Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Oyster Dome

Salish waterscape
4.5 miles round trip, 1200 feet elevation gain from Samish Overlook
Difficulty: Moderate
Access: Good gravel road to Samish Overlook Trailhead, Discover Pass required; or paved road to trailhead on Chuckanut Drive, where there is extremely limited parking

Oyster Dome is a rocky outcrop on a wooded summit in northwest Washington's Chuckanut Mountains with an astounding view of the Salish Sea, its islands, and the surrounding mountains. A good hike during winter and spring months when the Cascades are still buried in snow, this is perhaps one of my favorite lowland hikes in Washington State. The view at the summit encompasses the San Juan Islands, the Olympics, and Vancouver Island, and a secret viewpoint on the other side of the dome provides a peek of the Pacific Ranges rising above Vancouver. The hike up is a good winter workout, although parking for this hike is getting progressively more difficult as the hike's popularity explodes; I'd recommend hiking from Samish Overlook to avoid the hazardous parking situation at the Chuckanut Drive trailhead.

I've hiked this trail twice, once from each trailhead; I'll provide directions here to the Samish Overlook Trailhead as that's the preferred approach. Coming from Seattle with a friend in November, we took I-5 north past Burlington to exit 240, turning left when we came off the exit ramp to head west on Lake Samish Road. Shortly afterwards, we made a left on Barrell Springs Road and then a right onto Blanchard Hill Road; we followed this unpaved road to its end at the Samish Overlook, following signs for the Overlook at the multiple junctions along the way. From the trailhead, we had a gorgeous view south of the lowlands of the Skagit Valley.

Hikers who start from the Chuckanut Road trailhead start with about a mile worth of ascent that packs in nearly 1000 feet as the trail makes broad switchbacks up the slopes of the Chuckanut Mountains; this approach adds a mile and 800 feet of climbing to the hike. Towards the top of the climb, a brief clearing delivers the first view of the hike of Samish Bay. I'd once again like to discourage hikers from using the Chuckanut Drive Trailhead as there is very limited parking at that trailhead.

View along the Pacific Northwest Trail
For hikers starting at the preferred trailhead at Samish Overlook, even better views are available at the parking lot. From the parking area, my friend and I followed the Samish Overlook connector trail slightly downhill for two-fifths of a mile to its junction with the Oyster Dome Trail and the Pacific Northwest Trail coming up from Chuckanut Drive. At the trail junction, we continued straight to head north on the Oyster Dome Trail. At this point, an unfortunate event occurred: the sole of my friend's old hiking boot caught some object along the trail and separated from his boot. Not wanting to have the sole flapping on his boot, my friend tore off the rest of the sole; we briefly contemplated cutting short the hike but my friend decided that we might as well press forward and go up to the dome.

The trail to Oyster Dome climbed very gradually for the next three-quarters of a mile, with slight ups and downs as we crossed multiple creeks. The forest around us was lush, with ferns covering the floor beneath a canopy of cedars and Douglas firs.

Chuckanut forests
At about one and a third miles from the trailhead, the trail began the main steep climb of the hike. The trail made a steep ascent through about 400 feet along a small ridge, leveling out as it approached the plateau-like top of the Chuckanut Mountains. Soon after the trail flattened out, we came to a junction where a spur trail for Oyster Dome broke off the main trail, which continued towards Lily and Lizard Lakes. We took the spur trail, quickly crossing a creek before starting a final uphill push to the summit. Finally, a little over two miles from the start, we came to an exposed cliff facing west at the summit of Oyster Dome.

The Salish Sea
The view of the Salish Sea from Oyster Dome is expansive. To the west lay the San Juan Islands, the most prominent of which were nearby Lummi Island and farther away Cypress and Orcas Islands. Behind the San Juans lay the snow-capped mountains of Vancouver Island. To the southwest, Fidalgo Island and the refinery at Anacortes lay beyond Samish Bay and Samish Island. Behind Anacortes rose the wall of the Olympic Mountains. Container ships dotted the sea, impressing upon us the importance of these waterways to trade in the Northwest.

View from Oyster Dome
The name Oyster Dome likely comes from the abundance of oysters in nearby Samish Bay, which was the place where Pacific oysters were first introduced into the Salish Sea. There are still multiple large oyster farms based in Samish Bay today, just a shell's throw from the dome.

After enjoying the view to the west, we explored the back (northeast) side of the dome, where we found a small gap in the trees that afforded us a view to the north. Besides seeing the nearby ridges of the Chuckanut Mountains, we could also see out into the valley of the Fraser River in Canada; the city of Abbotsford was backed by the beautiful peaks of the Pacific Range. We spotted both Golden Ears and Mount Robie Reid, some of the more easily identifiable of the Canadian peaks.

Coast Ranges of British Columbia
Ultimately, my friend had no problem finishing the hike without soles on his boots; we celebrated his accomplishment by consuming large amounts of delicious Indian food at Chaat House on our return.

On the initial of my two visits to Oyster Dome, I hiked up from Chuckanut Drive and afterwards caught a beautiful sunset over Samish Bay, with the sun disappearing under the horizon between the Olympic Mountains and the San Juans. The second visit, when I hiked from Samish Overlook, was followed by watching dusk set over Samish Bay from far above. Both were magical moments brought alive by the interplay of light and shadow with the water and the surrounding landscape of mountains.

Sunset on the Salish Sea

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