Historic Quarry and Kiln Trail
San Juan County
San Juan Island
Every day Dawn - Dusk
Not that long ago visitors to the historic lime-works at Limekiln State Park were halted by a fence and sign prohibiting any further entrance due to dangerous conditions and private property. Now this area, several times larger than the State Park which it surrounds, has been incorporated into the Limekiln Preserve. Fortunately for visitors, this event has resulted in public access into a fascinating labyrinth of natural and historic areas.
Early European pioneers on San Juan Island knew of the local limestone deposits but made only minimal use of them for their own purpose. By the late 1800s commercial production of the high quality island lime was a small but thriving business. This production may have peaked by the early 1900s driven by the massive rebuilding of San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake. Henry Cowell, expanding his California lime production business, purchased and developed this site. Despite declines in market and production efficiency this very site was kept in operation by his sons as recently as 1940.
Exploring the trails and features within this area provides insights into the early methods of lime production and the resulting exotic microhabitats formed when the quarries were abandoned. Beginning at the reconstructed kiln at the northern edge of the State Park will give you the basics of how the lime was "cooked" from raw rock into refined lime. Below this massive tower the remnants of grey waste lime can be seen but the exposed barreling and wharf facilities can only be imagined. Never a good location for docking, the waterside facilities were quickly reclaimed by the sea when abandoned.
The main trail continues past this structure and switchbacks up the hill. You’ll soon have a glimpse of another abandoned structure but this one is in a raw and dangerously collapsing state. Climbing moderately steeply the trail traverses a slope that was once laced with cable cars. Limestone rock from the above quarries was sent down by gravity to be dumped into the tops of the continuous wood fired kilns. At times workers avoided climbing the steep dangerous slope and instead used the empty ore hoppers to ride up to the quarries, gingerly jumping out at the top before the rock was dumped in.
While this site continued to operate as a contemporary of Roche Harbor it never received the expansion, reinvestment and modernization that the more famous facility received thus leaving us on a smaller more intimate scale hints at what was even then a crude and antiquated method of lime production. The relatively small lenses of limestone required multiple quarry sites; some only used briefly forming the maze of broken unnatural topography that you are now experiencing. Be careful hiking these trails. The rough limestone strewn surfaces and steep rubble hillsides can be difficult. In addition, be especially careful while hiking above the switchbacks that you don’t accidentally kick rocks loose on fellow hikers below.
Wandering through this area you’ll come to unstable cliffs of abandoned quarries where the limited but numerous small lenses of flinty limestone either ran out or where the economies of extraction became too much to justify continuing operations. These slopes are potentially very dangerous but in the safe areas away from their base you can find plants and even small animal life that have adapted in isolated microhabitats formed by this unnatural gouging of the earth. The rarity of the species varies between finding them at this particular location and for some species, their existence anywhere. Except for the beautifully named calypso orchid "fairy-slipper" most will have no common names to banter about in casual conversation. While esoteric botanical pursuits may be beyond the interest of the typical hiker it won’t take any special training to notice the marked differences in life surrounding the mysterious grottos, miniature prairies, and vertical cliffs ornamented with stunted trees that are scattered throughout the preserve.
Trail connections within the preserve will provide you with a number of potential destinations and loops. These can lead you back into the State Park, to the Wetlands Loop, or down the Upland Trail to Deadman Bay. The rough trails, fluctuating grades, and lack of signage make this more of an exploration than a simple hike but for those who seek a little adventure and a path less traveled, enjoying a walk on these trails through the abandoned quarries and kilns of the Limestone Preserve can be the perfect outing.
Access from the West Side Road either at the parking lot of Limekiln State Park or the Wetlands Loop Trail located ¾ mile north of the State Park entrance.
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San Juan Islands