In the depths of the pandemic, summer of ’21, I was looking for a place that was outside but not crowded. All summer long people flocked to the outdoors, which meant well-known and easily accessible places were being “well loved,” usually a wonderful thing, but I was in the mood for some peace, some quiet, some uncrowded vistas.
I perused the Washington State Parks information, and discovered a small park on Harstine Island. There are two state parks on the 18-square-mile island. The first, Jarrell Cove State Park has a pretty spectacular boat docking area and lots of camping spaces.
The second park, Harstine Island State Park, is much smaller with minimal improvements. It offers a bit of solitude and open space. There are no pets allowed in this smaller park but shellfish collecting is allowed in season.
Licenses and seasonal information are available through the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Getting to the Park
One of the reasons this little park is rarely busy is that it is well off the main roads. Located north east of Shelton WA, on the west side of the Puget Sound, it is a trek to there from the closest interstate highway. The Mountaineers website provided me with excellent, and precise driving directions.
I took the Olympic Highway, SR 3, east out of Shelton and turned right onto Pickering Road, watching for the Harstine Island bridge. The bridge opened in 1969, replacing a private ferry.
Today, there is an unincorporated community on the island. The area is known for being relaxed, in fact, so much so that there was no rush to settle on one of the several varieties for the island’s name. Harstine was made official in 1997 by the Washington State Legislature.
The Beach Loop Trail
At the end of the unpaved road is a small gravel parking lot. I hung my Discover Pass, which I purchase annually for $30, on the car’s rear-view mirror.
Entrance to the parks for those without a Discover Pass is $10 per car. The collection station also has postings for events, notices of open shellfish seasons, and a map that is sufficient for even first-time visitors who wish to choose from among the trails for a day’s adventure.
The map at the parking lot kiosk gives a clear overview. There are more than four miles of trails to choose from, but on this first visit I went straight for the beach loop.
I started into the forest right next to the kiosk, and found a cool, undulating hike that would take me down to the beach after a little over a half mile hike. Later I would take the shorter, steeper return trail back up to my car.
On that hot summer day, the first steps into the forest were immediately cooler, and a slight breeze was welcome. Like most Pacific Northwest forests, the canopy was created by tall Coast Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and Red Cedar. The undergrowth is filled with ferns.
The forest within the park boundaries is filled with long standing trees. Though the area was logged in the late 1800s, logging stopped after 1913, when the Washington State parks were established.
The forest has been left intact since its designation as a state park, and the trails wind through a forest which has returned to the original ecology.
Douglas squirrels are active and vocal above these trails though it is difficult to see them as they hurtle by at top speed. They do chatter and express their displeasure with people trespassing in their neighborhood, but if you are fortunate, you can catch their small, dark forms zipping up trees and around the backs of large trunks.
One special appeal of the trail down to the beach is that it slips past the large trees, giving me a chance to stop and look up, to notice the texture of the bark, to touch living beings that have lived long before me and will remain long after I am gone.
No rushing is needed, as the trails are not crowded. It is possible to stay in one place to listen to the song birds, hidden out of sight.
The entrance the beach is over a wood bridge. Those who want to collect shellfish should plan on carrying materials for harvest half-a-mile to this access point. When in season, steamer clams, horseshoe clams, geoducks, oysters, mussels, rock crab, Dungeness crab and Pacific Graceful crab are available. Limits are posted.
After the cool, shadow of the forest, the contrast of open sun and wide space across the Puget Sound stretching out from the beach has that much more impact.
Small streams reach out to the Puget Sound, slowing in their pace, and creating watery areas that need a bit of care to cross over. The beach is a long, gentle slope toward the water, so the difference between high and low tides is striking.
Looking down at my feet as I slip past, the barnacles are prominent. A longer gaze reveals more animal and plant life in this place where water and land are entwined in a tidal rhythm.
McMicken Island State Park is also accessible during low tide from Harstine State Park. However, it is important to pay attention to the tide tables. During the lowest part of the tide a single tombolo, or spit, connects the little island with the bigger Harstine.
The walk across is possible when the water is lowest. The tombolo is completely covered long before the waters rise to their highest at high tide. Boaters can get to McMicken Island easily without that concern, and there are several camping sites and mooring spaces for small boats.
The rest of the day is taken up with wandering the water’s edge. When I am tired, I find a washed-up log where I can sit. The clouds meander; the shore birds dance along in their quest for food.
Harbor seals frequent the area off shore, and I have to laugh when the quiet is interrupted by their raucous farting and barking.
Then, when I head back over the bridge, I can complete the loop back through the trees, strolling along to the bird song on the way back to the parking area where I started.