Decatur Island is a private island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. The island sits east of Lopez and south of Blakely. Lopez has ferry service and limited public amenities including a village with shops and a waterfront park with a dock, mooring buoys, and a campground. More lodgings on Lopez include vacation rental homes and other camping areas. Blakely is private, but has a shallow-entry marina with fuel, a seasonal store, permanent and transient moorage, and restrooms with showers. The only public facility on Decatur Island is a boat ramp in Davis Bay near Decatur Head on the east side of the island. It also has the Kimball Preserve, a wildlife preservation area on a tombolo and part of the headland at the southern tip of the island. It is open to the public for daytime use, but accessible only by human powered craft such as kayaks or rowboats. The easiest landing is on the sandy spit of the tombolo connecting the smaller island bit to the headland. A tombolo is defined as a sandbar or spit connecting an island to the mainland. In Decatur’s case they connect much smaller islands to the main island, which in itself is not all that large.
The island’s other tombolo, Decatur Head, lies next to much smaller James Island on Decatur’s east side. James is one of the islands in the San Juan’s where the entire island is a marine state park, accessible only by private boat. James Island has a dock, mooring buoys, beaches, a picnic area, hiking trails, pit toilets, primitive campsites, and a good amount of off-limits to people wildlife preservation area.
Decatur Island was named for naval officer Stephen Decatur in the 1841 Wilkes expedition – an early naval exploration and surveying mission of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands. Decatur Island’s total area covers 3.524 square miles with elevations from sea level to 540 feet.
Decatur Island has some year-round residents and a number of vacation homes. The main residential/vacation home communities are Decatur Shores, which has a dock and and a small airport with a grass runway, and Decatur Northwest which has a dock. The cabins at Decatur Head have 2 small docks. Other residences and vacation homes on the island are in private areas without community facilities.
The island has a one-room school house for kindergarten through 8th grade, one of just a handful of active one-room schools still remaining in the USA. Near the school there’s a solar power generating facility and a small store which is currently closed. Gravel roads provide access from one area of the island to another. Residents have cars, but there are no gas stations so they have to have the fuel brought in. Old cars don’t seem to ever leave the island as there are many abandoned in the woods along the roadsides.
Decatur has no ferry service, but cars and freight come to the public boat ramp through Island Transporter and people can come to the island’s docks or boat ramp through either Island Express or Paraclete Charters as well as private boats. Small airplanes can land on the airstrip with permission from Decatur Shores. For anyone without connections to private homes or cabins on Decatur, accommodations may be found through Airbnb, but you have to look carefully because most of their listings are really located on other islands. Visitors to the island need to bring everything they will need during their stay with them since the island has just the one small store that has closed.
We visit through my husband’s sister, who is part of a group owning cabins at Decatur Head. It’s a nice island, typical of the smaller San Juan islands in being mostly rural and forested. Some of the seaside areas have beaches while others end abruptly as rock cliffs jutting out of the water. Roads are gravel rather than paved. Other than birds and tidal sea life, small island deer are the most likely wildlife to come across while hiking about the island.
Most beaches belong to the state and are accessible to anyone, but not crowded since there aren’t that many people on the island. I took long walks on the beach at low tide and never saw any other people. At low tide the beaches can go out for quite a distance, but some beach areas may disappear altogether when the tide comes in.
Winter storms deposit driftwood of all shapes and sizes where currents bring them to the island’s beaches. People like to make forts out of the driftwood. A walk along the beach in an area that collects a lot of driftwood may bring you past various previous visitor’s forts ranging from small and simple to big and elaborate. None of them look as if they would provide much shelter from rain or storms though.
In areas where the cliffs above the beach are made of dirt instead of rock weather and tides may cause landslides.
Overall Decatur and many other islands in the San Juan’s are nice peaceful places to visit where nature is abundant and people are scarce.
Photos in this blog are hazy because our last visit to Decatur was at a time when smoke from distant wildfires shrouded the entire pacific northwest.
Copyright My Cruise Stories 2020