Point Caution Biological Preserve


620 University Rd
Friday Harbor , WA 98250


Every day 8:00 AM - 5:00 PM


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Beyond the buildings and structures of the Friday Harbor Labs (see article, UW Oceanic Laboratories, this website), the Point Caution Biological Preserve stretches from the rugged northeast shoreline of San Juan Island up through forests of mixed growth including the strangely formed giants known as “wolf trees.” There are moments of solitude in these areas as well as dramatic settings whether on the shore or under the forest canopy that makes it hard to accept that civilization is only minutes away. Even so, while easy strolls are possible, boot trails especially those following the rocky and largely beach-less shoreline can be difficult and at times dangerous, so proceed with caution appropriate to a wilderness area.

On the face of it, a wander through the Biological Preserve of the Friday Harbor labs is a pleasant hike in nature. Little evidence of man’s intrusion seems obvious. Wide paths through woodland settings, ancient trees, regenerating forest, and difficult but picturesque shoreline trails provide plenty of nature viewing and varying levels of hiking difficulty. Before setting out be sure to check in at the main office. Not only will they gladly provide you with a map but they’ll give you updates on conditions or research projects that may be important for you to know about before you begin your hike. Be aware that due to consideration for the protection of the natural area, no pets or smoking are allowed anywhere on the premises or in the preserve.

Walk through and past the compound of dormitories and lab buildings and begin your hike on the old fire trail that traverses through the forest. This old grade is based in part on a much older wagon road and provides the easiest access into the preserve. Junctions are soon encountered offering connections with the Shoreline Trail. Whichever way you continue, you might consider the thin thread of events that resulted in this area’s preservation. In the 1800s, Point Caution was considered an ideal location for the placement of fortifications to protect the waters to the south as a “Place of Refuge” for US Naval Ships. The surrounding woods were considered perfect camouflage and were therefore protected from harvest or destruction. The fort, obsolete before construction began, was never built. The 500 acre preserve remained protected as Federal Reserve Land and eventually became a science field station for the University of Washington. During the early stages of WWII it was considered as a site for armament but once again quickly changing circumstances prevented significant changes from being implemented.

Along the upland trail, the forest shows signs of transition. Clusters of large ancient trees with blackened bark alternate with stands of thicker, younger forest suggesting that nature in the form of fire was once part of the local ecology. Less visible but poking out of the forest floor, old rusty wire fencing can be encountered, a reminder of a time when sheep grazing was common. Occasionally a dramatic “wolf tree” may be encountered. These ancients grew alone, their great branches sweeping the ground and forming a substantial display of limbs the entire height of the tree. Worth little as lumber due to their heavy limbs and thick twisty trunks these giants were sometimes spared during early logging operations. Their structure proves that at one time the surrounding area was much more open. The thin soils were frequently swept clean of young trees and shrubs by late summer fires. A substantial open grassland community as well as Garry oak trees would have flourished. The suppression of fire has slowly changed the forest ecology; tree and canopy densities have increased resulting in less grass and more shrubs, lush salal often forming dense thickets.

Traveling further along the forest trail, you’ll notice a number of faint unmaintained trails and boot paths that branch off, many down to even more obscure paths along the rugged shoreline. If you decide to follow them be careful; slippery, narrow, sometimes washed away they are not for the timid. This area of the shoreline is rocky and remote. Little in the way of beach or open uplands are present; conditions perfect for wildlife. A short narrow mud slide into the water can be found, sign of otter presence and their play. Closer to the laboratories, the trail becomes easier but less remote, small pocket beaches can emerge from the falling tide, though wildlife may become more reluctant to appear. The preservation of nature does not end at the shoreline. Extending 500 yards from shore is a marine preserve, set aside with harvest restrictions to allow for scientific study and the preservation of natural biodiversity of island marine life. Across the water, the southwest corner of Shaw Island can be seen. Bordering this coast is a companion marine preserve, established for the same reasons of protection and study.

The Point Caution Biological Preserve is a living repository of native plants and animals. Though not immune to the exotic species that arrived with waves of farming and development activities it hosts nearly 30 different natural habitats. Like a great open air museum, visitors today may well appreciate the words of a former director of the adjacent laboratories speaking about the experience of biology instructors visiting the preserve for the first time. “Those who knew about dead animals now know something about live ones.” While neither a park nor a beach, the Biological Preserve at Point Caution is a wonderland for those who love and wish to explore nature.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 9/10/2009


Walk or drive it’s only a couple of miles from Friday Harbor and there’s limited parking at the Laboratories. If walking, you’ll have to use a road shoulder for part of the way, be careful of vehicles and pay attention to crossings and pedestrian direction signs. From the ferry dock in Friday Harbor, drive up Spring Street and in a couple of blocks turn right onto 2nd Street North. In a few blocks the road angles through an intersection and become Guard Street. One block later turn right onto Tucker Avenue/Roche Harbor Road. Just a 1/3 of a mile further take the fork to the right onto University Road; watch for pedestrians! This road curves through forest and into the laboratory campus. Turn into the parking lot on the right and check in at the office in the large low-profiled building directly below the parking lot.


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