Hiking Turtleback Mountain Preserve-Orcas Island

After a truly wet and chilly week bracketing Labor Day Weekend, the sun returned to Orcas Island, much as it has been throughout August. The rains were sufficient for Moran State Park to remove the campfire ban, but the season here is now largely over, and the number of campers but a fraction of last month’s count. Cabin fever had me itching for a hike.

turtle06On a day trip to Deer Harbor, I’d noticed the trail heads, north and south, for Turtleback Mountain Preserve. This block of wilderness, although somewhat smaller than Moran, is its equal for hiking beauty. The preserve boundaries encompass Ship Peak and Turtlehead mountains, with well groomed trails ascending from the south end trail head past vista after vista.map I was hiking with our friend, Darlene, one of the summer volunteers, and also one of the ice cream “wenches” at the Moran Park’s ‘Sugar Shack’.

turtle02Turtleback is less well known than Moran, and even in peak season will give one a very quiet experience in the wild, with much less hiking “traffic” than the Moran trails carry. Climbing up the South and West Overlook trails, I was surprised to find madrona trees of much greater girth than you typically see on the shorelines of Orcas Island, and at an elevation much higher. The overlooks encompassed the full length of West Sound, dotted with sails and ferries.

turtle01We stopped at Ship Peak for a rest and a spot of lunch. At this point, one crosses a ridge ascending Turtleback, and the views overlook the populated interior of Orcas Island, with a patchwork of farms, hayfields, orchards, forests and vineyards extending all the way to East Sound and North Beach. It’s very different than most of the vistas seen hiking at Moran State Park, which reveal only forest lands extending to the eastern water passages, the mainland, and Vancouver Island.

turtle05Had we gotten underway earlier in the day, Darlene and I would have turned west above Ship Peak, and made the climb up to Turtlehead mountain, but the days were getting shorter, and our exit plan from the park entailed walking down to the NORTH trail head, and hitchhiking back to the car, parked at the south end. I didn’t want to be thumbing a ride too close to sunset, so we turned east at the branch leading up the highest mountain at the preserve.turtle03

Even so, there are two overlooks with wonderful vistas along the north trail, Waldron Overlook and North Valley Overlook, followed by a steep descent to the trail head.

I informed Darlene that my secret superpower is hitchhiking, stuck out my thumb, and the very first car stopped and gave us a ride all the way back to the south end trail head. Our chauffeur was a lovely lady, the proprietor of the Blue Heron B&B, with a sweet old Labrador retriever. She went out of her way to deliver us to our car, and we shared a fun conversation as we rode.

Turtleback Mountain Preserve, although less well known, is one of Orcas Island many splendid treasures, and must be seen.

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