was officially constructed in 2013, but the sign near the top does include the Salish name for the outlook that was used well before WTA, the WCC, and white people were present.
The outlook has tons of protective features to keep people from going over the edge. On a clear day, the Olympics and even Rainier can be seen from here, but today, just the straight of Juan de Fuca and various islands were scattered about. It was a breathtaking view, and I’m sure in summer you are fighting others for a spot. On a peaceful, cloudy February day however, it was an amazing, peaceful sight.
Distance: 5.7 miles according to WTA (with the spurs my GPS clocked in 6.0)
Parking: No pass required, but the North lot can fill up quickly.
Bathrooms: We did not see any at the North lot.