False Bay Road
Friday Harbor , WA 98250


Every day Dawn - Dusk


From the shore at high tide, False Bay appears to be the most idyllic boat shelter imaginable; narrow seaward opening, large, symmetrical, a nearly circular bay. But when low tide comes, what a difference! Depending on how low the tide is, and it doesn’t take much, the entire bay can become one great mudflat. Many an uniformed, careless, or desperate skipper has found this out the hard way; thus the name, False Bay.

Shallow water and mud may be the enemy of the boating community but to the plants and animals that inhabit the shoreline it’s a paradise. So rich in diversity and content that the entire bay has been set aside as a biological preserve and is monitored and studied by the University Laboratories at Friday Harbor. Adding to its uniqueness is the topography of the surrounding area. Unlike most of the west side of San Juan Island, the bay is surrounded not by steep rocky cliffs but by large relatively flat areas, drained by slow moving streams that form estuaries at their entrance into the bay. These small pockets are of critical importance to those organisms that require the daily interaction between salt and freshwater.

While no trails exist on the mostly private uplands, the public is allowed to explore these fascinating mudflats as long as they exercise care and do not disturb wildlife or any of the stakes, markers, or other research equipment that is located in the bay. Rubber boots along with a tolerance for mud and the pungent scent of sun baked marine life are the requirements for exploring. For those committed enough, there’s a world of fascination to find. Elsewhere in the islands, the focus may be on the larger marine mammals; but here it’s the tiny life, that could almost fit between your toes, that will be your quarry. Exotic and unusually formed shellfish, flame colored worms, shell steeling crabs, multicolored algae and miniature fish with strange spikes and fins prosper in this nutrient rich mud. Not unexpectedly, shorebirds know about this place also. Following the tide-line like organized hunters; each species strikes out at their preferred level of water, escorting the tide out and later, back in again. The mud surface may look fairly uniform from shore but once out on the flats every depression or shallow seems to contain its own strange hidden world. The extensive flatness of this bay will lure the adventurous to explore far from shore but be mindful that when the tide returns, it can do so rapidly, a few inches of water can cover much ground here and it could become serious to be trapped in the increasingly mucky bay as the water returns.

Not far from your entry point and to your right a small estuary is formed at lower False Bay Creek. Very unusual in the San Juans this affords quiet waiting for tiny stickleback fish to do their interesting behavioral postures and wading birds find special treats here; maybe they’re also looking for sticklebacks.

For a special though muddy experience in nature consider visiting this largely pristine and unusual habitat on the west side of San Juan Island. Just don’t forget your rubber boots and a tide table.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 7/22/2009


From the Friday Harbor ferry dock proceed out of town on Spring Street; continue on this as it becomes the San Juan Valley Road. Turn left/south at the intersection with Douglas Road. Follow Douglas where at a right turn it will become Bailer Hill Road. In less than one mile, turn left onto False Bay Road which twists and turns; at less than a mile the road will make a sharp bend as it meets False Bay, there is a small turnout at this corner.


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