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Review

Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Mitchell Hill is near the middle of the line of high peaks that form the west side of San Juan Island. Located a little south of historic English Camp (see article this website) the area has had a long and diverse history of use including: hunting, military wagon roads, grazing, ranching, farming, logging, and most recently recreational hiking and mountain biking. This use has resulted in an interesting though complex network of roads and user trails. Potential connections to Young Hill of the National Park and the Roche Harbor Highlands trail system add wonderful opportunities but also more complexity.

Before starting on your hike, take a moment to scan the pond and wetland across from the road entrance. Though on private land, the birding from a distance can be interesting during the day. Near twilight wild turkeys sometimes roost in the trees that form a backdrop to the small lake.

Begin your hike by walking around the gate. Make sure you check the information board for any recent trail postings. Recent wildlife sightings and changes in trail conditions may be posted here. In a short distance you’ll reach a road “T.” To make a loop hike that includes the high ridge, go right and follow the road. Climbing moderately the roadway passes through an area of relatively recent logging. Wetlands fringe the road in mixed woodlands with shrub borders. Roadside flowers may be seasonally abundant but the growing canopy will one day block their necessary sunlight. Before long, the road curves to the left, eventually setting you in a northerly direction onto the ridge.

The ridge is a pleasant forest of a different character than you’ve passed through. The roadway is older and less industrial. The surrounding area is more open, drier, with occasional large old trees including the mysterious and dramatic wolf trees (see Point Caution Biological Preserve, this website). Open grassy meadows and balds appear offering pleasant stopping points and limited views.

Continuing along and then down and off the ridge, the forest characteristics change frequently; sometimes dry and sometimes wetter. Remnants of grassy meadows and Garry oak trees are passed, struggling for survival against the encroaching evergreen canopy. Spring offers wildflower displays in these shrinking meadows. The wetlands offer different plants and animal sightings. Many of these wet areas are shallow and will dry up by late summer.

Before the descent is over, junctions with the Roche Harbor Highlands Lake Loop and the National Park will be encountered. To return to your starting point you’ll have to go left or southwest. Notice the signs, different trail segments have been designed for different user groups. Some allow bicycles while others don’t. Pets are always required to be on leash. In addition to the natural aspects found on Mitchell Hill some obscure but fascinating historic features may also be found. Along the trails in this northern section of Mitchell Hill look for the signs of old wagon road construction. Rock retaining walls, even wheel ruts may still be seen. Traversing this area is a segment of the original military road connecting the British controlled English Camp with the American held camp at Cattle Point. The soldiers began the wagon road construction from their respective camps crossing considerable difficulties of terrain including bottomless wetlands and difficult mountain slopes. In this area, the British Marines improved a track previously cleared by the Hudson Bay Company for driving sheep to grass pastures to the south. Ironically the “Military Road” was not built for battle but to facilitate the social events shared by the two camps during the period of their joint occupation.

Mitchell Hill is part of the English Camp Unit of the San Juan Islands National Park but still retains much of its mystery and wildness. The many unknown side trails can be as tempting as they are inscrutable. This is an area where the price of exploring may come at a cost of a significant amount of time and a wrong turn may set you off in a quite unexpected direction. Be cautious in your choice of trails and if possible consider using a GPS in addition to map and compass. Also keep in mind that some of these side trails were user built for steep down-riding by extreme mountain bikers. If ever in doubt, or the way becomes too difficult, return to the main trail and start over, it almost always takes less time in the long run.
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Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 10/15/2009

Directions

The quickest access into the Mitchell Hill trail system is by way of Horse Trail Road. This road is located on the east side of the West Valley Road; about ¾ of a mile south of the entrance to the English Camp Unit of the San Juan Islands National Park. It is about the same distance north from the junction of Mitchell Bay Road and the West Valley Road. Park at the end of this short road but do not block gates. Be careful parking, there is very little room and deep ruts can trap even larger vehicles.

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