Camping Trip to Sucia Island

The family and I are headed to Sucia Island State Park this weekend in my 18′ Tiderunner boat. Look for an entire post on it later but in the mean time I’m too excited not to share Sucia’s beauty with folks who haven’t seen it. This is a quick post with exerts form Seattle Times and some random Sucia Photos mixed with pics of my boat. It’s (almost) the northern most Island in the San Juan’s in Washington State. Read this great article from the Seattle Times below and see all their photos.

Camping Sucia Island

From the Seattle Times (Read entire article here)

Sucia Island entertains up to 100,000 visitors annually and yet twists and turns so intricately it gives the odd sense that each breathtaking vista is being seen by you, alone, for the first time.

These islands are state marine parks, accessible only by boat, and they represent a curious kind of hope at the edge of our state. They are an example of foresight, smart management and individual stewardship. By all rights they should be loved to death, and yet they are wilder, more lovely and cleaner now than they have been in a century.


“When I got this job, nobody else wanted it,” marvels supervising parks ranger Dave Castor. Too distant from Olympia, he explained, a career dead end. Yet he has embraced these islands for 18 years, and never fallen out of love. “To sit in Fox Cove and watch the sun go down, or moor in Echo Bay and watch Mount Baker turn pink like a great big ice cream cone — I never get tired of looking at them.”

Castor’s enchantment has not been universal. While the remains of Native American camps date back 2,500 years, the first Europeans to see these islands were decidedly less impressed. There are many reasons why the Spanish elected not to press their claims to the Pacific Northwest, but one of them, surely, was their miserable boating experience in the San Juan Islands.

IT WAS 1791, almost a full generation before Lewis and Clark, and the Spaniards were poking northeastward in the aptly-named Santa Saturnina, or Melancholy Saint. Thirty-eight men were crammed into a 36-foot schooner and accompanying longboat, and on June 24, the saint’s day of John the Baptist that gives the archipelago its name, it was raining, cold and bewildering. Nothing but damn islands, rocks, current, tide rip and mist.

Camping Sucia Island

The explorers found poor anchorage at Patos and named it the Spanish word for duck, which may be a reference to birds or perhaps to a prominent rock shaped naturally like a duck’s head, which Castor singles out near the island’s Toe Point.

Sucia Island is Spanish for “dirty” or “foul,” because of its reef-strewn waters. Matia was one of the many names of the Mexican Viceroy. These outer islands had shallow harbors, little to no water, meager soil and gloomy weather. The wind wouldn’t blow, tidal currents kept sweeping the Spanish where they didn’t want, and they went aground three times.

Small Cabin Gear Site

At the same time, the British were discovering Puget Sound and the Americans the Columbia River. “You can have it,” the Spanish essentially said. “We’re going back to California.”


The boundary dispute called “The Pig War” eventually put the San Juans in American ownership, and the government designated many of the outer islands as lighthouse preserves. Yet as early as 1860 the Wiggins family was homesteading at Sucia’s Mud Bay. A descendant reported in an oral-history interview that raiding parties of Haida Indians would paddle into the bay to demand water as homestead children hid by climbing the trees.

A settler named Weir reached Matia as early as 1883, and a staffed lighthouse was on Patos by 1893.

In her odd and delightful memoir, “The Light on the Island,” author Helene Glidden mixes fact and fancy about her childhood on Patos, where she moved in 1905. She records both improbable adventures (an epic shootout with smugglers) and real historical events such as the passage of the Great White Fleet and (possibly) a visit by Teddy Roosevelt to her lighthouse-keeper father: The President did visit the San Juans. So remote was the outpost that three of her siblings died of disease because they couldn’t reach medical help in time.


Camping Sucia Island

An opportunistic early resident of Matia was Elvin Smith, a “hermit” who squatted on the government land about 1891 and made a meager living as a mail-order faith healer. He prayed for sick supplicants who wrote him from across the United States, and rowed over to the Orcas Island post office to collect occasional gratitude payments if they were cured. He lived on Matia 30 years, planted an orchard, raised small animals, and drowned with a friend when their small boat swamped in 1921. Remnants of his homestead can still be spotted.

IT WASN’T JUST the presence of permanent settlers that made these islands different than they are now. Native Americans routinely burned to promote wild foods, and the absence of fire today is causing extinction of prairie plants. And white pioneers logged. While Matia still retains a lovely grove of old growth and a few big trees survive on Patos, most of today’s trees are second-growth.

USGS topographical map of Sucia Island.

Sucia Island was homeport to excursion boat trips in the 1920s, and a children’s summer camp after World War II. There are reports of a fox farm as well. Gold and coal claims were filed, though never used, and from 1900 to 1909 a sandstone quarry operated on Fossil Bay. The road and picnic area at the head of the bay next to the old quarry date from that time; before then, water lapped all the way to the cliff face.

The sandstone proved to be of poor commercial quality but high scientific importance, as geologists work to piece together the complicated geologic history of the Pacific Northwest. In his evocative book “Time Machines,” University of Washington paleontologist Peter Ward describes how the southern side of Sucia is Cretaceous seabed 80 million years old.

Geomagnetic evidence indicates it originated at the latitude of Baja California and slowly drifted north, just as California west of the San Andreas Fault is moving north an earthquake-jolt at a time. Castor said this migratory rock is fused with younger Chuckanut sandstone at the joint marked by Fossil Bay and Fox Cove, pressure helping bend and fold the island into a steep-sided horseshoe.


Read this amazing article and see the real photos

On the Edge – Isolation shapes the land and lore  – Seattle Times

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3 Responses

  1. DeeDee Dixon says:

    More about the Native Americans who inhabited the San Juan’s before the whites came stealing the islands from the indigenous populations.

  2. We had a great time, somehow we got dock space but I now know I could beach at a few spots if needed. Which bay did you stay at?

  3. Wayne Lutz says:

    We went to Sucia once with our 2452 Bayliner, but since we don’t have a dinghy never got to shore. It was summer, so the marine park section was quite crowded. Margy and I like cruising in the off season if possible.