Sunday, November 28, 2021
Nov. 28, 2021

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Even on a smoky day, the view from Washington’s Oyster Dome is worth the sweaty switchbacks

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Hikers on the ledge at Oyster Dome, the rocky viewpoint on Mount Blanchard that affords panoramic views of the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea.
Hikers on the ledge at Oyster Dome, the rocky viewpoint on Mount Blanchard that affords panoramic views of the San Juan Islands and the Salish Sea. (Megan Burbank/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE —There are at least two ways to Oyster Dome, the rock face on the side of Mount Blanchard where you can unwrap your snacks in view of the San Juan Islands, the Salish Sea and a patchwork of green Skagit farmland.

The first way starts at the Samish Overlook Day Use Area, which has a parking lot, vault toilets, an EMS (emergency medical service) checkpoint and a charming view. The second way begins at a pocket-like trailhead on Chuckanut Drive, so small it’s easily missed, and your only parking option is along the road. (Don’t straddle the white line if you don’t want to get towed!)

Both trails eventually lead to Oyster Dome, but the Chuckanut route takes you straight onto tight switchbacks with rapid elevation gain. You and your hamstrings can skip this experience if you park at the Samish Overlook.

I share this option with you, because I didn’t take it.

On a recent smoky Saturday, I chose chaos, joining a line of cars parked on the shoulder of Chuckanut Drive, crossing the highway and heading up the switchbacks beyond the barely-there trailhead.

The switchbacks stay sharp for the first 1.6 miles of this hike, when it joins up with the Samish Bay Trail. At that point, the elevation gain gets (somewhat) more reasonable, the terrain begins to look like the forest moon of Endor (so many ferns!) and you’ll find a bench where you can glimpse the San Juans, a preview of what awaits at the top.

If you can’t get enough scenic viewpoints, you can take a detour to the Samish Overlook. (This is also where the slightly more reasonable route begins along Larry Reed Trail, then links up with Max’s Shortcut.)

I opted to keep going up Samish Bay Trail, through more switchbacks, rolling terrain, warnings to keep off cliffs, interpretive signs describing the area’s glacial past, wildlife including a large sedate frog and a few hikers brave (or foolish) enough to go outside at the tail end of an air-quality advisory.

There’s not much variety on this hike — the big theme is “up” — but the final scramble takes you out of the woods and onto Oyster Dome. From there, you can look out onto everything beautiful about the Pacific Northwest: water, sky, mountains, islands, all in gradations of blue and gray. Even in cloud cover or smoky conditions, it’s a spectacular view that makes all the sweaty switchbacks worth it.

Since it’s mostly downhill, the return trip will feel fast, and once you get to the beginning switchbacks section, you’ll hear traffic on Chuckanut Drive before you see it. You’ll also spot your car long before you get to the bottom.

The last hike I wrote about was easy (short, wide level grade, no elevation), but it came with a psychological barrier: Walking into a dark tunnel without knowing when or where you’ll get out isn’t how everyone wants to spend a Saturday morning.

But getting to Oyster Dome from the Chuckanut trailhead is a more traditional kind of strenuous.

It’s a truly moderate hike, and if you’re not a fan of switchbacks, it may not be for you. I also wouldn’t recommend it for any but the hardiest of children, and if heights aren’t your thing, you may want to hang back from the rocky ledge.

If heights are your thing, exercise caution if you plan to take selfies near the edge; maybe ask a fellow hiker to help out so you can focus on your footing. The trail’s oddly graphic cliff warnings aren’t just for show.

If you’re used to hiking from Mountain Loop Highway, North Bend or Issaquah, the trails off Chuckanut Drive may not spring to mind immediately when you’re plotting your weekend itinerary, but they should. I hiked Oyster Dome when the air quality was still questionable in Seattle, but in the Skagit, that low-grade burning scent disappeared, the trees provided ample shade and the air smelled clean for the first time in days.

That kind of moment is what makes hiking worth it in the first place, but if you opt to start at the nicer trailhead and skip the extra-credit switchbacks, I don’t blame you. Next time, I might, too.

Oyster Dome from Chuckanut Drive

  • Distance: 6.6 miles round-trip. It’s slightly shorter if you start at the Samish Overlook Day Use Area.
  • Good for: Shady summer hiking, people who hate their hamstrings and want to punish them, view enthusiasts.
  • Parking: The Chuckanut Drive/Highway 11 trailhead isn’t ideal for parking — you’ll have to stash your vehicle along the highway shoulder. The Samish Overlook Day Use Area has a lot that holds up to 20 cars, and requires a Discover Pass.
  • Terrain: Numerous switchbacks and an elevation gain of over 1,000 feet. Thankfully, the trail is mostly shaded, so you’ll be sweaty from exertion, not relentless heat.
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