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  • Mark C. Anderson

Turtleback Mountain Preserve Is an Orcas Island Must-Do

Updated: Jan 17



There are far more than 141 ways to describe 141-acre Turtleback Mountain Preserve. I'd go with lush, verdant, vibrant, vibrational, seemingly infinite—in both its charms and its vistas—to start.


The first time I went was my second day on Orcas Island. That's how much I was imprinted by recommendations from local experts I spoke with to see what adventures to prioritize while living at Orcas Hotel. Turtleback was on everyone's short list.


The word to describe Turtleback that July day: misty. Misty like Japanese temperate rainforest. Misty like a place apart from time. Misty like magic.


Misty like there's so much of its nourishing energy in the air that it connects everything, from twisting root to downey woodpecker to carved-stone stair.


Misty as in your rain shell getting wet without a drop of rain. Misty as in sweat glands activating with the at-times steep terrain.


But more than anything, misty in the grateful sense of daym-this-is-so-beautiful-now-my-eyes-are-getting-misty-too. It felt like being alone in an ever-expanding temple with curtains of mist instead of walls.


Yes, Orcas is a singular place. Turtleback is one of its primary oracles to tap into that.



That morning I launched from the South Trail's parking lot, a short coastal drive from Orcas Hotel past Deer Harbor which leads to a range of loops all doable, descent included, in an easy hour or two depending on your oomph.


Round two I headed further north for what is the must-do within the greater must-do: Summiting the 1,005-foot-high Turtlehead point that gives the preserve its name.


The North trail in Turtleback State Preserve takes a upward slope through a moss-carpeted wonderland of Scouler's harebell, Pacific madrone and giant white fawn lilies, while firs imitate ferns and ferns imitate firs and most everything appears in vivacious interplay of light and color.

In late summer, tall and leaning wild foxglove flank the fire road’s climb. Bright green seasonal marsh ponds appear amid the forest.


Wild daisies glow in the late afternoon light, touching off a fuzzy pollinator party.


The first directional sign past the parking lot comes about two-thirds up on the elevation gain that climaxes at Turtlehead. To the right, the sign reads: Waldor View.


Pro-tip: Never pass up a lookout spot in Turtleback territory. Waldor appears above, a brief jaunt west from the main artery.


It’s arresting. And hard to leave.


But leaving—eventually, anyway, though a carved-trunk bench encourages lingering—is advisable, because other eye-popping views await.


The old logging roads eventually narrow into single-track trails that dip and rise through more forest and lichens before emptying onto a wide peak that overlooks an expansive swath of the San Juans.


San Juan County is a collection of hundreds of islands and prominent rocks, more than 400 all told. Not all of them have names, though 134 do.


Turtlehead, pictured above, makes a compelling case as the best place to picnic and ponder at many of them.


An interpretive sign at the top of Turtlehead notes it is part of the nonprofit San Juan Preservation Trust, a large network of nature preserves that are neither park nor public lands.


SJPT is privately owned with conservation and access in mind: Everyone is welcome.


And everyone who visits Orcas should explore it.


Learn more and lend support via the Preservation Trust's Turtlehead website.

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