Sunday, January 3, 2016

Wanderings: First Day Hike at Cama Beach State Park

View of Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island from the Bluff Trail at Cama Beach State Park.

New Year's Day dawned freezing cold and frosty here in western Washington, with clear blue skies and brilliant winter sunshine. Bundled in layers of polar fleece, my husband and I headed out to Cama Beach State Park to participate in our third annual First Day Hike. What better way to kick off the New Year than exploring the natural scenery of one of our state's many wonderful State Parks?

In past years, we participated in First Day Hikes at Deception Pass State Park (2014) and Wallace Falls State Park (2015). These parks also hosted First Day Hikes this year, but I wanted to explore someplace new, to become further acquainted with the parks closest to my new homeground in Snohomish County. With its 15 miles of trails, Olympic Mountain views, and picturesque setting overlooking Saratoga Passage, Camano Island's Cama Beach State Park was an enticing option.

We arrived at the park and found a parking spot on the frozen asphalt of the Birch lot. Each lot A-D is named after a different tree species: Alder, Birch, Cedar, and Douglas fir. How fun is that! The two Alder lots were full, so it appeared that Cama Beach would have a decent turnout for the First Day Hike today. After soaking in the last few moments of warmth inside the toasty car, we pulled on gloves and heavy jackets and steeled ourselves against the freezing temperatures into which we were about to embark.

We headed down the driveway toward a small shelter that we'd seen on the way in, hoping to find a trail map so we'd know where to go. I've found that oftentimes after arriving at a State Park, it can be difficult to find out where the action is... where the trailheads, maps, and main attractions are to be found. Having never visited Cama Beach, we were flying blind today. Thankfully, the shelter did have a map and a very kind and helpful park ranger who was more than happy to point out and describe each trail. We could hike down to the beach, along the bluffs, through the forest to a marsh and beaver dam, or even to the neighboring Camano Island State Park.

I wanted a hike with some views, so we opted for the Bluff trail, a gentle stroll about 2 miles roundtrip that took us along the forested bluffs overlooking Saratoga Passage. The kindly park ranger pressed us each to take a First Day Hikes button and help ourselves to the snacks and water bottles, although we weren't participating in the official guided hike that day. I proudly pinned my button to my camera strap, and after thanking the ranger we set off toward the trailhead.


Days of freezing temperatures had left much of the muddy trail frozen solid and hard underfoot. Deep thickets of salal lined either side, and Doug fir, Grand fir, cedar, and madrone trees towered overhead, leaving much of the trail in deep shade. The briny tang of saltwater mingled with the earthy smell of dampness and decay in the forest. After a few minutes' walking, we came to the first viewpoint, marked with a wooden platform and lovely views of the velvety blue water of Saratoga Passage, Whidbey Island, and the not-so-distant Olympic Mountains, which were putting on a show on this clear, sunny day. The platform also boasted two informational plaques that had been created as an Eagle Scout project, which described and identified the wide variety of vegetation to be found along the trail. We studied the plaques for a few moments, and thereafter were inspired to find each of the species they detailed, occasionally stopping along the trail, pointing at a plant or tree, and quizzing one another: Okay, what's this? This made the hike much more interactive and really connected us with our surroundings.


As we arrived at the platform, the guided First Day Hike group was just leaving. We lingered for awhile to allow them to gain some distance on us. Guided hikes are wonderful and informative, but most of the time I prefer to hike at my own pace, to allow time to dawdle, take photos, and admire any birds, wildlife, or interesting plants I come across. After a few minutes, we continued along the trail in the cold shade of the Doug and Grand firs whose branches overhead stole all of the honeyed sunlight slanting low through the afternoon sky. Looking out through the bare alder trees edging the bluff, we were treated to views of Saratoga Passage throughout the entire hike.

View from the first platform
The water was so tranquil

We visited a second viewing platform and pored over more informational plaques featuring native plants, then continued on through the forest. A little further along, a short side trail led to a larger platform with an almost wide-open view of the sun-drenched water, mountains, and way down below, the historic cabins clustered along the shoreline of Cama Beach. Warm sunshine spilled over the platform, warming our chilled fingers and cold red noses, and combined with the fresh air and modest exercise, it was enough to induce a slight drowsiness.


Olympic Mountains

Saratoga Passage and Whidbey Island

Cabins on Cama Beach

Any comfortable sleepiness quickly disappeared the moment we returned to the trail and continued through the shady forest. Another quarter mile or so, and we reached a junction in the trail. One trail appeared to leave the property, and another looped back through the forest before rejoining the Bluff trail. Deciding that we wanted to continue enjoying the views from the bluff, we turned around and headed back the way we came.

This trail has more to offer than just its spectacular views. There was plenty of wildlife to be seen: Douglas squirrels, Pacific and Bewick's wrens, chickadees, woodpeckers, and clinging to a tree trunk, one tiny brown bird that was the cutest, roundest little thing I've seen. I wasn't able to identify it, but was able to take one of my fantastic wildlife photos, so surely someone can shed some insight...

The little brown bird. Seriously... someone sign me up for a remedial wildlife photography class!

Interspersed along the trail were notched tree stumps; remnants of giant trees felled by the saw early in the 20th century. The notches were cut into the trees to insert a springboard, upon which the logger would stand as he sawed the tree down. These stumps are ubiquitous on most trails in the region, and speak to our area's long history of logging. However, the notched stumps you typically see are cedar stumps - the tannins they contain help them to resist decay and to persist long after the other conifer species have rotted away - but along the Bluff trail I mostly noticed notched stumps of the Douglas fir variety. Very unusual!


The parking lot was filling up even further with hikers arriving for the late afternoon guided hike as we bundled back into the car and turned on the heater. We'd had a lovely hike, but unfortunately not enough physical exertion to warm us up in this 35-degree weather! Pulling out of the parking lot, my husband and I agreed that we'd have to make a return trip to Cama Beach State Park to further explore the sights: there was the beach and historical cabins, and the trail that led through the forest to a beaver dam, which the park ranger had been particularly enthusiastic about. More adventures to look forward to! What a great start to the year.

The Bluff Trail was a gentle, easy hike that is perfect for a contemplative stroll through the forest, with serene views of Saratoga Passage. I'd recommend hiking this trail during the winter months, as the deciduous trees lining the bluff will likely block much of the view during the rest of the year when their branches are leafed out. Be sure to bring your Discover Pass!


3 comments:

  1. Your brown bird looks and sounds like a Brown Creeper. They forage on tree trunks, usually going up, while nuthatches go down. Neat birds!

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    1. That's good info to know! Thank you for the insight, Kelly. I'm glad you were able to make an ID from my awful photo. :) This little bird was going up the tree trunk, so I bet it was a Brown Creeper!

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  2. Your brown bird looks and sounds like a Brown Creeper. They forage on tree trunks, usually going up, while nuthatches go down. Neat birds!

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