Tour 2020 – Island Hopping day 5


Day 5 – Friday, October 2nd, 2020

I awoke at my campsite on the bluff to the sound of foghorns from the slowly passing ferries.  The view from the bluff was a blanket of fog, obscuring the islands and disappearing the boats.  It was clammy and chilly, a real autumn morning.  By the time I’d made breakfast and broke camp the fog was lifting, but it wouldn’t fully burn off until late morning. The last time I rode on Lopez was this freak weekend in January where it was over 70 degrees. Getting out to the island of course took time so the lateness of the day limited the riding. I rode all over the island but bypassed the little Village. So I wanted to get out there this time, even though due to the pandemic I wouldn’t really be “shopping.” I did though hope I could find a map of the Islands trails and I could always do with another round of coffee.  So off to town I went in the cold and damp.

Morning view from my campsite on Lopez
You more or less have to ride the main road there but this wasn’t heavily trafficked at least on a Friday morning in October. It was only three miles or so to Lopez Village, so this wasn’t a long slog. I got my coffee and pastries and sat outside enjoying the strengthening sun. The local bike shop did indeed have maps of Lopez Hill, todays off-road riding destination.  There wasn’t much else I was going to do in the Village, so after walking around its limits while finishing my coffee I set off. It was warmer now, the fog gone, at least from the land.  I took off my socks and leg warmers,  shed the coat and was off rambling around the island.
On Lopez Hill

There really is only the one main road across Lopez with a spur to make a tight loop. So I was mostly on “backroads” which pretty much just are the roads there. It’s pretty flat for the most part with gently rolling hills. The scenery is primarily farmland and small stands of woods. It was one of these sections of trees that I was heading for, the protected forestland around Lopez Hill.  This involved going on some real backroads and eventually onto a dirt road, which had a sign noting its unimproved status. The road went through those kind of backwoods homesteads that have a lot of space and a lot of no trespassing signs before coming to the turnoff to the trailhead.

Lopez Hills Trailmap

From the Friends of Lopez Hill: “There are four miles of multiple use trails on Lopez Hill. The trails are designed as “primitive” trails as they are naturally surfaced, narrow, and have a minimum of artificial constructions and signage.” This pretty much covers it. The hill is about 550 feet high and the trails surround it and make their way nearly to the summit.  They are fairly technical, that is single track with lots of rocks, roots and narrow, twisty sections. I often had to dismount and push over a short section of roots or rocks though never did I have to hike-a-bike for long stretches.  The panniers and touring load didn’t help, but the NFE’s handling fully loaded is nearly the same as unloaded so it really wasn’t bad. But as a single track climb pretty directly up the 500 feet I definitely got my workout. I only saw a few hikers while I was there and maybe one other bicycler. The trail comes to within a dozen feet or so of the summit and bicycles (and horses) aren’t allowed all the way up. So I laid the bike down and hiked to the top. There wasn’t really much in the way of clear views from there but I found a nice place to hang out and have lunch. I lingered for a while before riding down and taking one of the most difficult trails of the day to an alternate entrance, making for a “C’-shaped near loop around and over the Hill.

Reflections in Fishermans Bay
I return to the ‘Unimproved Road’ for what I felt was a great section of gravel road riding. Normal road-width but with some big curves, climbs and a final descent back onto to maintained paved roads.  Lopez Hill was definitely the hardest trail riding of this trip and I was pretty wiped out. I rode around a bit more but decided to make my way back to the ferry and return home. I could stay another day if I wished and head over to Shaw Island for the “four-fecta” of islands but I had done what I’d come for and the weekend I felt would be more crowded.  So I rode a loop around the island as much as possible before having to return to the main road back to the ferry.
The ferry ended up being nearly two hours late and so I spent a lot more time hanging out at the ferry dock than desired. I definitely would have preferred to have kept riding around, but it was always just “fifteen more minutes away.”  Finally it arrived and they put us on last and so I spent the trip on the car deck watching the setting sun.  Back in Fidalgo it was nearly dark and there was no less than nine touring cyclists waiting to board! I definitely made the right choice in returning at this point. I could only assume (hope really!) that they were going to Lopez as the campground is only fifteen minutes or so from the ferry. All the other Islands have a good stretch of riding before the campgrounds.  So I was happy I wasn’t going to be in the h/b camp with nine more cyclists. I wished them well and headed to the car and the conclusion of another bicycle tour.
My photos from this day: Island Hopping Day 5.
Farewell to the Islands
This was a strange tour in strange times. As I noted in the introduction I really wanted a more remote tour, away from people and in the woods that I love.  The San Juans are a very popular, touristy set of small Islands that can only be reached by crowded public transit.  Autumn in the PNW is my favorite season, especially early October when the days aren’t too short and it can get comfortably warm, but stays refreshingly crisp.  The few tours I’ve done this time of year have all been rewarding yet always tinged with that melancholy of the season. In many areas things are winding down, you find places unexpectedly closed but less people, more diversity of conditions and this all makes for interesting times.  While riding in more remote, wooded areas is more of my passion these days anyway, Covid was certainly a motivator toward that form of touring.  I had hoped that the autumn, mid-week San Juans during a pandemic would be less crowded, and more open than the craziness of the summer. This was the case but still uncomfortable amounts of people who were a lot more lax in what we can now look back as the beginning of the largest wave of the pandemic.  The easing of restrictions and peoples attitudes over the summer would feed this massive increase that would peak with the holidays.  This discomfort made for a very mixed set of feelings during the tour. I loved all the off road riding I did and was really happy to have explored those areas. Camping was uniformly good with h/b sites empty and especially on Orcas I was not around the rest of the campground.  So It was a good tour and I’m glad I did it, but in the end it would have been better to have arranged for a bit more free time and headed out bikepacking.
Tour Photo Album: Island Hopping photoset.

2 thoughts on “Tour 2020 – Island Hopping day 5”

  1. Robert, I’ve been digging this report. I’m bummed that due to the COVID year I didn’t get to the San Juans in ’20, but maybe I can do it this year. Later season sounds swell, too.

    I will comment on those after-dark tourons you encountered coming back from Lopez: Yeah, Lopez is pretty easy to get to (if you are going to Odlin), but Shaw wouldn’t be bad either. It’s a bit longer to get to the campground (2 miles) but the ride is pretty flat vs. that steady (but not super steep) climb getting off the Lopez dock. So, maybe hoping they could have gone there as well?

    I’ve thought about using the campground at Shaw as my base for a future tour. Shaw is the smallest, least trafficked, and least “to-do” island, so the chances of finding a spot there (esp. if midweek) is probably better than any other campground. And since the ferry terminal is 10-15 minutes away, it would be easy to get on the ferry any morning to go explore other islands. The store at the dock is adequate too, at least when I was there in 2017. The only drawback is that the beach and view is not as exciting as San Juan CG, Odlin, or Spencer Spit.

    1. Hey Shawn,

      Glad you dug the report, thanks for the kind words. I hear you about missing all our regular activities but I think you made the right choice. As I outlined in my intro I was really hesitant about it and really gave it a lot of thought. In the end I did feel it probably would have been better to be more remote. Initially my plan was for a second backpacking trip, doing five days in the North Cascades (which I’m also dying to get back to) but after my coast backpacking trip I realized I needed to make changes in gear and probably needed to get in a bunch more miles with a pack before doing harder mountain trips. Anyway it all worked out, so I guess that is something but I did feel uneasy a lot of the time which isn’t the feeling I’m going out touring for!

      Yeah I forgot about Shaw being so close. Shaw was actually the first Island I went to on my first fully self-contained tour. Camping there was my first night camping on a bicycle tour! I remember liking that ‘ground well enough and the beach but it was 2004, so perhaps things have shifted. I remember it being pretty small and only one or two h/b sites. Of course those 9 tourons might not have been one group..

      I think now that Odlin has got to be the best basecamp for doing the inter-Island thing. Close to the ferry nice views and if one stays in the group camp not so expensive. As I noted in my reports the Moran h/b site is hands down the best one in the Islands but absolutely the worst for a basecamp. San Juan CG is far away too but at least one can do loop routes. Moran is the best if you want to spend a bunch of time in the State Park. And there is a lot do to there both on foot and riding.

      Even though I’ve ridden Lopez a few times since I was a kid (even on the back of Moms bike IIRC) this trip was the first time I camped there. Now I’ve camped on all of the Islands and while there are still a few places to check out what I really want to do is get back to the Gulf Islands. Been since 2004 there too (though I’ve ridden and camped on Vancouver Island twice since then). Plenty more Island riding to do!

Leave a Reply