The first time I visited Cypress Island, it took an hour to set the anchor. The bottom was soft, the underwater terrain suspect (at one point the depth sounder flashed an alarming zero fathoms), and the only chart was no help at all.
Watching us all the while was a couple on a little motorcruiser who’d taken what we figured was the prime anchoring spot. They rowed over and welcomed us, commiserated on our difficulty anchoring (they’d had trouble, too), then proceeded to describe the island as if they had discovered it themselves. Eyes glowing, they spoke of the trails, the birds, the beaches and rocks. When I told them I was a writer they urged me: “Please, don’t ruin this special place.”
In the years I’ve visited since, everyone I’ve met feels the same about Cypress Island. It’s their secret, an unspoiled getaway that embodies much of what the San Juan Islands used to be: heavily wooded, quiet, remote.
Both nature and design keep it so. Steep terrain, scarce water and the lack of ferry service discouraged the residential or commercial development that’s common elsewhere. Citizen action over the last decades led to setting aside most of the core of the island and some of its prime beaches for wildlife conservation and public use. Today Washington State Department of Natural Resources manages 3,933 acres of forest, wetlands and marine areas.
For an island so large, Cypress has few anchorages, and by San Juan Islands standards none are very good. The most popular, with public shoreline access, are Cypress Head, Eagle Harbor, and Pelican Beach.
The southern-most is Cypress Head, a peninsula at the southeast end of the island jutting into Bellingham Channel. This anchorage is best suited for small boats. There are five mooring buoys placed close together in the small bay north of the head; the beach is steep and the currents strong enough to create tidal overfalls. The bay on the south side is shallow and obstructed by kelp. On shore are a few firepits, picnic tables, and campsites.
Eagle Harbor, located between Cypress Head and Pelican Beach, appears on the chart to be a perfect anchorage: A steep head of land wraps protectively to the northeast, and all the bulk of Cypress Island stands between you and southwesterly winds. But the outward appearance is deceptive. Below the surface, the west and southwest shorelines shoal out extensively in the former log booming area, and there is a surprising (and unmarked) shoal in the center of the harbor. It’s important to take care both entering (favor the north shore) and anchoring, and to verify enough depth for swinging.
Pelican Beach (named for the “Pelican” sailboat design), on the northeast end of the island, is a crescent of sloping gravel. This “bay” has six mooring buoys, but there is no protection from northerlies, the prevailing wind in good summer weather. Swells that build over the length of the Strait of Georgia can make an overnight anchorage uncomfortable. On shore are a few campsites, picnic tables, firepits, and —its major attraction — a spectacular unobstructed view of Mt. Baker.
Note that there is no drinking water at any of these bays.
None of the other bays are recommended. Salmon pens, strong and shifting tidal currents, and a strictly private shoreline make Deepwater Bay on the east side of Cypress especially unwelcoming. Strawberry Bay on the west side is entirely open to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the shipping lanes and to the wakes of ferry traffic. All mooring buoys and shoreline are private. Foss Cove, further north along the west side, is public, but like Pelican Beach is also exposed to the north.
Things to Do
The reward for the extra time needed to set the hook and the extra vigilance at night if the wind kicks up is a glorious day of hiking. Literally miles of trails — mostly former logging roads now overgrown with daisies and foxglove — are accessible from Foss Cove, Pelican Beach, Eagle Harbor and even the more distant Cypress Head. This network wanders the full length of the island, through older second growth forest. Only a few of the trails on the island are marked; you may need a compass to keep your bearings. The trail to Phoebe (Cypress) Lake is a vigorous three miles or so, with an elevation gain of 1400 feet; it’s easy to take a wrong turn and never find it. Duck Lake, easier to find, is a marsh humming with dragonflies.
Cypress Island is a Natural Resources Conservation Area (NCRA). Note that the trail up to Eagle Cliff is closed from February through July to ensure that endangered nesting wildlife are undisturbed. Pets must be on leash at all times.
Trail maps are available on the NRCA website.
Sailor, writer and teacher Migael Scherer, who divides her time between Seattle and Lopez Island, is the author of “A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands,” published by International Marine/McGraw-Hill. The guide can be purchased online through Armchair Sailor Books & Charts, Captain’s Nautical Supplies, Amazon and other retailers.