Beyond the Oyster Dome

Oyster Dome, a rock outcropping in Whatcom County, is an excellent place from which to view the San Juan Islands as well as an area of geological interest. Fortunately, for those like me who don’t like crowds, getting there and back requires a 6 mile hike, about 2,000 feet of climb and 2 hours 20 minutes to 3 hours of time.

As my yoga class let out on a Monday morning in March, we talked local scenic hikes: outside the windows of the studio there was not a cloud in the sky. One gal gushed about Oyster Dome. She said that it was a difficult hike “about four miles” long and that the trail head was “along Chuckanut Drive,” “not far from Fort Larrabee State Park,” and “at a placed with parallel parking along the roadway.” I set out unprepared.

After successfully navigating my way along Highway 20 to Farm to Market Road, through Edison and finally, Chuckanut Drive, along which I spent 45 frustrating moments lost, I finally found the trail head, within sight distance of Mile Marker 10. The parallel parking spaces were full, so I continued south a short distance, parked and made my way to the trail. I set my GPS watch to start as I headed uphill, hoping I could complete the distance and get back in time to pick up my kids from school three hours later. Almost immediately, I spied a Pacific Northwest Trail marker.

Likely because of logistics, the informational kiosk was located at a distance from the trail head. I took at quick look at the map. Minutes later, I encountered two women returning from the top who informed me that “the bench” was located about a mile up (one-third of the way) and that they typically complete the “6.5 mile” hike in about 2 hours and 20 minutes. If all went well, I knew I would finish within the allotted time. Besides the quiet, one of the best things about the trail was the view of the trees.

I was (and still am) in my fungi photographing kick, so stopped to get a shot of as many as I could find. When I reached the bench, I stopped to admire the view, looked at my watch, and realized I’d only completed one measly mile. Trying to be selective about my stops, I photographed some lichen, a small waterfall, and the standard signage. The terrain varied from smooth, to rocky, to rooty and everything in between.

The first third had been pretty steep. The middle was a little flatter. A plot of time versus altitude shows the climb: just over 2,000 feet! Several small streams, including this one, cross the trail. As I’d been warned, the upper section, just before a T that you must take to the left to reach Oyster Dome was a bit steep and technical. After walking within the limits of the trees (unable to see the water for the most part) for about 75 minutes, I reached an enormous boulder that I knew had to be Oyster Dome. The view was awesome. I wish I’d had a map to help me figured out which of the many islands was which. I noticed a sign that states, “[illegible] STRIATIONS ATOP THIS PARTICULAR MATRIX OF CHUCKANUT SANDSTONE WERE MADE BY REGOLITH SLOWLY RUMBLING ALONG ABOUT 18,000 YEARS AGO UNDER THE PRESSURE OF GLACIER ONE MILE HIGH. ICE EXTENDS WESTWARD OVER VANCOUVER ISLAND AND WORLDWIDE FREEZING LOWERED THE SEA LEVEL ONE HUNDRED METERS.”

Speed-hiking nearly the entire time, with photo breaks few and far between, I completed the trip in 2:16. A friend offered to join me the next time I went, and did, about a month later. By this time (April 9th), some flowers were in bloom. Things seemed about the same, though I was armed with more experience, water, time and company. Here is the view from the bench. I’m not sure I’d ever seen such a large troop of Coprinellus micaceus before. Further up, I noticed wildflowers like this yellow violet.

The biggest surprise of the day was many encounters with a flower I remember from my childhood that I hadn’t seen in years: the trillium! It was so dark for the most part, that this (sadly) was the best image I captured of one. I learned from my field guide (Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast), that (p 102), “Each seed has a little oil-rich appendage that is attractive to ants. The ants lug the seeds back to their nests, where they eat the appendages or feed them to the larvae and then discard the seeds on their rubbish piles…Ants disperse up to 30% of the spring-flowering, herbaceous species in the deciduous forests of eastern North America.”

The view was just as awesome the second time around. In fact, maybe even better with the subtle morning sunlight. This time, I was sure we were in the right place. There wasn’t much to see Beyond the Oyster Dome except more trees. During the descent, we noticed some slippery spots with well compacted clayey soils. This muddy section above meanders down to similar, flatter trail below. We noticed just one Pacific Bleeding Heart plant during the entire trek.

The second round trip took nearly three hours, probably because we set a more leisurely pace, made more stops, and…neglected to notice the sign that would lead us down. Instead, we walked about ten minutes towards Lily Lake. After scratching our heads at several unfamiliar landmarks, we realized our error and turned back. We’ll visit Lily Lake another day.

Two trips to Oyster Dome lead me to provide the following advice to fellow hikers: eat your Wheaties, have a map of the San Juan Islands, and arrive early. Although it was a Monday, we encountered only two persons coming down as we went up, but about 25 persons ascending as we descended.

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