Every day Never Closes


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Little Summit and its trail offer a wonderful variety of options for hikes, scenic views, natural areas, and recreational difficulty. This usually quiet and peaceful summit provides beautiful framed views that include nearby lakes, forests, islands and on exceptionally clear days the Olympic Mountains and even the distant volcanic cones of Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier. Choices of access are just as varied: a few minutes’ walk from the roadside parking area; a strenuous hike from Mountain Lake directly below; or an easier but wonderfully scenic stroll along the trail to the summit of Mt. Constitution.

Often overlooked by those focused on the popular summit of Mt. Constitution; Little Summit offers an alternative to the frequent summertime congestion and crowding. Situated on the southern flank of Mt. Constitution; its location is a virtual hub for those traveling up mountain by way of trail or road. Drivers often find it a relief after the sharp mountain switchbacks that precede its parking lot. Hikers making the steep direct climb from Mountain Lake can find it a welcomed short side trip on their strenuous way up Mt. Constitution. For those wishing to climb to the summit of Mt. Constitution but without committing a lot of time and effort; it offers a nice compromise with some of the least elevation gain of any other approach.

Though the name “Little” implies a slight to this summit, it is in fact the second highest named peak in the San Juan Islands (third highest if you count obscure False Summit passed along the Little Summit trail on the way to the top of Mt. Constitution). At one time it was the location of a fire lookout. Unlike the existing US Forest Service lookouts in the region, this one was constructed and operated by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. Its primary purpose however was not fire watching but rather an attempt to relieve the congestion at the Mt. Constitution summit. Fragments of the fire lookout’s telephone line can sporadically be seen along the steep trail from Mountain Lake. With little if any effect on the mountain top crowding it was eventually retired and removed.

Today Little Summit still offers a quieter alternative to its more visited mountain top neighbor. Often unoccupied, several picnic tables and artistic indications of the fire lookout’s location offer an ideal picnic location with framed scenic views as a backdrop that can’t be seen from the higher but further north summit of Mt. Constitution. Grassy meadows provide an enjoyable sense of openness and a seasonal progression of wildflowers decorates the scene with a continually changing palette.

Northward on the trail, a short connection to Cold Springs Trail (see article this website) offers more choices of loops, shuttles, and connections. Progressing gently higher the trail passes through an interesting diversity of natural areas. At Summit Lake one of the highest elevation lakes in the San Juan’s, the best view is enjoyed where the trail crosses the old dam. While not known for its fishing this tightly forested lake provides a special habitat for a variety of wildlife and plants. One of the more unusual is the rough-skinned newt. This dry-skinned salamander look-a-like spends part of its life cycle in the water and part of it wandering the forest floor searching for a mate or another pond. Their dark pebbly skin makes them very difficult to notice so be careful where you step especially where the trail passes the lake. In contrast, their undersides are a vivid orange color. A warning to would be predators (or handlers) that their skin is extremely toxic. It is best to enjoy only viewing these unusual forest creatures when encountered; and leave them to continue their peaceful searching undisturbed.

Further up the trail, the common dark fir and hemlock forest makes a transition into one of the most extensive stands of lodgepole pine that can be found in Western Washington. Genetically linked, these trees present incredible variety of form from twisted dwarfed specimens at sea level commonly called shore-pine to the strait trunked giants that when young were harvested for lodge poles giving them their common name. In the past, natural and culturally set fires swept the thin soiled rocky areas of these islands. The much more fire resistant lodgepole pines along with native grasses flourished in these open sunny dry areas. With the advent of modern fire-suppression, changes in the environment have favored the locally common fir and hemlock trees which shade out the pines making this existing stand of lodgepole even more remarkable.

Before reaching the Mt. Constitution summit, the trail skirts a cliff top providing stunning views to the east. The scenic impact is dramatic and well worth safely pausing and savoring the distant views. In wintry conditions this segment of trail is no less dramatic but should be used with great caution as a slip could be disastrous. In a short time the Watchtower on the summit of Mt. Constitution is reached and for those who have hiked up, it will be the climax of their outing. For others and especially those with arranged shuttles, it is also enjoyable to hike downhill along the trail. The views down are in some ways more easily enjoyed and allow you to move deeper into the natural solitude as you distance yourself from the summit attractions.

While the summit and its trail may be “little” by mountain standards: the ease and choices of access, the dramatic and changing scenic views, and the variety of natural areas make a visit to Little Summit a much more desirable experience than its diminutive name would imply.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 6/6/2011


Drive to the north entrance of Moran State Park, five miles south of the village of Eastsound on the Olga Road. Continue driving into the park and in less than 1-½ miles take the left turn-off for the Mt. Constitution Road. Proceed up the mountain road nearly 3 more miles; after a series of sharp twisty switchbacks watch for the Little Summit parking area on the right. Please consider that exceptional weather such as snow and strong wind storms may temporarily close this mountain road.




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