Monday, January 16, 2017

Ebey's Landing

Bluff Trail at Ebey's Landing
3.5 miles loop, 300 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate, trail occasionally narrow and often near cliff edges
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Washington State Parks Discover Pass required for parking

One of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the Salish Sea is at Ebey's Landing on Whidbey Island. Ebey's Landing covers a landscape of farmland, forests, beaches, and bluffs in a patchwork of federal, state, and private lands; it is not only a scenic spot but also a historically significant area in Washington State. The Coupeville region is collectively part of the Ebey's Landing National Historic Reserve, the first and largest national historic reserve in the country, which has helped prevent excessive development in this charming landscape. This loop hike follows the Bluff Trail high above Admiralty Inlet along the cliffs of Whidbey Island on the way out and returns via a walk along the beach.

I did this hike on an extremely nice January weekend. I headed out from Seattle early in the morning, taking the Mukilteo-Clinton Ferry and then following Washington 525 north to Coupeville. I spent the morning at Fort Casey and ate lunch at Toby's Tavern in Coupeville before heading to Ebey's Landing. The turnoff for Ebey's Landing is just west of the turnoff for Coupeville Main Street on Highway 20; I reached the trailhead by following Ebey Road south until I came to the sign for Ebey's Landing State Park at the point where the road descended to the beach. The parking lot was full when I arrived, so I parked along the southwest side of the road to start the hike.

The Bluff Trail departed to the northwest from the parking lot, briefly meandering near the beach before climbing up the beach bluffs to the flat terrain of Ebey's Prairie via stairs. At the top of the stairs, the trail followed the edge of the bluff, with farmland to my right and wide open views of the Admiralty Inlet and the Olympics to my right.

Bluff Trail at Ebey's Landing
Half a mile from the trailhead, I came to the junction with the Ebey's Prairie Trail, which branched off to the right and followed the former boundary of Isaac Ebey's land. In continued straight here, embarking on the steepest climb of the hike. I soon found myself atop a set of higher bluffs with a commanding view of Ebey's Prairie, the Cascades, the Olympics, and Puget Sound.

Ebey's Landing, Whidbey Island coastline
Mount Baker, Three Fingers, Pilchuck, Glacier Peak, and Baring were among the notable peaks visible in the Cascades. In front of the Cascades lay the patchwork of farms and homes on Ebey's Prairie. This plot of land received its current name from Isaac Ebey, the first European settler on Whidbey Island. Ebey claimed, settled, and farmed a square mile of the island that at the time was mostly open prairie. Ebey's Prairie was itself an artifact of Native American presence on Whidbey Island: the grasslands existed because of frequent burns conducted by its original inhabitants. Keeping the area unforested allowed Native Americans to harvest foods such as camas bulbs.

Ebey was a prominent citizen in the early history of Washington Territory. The landing on his property was one of the principal docks on the west side of Whidbey Island. Ebey was instrumental in locating the Customs House in the Puget Sound region in Port Townsend, contributing to that town's good fortunes in the latter half of the 19th century. Ebey's death was as dramatic as his life: seven years after founding his homestead on Whidbey Island, Ebey was killed by Tlingit or Haida, who traveled from Southeast Alaska down to the Puget Sound to avenge the killing of one of their tribe at Port Gamble the previous year by European American sailors.

Mount Baker rises over Ebey's Prairie
Three Fingers rising above the farms on Ebey's Prairie
Once atop the bluff, the trail was fairly straightforward, following the undulating edge of the steep slopes of the island. The Olympic Mountains dominated the skyline across Admiralty Inlet, with Mount Constance, Mount Townsend, Buckhorn Mountain, Blue Mountain, and Mount Angeles among the most notable peaks.

Olympics rising across Admiralty Inlet
Rainier was barely visible in the far distance to the south. I saw the Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry make multiple runs over the course of my hike. Many large container ships made their way in and out of the Sound through the Inlet.

From the bluffs, I could see Fort Casey at Admiralty Head on Whidbey Island, Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island, and Fort Worden at Point Wilson on the Quimper Peninsula. Combined, these three forts protected Puget Sound and the naval bases and shipyards at Bremerton and Everett from any potential naval invasion. All three forts were established as part of the Endicott Plan during the Cleveland administration, in which the War Department decided that it was necessary to fortify major harbors and population centers against hostile naval attacks. Built around the turn of the twentieth century, the three forts of the Puget Sound were designed to create a triangle of fire on hostile ships passing through Admiralty Inlet. These defenses were never put to the test, and advances in aerial warfare rendered these forts obsolete by the Second World War; all three forts have since been converted into state parks. Most of the guns in their batteries were scrapped long ago, but Fort Casey still showcases two large 10-inch guns.

Coupeville to Port Townsend ferry, Rainier faint in the distance
After following the bluff trail for a few minutes along the top of the grassy cliffs, Perego's Lagoon came into sight. Here, a sandbar separated a brackish pool from the ocean and prevented severe erosion on the bluff itself, creating a less steep and grassier cliff.

Perego's Lagoon and the Salish Sea from the Bluff Trail
I followed the muddy Bluff Trail along the entire length of Perego's Lagoon, enjoying the continuous views of the Olympic Mountains. I also found the forest to be quite interesting here: many of the trees were heavily sculpted by the strong winds coming off the Strait of Juan de Fuca, creating many unusual shapes.

Gnarled tree along the trail
At the far end of the lagoon, the trail descended the grassy hill via two long switchbacks, coming down to the beach. One of the switchback turns was badly eroded, seemingly because too many hikers had followed a steep gully downhill and caused the trail itself to degrade badly. Don't cut switchbacks here! The trail is well labelled- there's no good excuse for making erosion worse in this fragile environment.

Perego's Lagoon
Arriving at the beach, I saw on a piece of driftwood and gazed out at the Olympics and at the cliffs along the coast to the north. Here, the tops of the bluffs seemed forested and undeveloped, giving the island a wilderness feel even though we were not too far from towns and farmland.

Headlands at the beach
From this point, I followed the beach south back to the trailhead. Although the views were undeniably better along the Bluff Trail, the beach had different charms: wildlife, kelp washed up from the Salish Sea, the music of breaking waves. At one point, I saw two bald eagles soar past me overhead, a heartening reminder that even a species at the brink of extinction can come back strong and become ubiquitous again.

Bald eagles

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