Eagle Cliff Trail

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Review

While only a relatively short one mile in length, the Eagle Cliff Trail is without doubt the most popular trail on Cypress Island and for some, their favorite among all of those in the San Juan Archipelago. This pleasant trail wanders in steps through lowland forest, skirting small seasonal wetlands, crosses delicate balds and ends on an open summit providing one of the grandest panoramic views in the islands.

The varied and natural habitats that the trail traverses on your westward journey are so rare in the State of Washington that an entire section of the north end of Cypress Island from east to west shores has been designated a Natural Area Preserve. Typically these areas are managed exclusively for the preservation of native habitat, rare species and scientific study. Here however, the public has the unusual opportunity of being invited to experience this preserve.

Though the trailhead is located somewhat higher than sea level, most hikers begin at either Pelican Beach or Eagle Harbor requiring them to gain every inch of the summit’s 752 foot elevation. From the trailhead off of the Pelican Beach Trail, the hike begins in a dark woodland forest. Taking time along the way rather than rushing to the summit will let you enjoy some of the interesting and in some cases rare features that this area has to offer.

Along the trail, hidden among the Douglas-fir trees look for unexpected madronas. Usually found on sunny exposed headlands, these trees may mark a time when logging or fires cleared the forest giving them the conditions necessary to establish. You’ll notice how their trunks, unusually protected under a conifer forest canopy, retain much of their scaly bark rather than presenting the smooth ruby colored limbs that you expect to find on those growing by the shore. For encounters with terrestrial wildlife or their recent evidence your chances are best during the mornings or late afternoon. Tiny and blending in with the tread, the rough skinned newt, a dry skinned version of a salamander, enjoys using the trail for a walk-about. Also enjoying the trail, you’ll probably only see the fresh tracks left by deer. They’ve most likely heard you coming from some distance and in typical deer fashion, will wait for you to pass and then head down the trail in the opposite direction away from you.

Before long the trail takes a momentary break from the forest and switchbacks on the lower margin of a bald. These special areas are "bald" of trees and located with an open, sunny and dry exposure. The thin soils covering bedrock support only the shallowest rooted of plants including native grasses, mosses, and wildflowers. Extremely delicate and easily damaged by boot traffic don’t be tempted to wander off trail. In only a few minutes you’ll have unrestricted views from the open summit that won’t let you miss a thing. Following the trail across the balds you’ll notice sections of bare rock underfoot. Scouring lines are the evidence of the crushing grind of mile thick glaciers as boulders became trapped between the bedrock and the slowly flowing ice. At one point the trail passes along the side of a tall black cliff. Notice the weeping emerald green tears as tiny rivulets of water bring life to the stone. Study the vertical rock face for a moment and you’ll see fine horizontal scratches, more evidence of glacial activity.

Crossing the final summit bald, before you a spectacular view opens into the heart of the San Juans. In clear weather the view contains so many islands, passages, and distant mountain ranges that it can be overwhelming even for repeat visitors. Calm yourself, sit and rest and let the natural world come to you. When the chatter of your companions settles, listen and you may hear the forlorn ringing of the Buckeye Shoal bell buoy far below you and to the north. Among the USGS benchmark medallions, find the one that says "Eagle Nest." While it seems doubtful that any self respecting eagle would add a 750 foot high flight to bring food to its young, this is never the less, a frequent perching point for eagles and other raptors. Below you the steep cliffs are prime habitat for nesting raptors. Don’t be tempted to explore. Not only is this critical wildlife habitat but vertical cliffs and unstable house sized boulders are not the place to be wandering.

This wonderful hike through a nature preserve is a privilege afforded the public with only a few but very important restrictions. To protect nesting raptors and other wildlife with young, the trail is seasonally closed between February 1st and July 15th. Additionally, pets of any kind leashed or not are never allowed on this trail. And finally, staying on the established trail is of critical importance here. Remember that you won’t loose a thing by waiting for the ultimate summit view. If you’d enjoy identifying some of the islands and mountains that you can see from the summit consider which maps you’ll need. The views include portions of the North Cascades, Coast Range of British Columbia, the Olympics, and of course islands and passages within the San Juan Islands. That’s a lot of view.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 3/9/2010

Directions

The Eagle Cliff Trailhead is accessed from along the Pelican Beach Trail (see article this website). The trailhead is located roughly midway between Pelican Beach Campground and the junction with the Duck Lake Loop Trail from Eagle Harbor.

Map

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