The Seductive Pleasures of Watmough Bay

The San Juan Islands are world famous, attracting all manner of seafarers who enjoy exploring this luscious archipelago in everything from yachts to sailboats to kayaks. They are also a playground for hikers, beachcombers, and birdwatchers. Consisting of more than 400 islands (depending on who does the counting), the San Juans have some marquee attractions: Sucia with its picture-perfect anchorages and miles of scenic hiking trails; Orcas Island and its magnificent Moran State Park; San Juan Island’s prime orca-watching location at Lime Kiln State Park, the list goes on and on.

The blue-green colors of the San Juans soothe the soul.

Lopez Island is a somewhat more low-key destination. It is home to artists and writers, a quiet place focused more on quality of life than tourism. But Lopez has some beguiling places that offer visitors opportunities to explore lonely beaches, peaceful forests, and sun-dappled headlands. One of these is a small preserve at idyllic Watmough Bay, located on the island’s northern shore and reachable by car (thanks to the Washington State Ferry System). Starting at the parking lot, one can easily stroll through a forest of towering cedars to a cobbled pocket beach beneath a soaring cliff with expansive views across Rosario Strait to close-at-hand Fidalgo Island, as well as distant vistas of Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters Range, especially evocative at dawn and dusk when the peaks are often bathed in rosy light.

Photo by John D’Onofrio


Driftwood logs on the beach provide excellent places to lean back and enjoy an al fresco lunch while soaking up the sight, sounds, and scents of the Salish Sea. Across the water, the blue-green colors of the San Juans soothe the soul.

But don’t get too comfortable. A short trail circles the marsh, offering opportunities to savor the peaceful duff-carpeted forest. Birds are plentiful. And a more vigorous 2.9-mile round-trip hike climbs to the top of Chadwick Hill, at 470 feet, the second highest point on Lopez, and part of San Juan Islands National Monument. From the top, views extend out over the Salish Sea to the glittering San Juans and the distant Olympics.

Photo by John D’Onofrio


If you choose to visit by water, there are several (free) mooring buoys and excellent anchorages in the bay. If possible, use the buoys to avoid damaging the underwater eelgrass beds that carpet the bottom of the bay and provide excellent habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon.

Boulder Island, near the southern end of the bay, is a National Wildlife Refuge – boats must not approach within 200 yards.

A short skiff ride brings you to the beach and hiking trails.

Photo by John D’Onofrio

Public access to this lovely marine enclave is relatively new. In 1993, the Oles family donated a portion of the beach to the San Juan County Land Bank, along with a conservation easement to protect the wetlands. The Bureau of Land Management, yielding to pressure from local islanders, purchased more of the waterfront as well as uplands in 1995.

In 2007, the San Juan Preservation Trust led an effort to purchase more land along the southern shoreline. In 2009, Imogene ‘Tex” Geiling donated an additional shoreline, creating the 400-acre area of the existing Watmough Bay Preserve.

Automobile Access

From the Washington State Ferry landing at Lopez Island, drive 2 miles southwest on Ferry Rd. Turn left onto Center Rd. After 5.6 miles, turn left onto Mud Bay Rd. After 4.2 miles, take a right on Alek Bay Rd. In .5 miles, turn left on Watmough Head Rd. Follow this road for approximately 1.5 miles, then turn left at the bottom of a small hill at the Watmough Bay sign. The parking lot (which includes a restroom) is well-signed.

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