Cattle Point Lighthouse

Address

Cattle Point Road
Friday Harbor , WA 98250

Hours

Every day Dawn - Dusk

Review

Poised on a steep wind swept bluff, the Cattle Point Lighthouse marks the southernmost tip of San Juan Island. Surrounded by grassy dunes and desiccated prairie, with a backdrop of tortured trees blasted by gale force winds, flying sand and cutting salt; its location could not easily be more dramatic. Beyond the point, the wide waters of the San Juan de Fuca Strait are open all the way to the Olympic Peninsula and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

From the Cattle Point Interpretive Area, walk back up the road a short distance to the trailhead. Be very careful, there’s no road shoulder. An easy path wanders through the dunes keeping you in the open away from the dense shrubby trees. Along the way an occasional interpretive sign will describe historic and ecologic points of interest. This grass and dune area is a rarity, unique in fact, in the San Juans which makes it a special place to visit. Everything seems subjugated by the force of nature, yet as you look down, beside the trail, the small slender grasses can withstand this onslaught and in fact even incorporate the biting sand into their structure for defense. Ironically, their habitat is delicate where man’s tread is concerned so you’ll want to stay on the established sandy trails; but with so much open terrain, you won’t miss a thing.

As you approach the lighthouse a short loop trail allows you to view the structure from different perspectives and provides opportunities to vary the lighting and background in your photographs. Nearly 80 feet below you, depending on tides, the steep sandy bluffs give way to glacial scarred sandstone and crashing waves. Even the lighthouse, seemingly indestructible from a distance, shows the effects of nature’s fury as you stand beside it. The undercut base is being eroded, cracks have begun to form and grow larger, and someday the weakened bluff may send the lighthouse to the shore below.

Since the late 1800s when a brass kerosene lamp was used, a warning light on this point has been of prime importance. Large, difficult to maneuver ocean ships pass by this way. The islands with their tight channels, strong tidal currents, numerous rocks, and dense fog can make this a mariner’s nightmare. Many a sailor has felt relief as the beacon from the Cattle Point Light finally appeared through a dark foggy night. Since 1935 the present structure has been in place with only minor changes with the exception of a temporary new look for the filming of a television commercial. Its square block base is topped by a less common and striking octagonal tower. The entire structure is white with black trim and none of the red common to many other lighthouses.

As you look out across the seemingly featureless waters to the south there is little evidence that this was once one of the richest fishing areas in Puget Sound. The great Salmon Bank concentrated the returning salmon into shallower water making it easier to net them. Numerous giant fish traps and seasonal netting structures were once erected here often far off shore. Salmon harvest has been going on here since ancient times and it’s still not uncommon to see commercial craft plying the waters, their decks piled high with modern nets.

Despite the nearness of other shore points, the coastline here is dangerous and overlaps on private property. Return by way of the same trail you arrived on but enjoy the prairie oriented views on your way back. Cattle Point was named for its association with cows and sheep initially brought by the Hudson Bay Company. While humans and their domesticated partners had a great impact on the natural environment it was possibly the importation of rabbits that had the most lasting effects. The rabbit’s ecological and unexpected archeological importance can be explored at the American Camp Visitor Center.

Dress for the weather but by all means come visit this historic lighthouse and rare dune area on the southernmost point of San Juan Island.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 7/22/2009

Directions

From the ferry dock in Friday Harbor, proceed up the hill out of town on Spring St, in a few blocks turn left on Mullis. This becomes Cattle Point Road. Stay on Cattle Point Road despite twists and turns. Drive through the National Park Grounds of American Camp. Once you reach the wide expansive prairie you’ll soon see the lighthouse on a point of land down and to the right. Continue driving and park at the Cattle Point Interpretive Area on the right

Map

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