Decatur Head sits on the east side of Decatur Island, connected to the main island by a gravel road and a stretch of beach, which makes it a tombolo. Its rocky hill rises about 200 feet above sea level. James Island, an entire island state park, sits nearby just across the water in Rosario Strait. Decatur is a private island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands, with the only public facility being a public boat ramp.
Since the 1970’s Decatur Head has belonged to the Decatur Head Beach Association, a group of 40 families that owns the 8 cabins there. 7 are for their use and one for the caretakers to live in. When extra cabins are available, members can bring other family along to enjoy the island too, which is how we get to go there sometimes with my husband’s sister.
Each cabin is different. They sleep from 4-10 people, but have only one bathroom per cabin regardless of how many people can stay there. When the cabins were originally built driftwood and other beach items were incorporated into their construction. While all the cabins still retain some of their original charm, it’s no longer allowed to pick up driftwood off the beach so they lose some of it over the years to repairs and updates. Each cabin has some unique furniture made at least partially out of driftwood and some have things like stairs made from it as well.
The association’s property extends to the other side of the tombolo where they have tennis courts on the mainland. Alongside the connecting gravel road next to the beach there’s a small playground with a pirate ship and small merry-go-round. The beach goes on for quite a distance (at least at low tide) below the cliffs of the main island while the gravel road goes up a hill passing by the one-room-school, store building, and solar panel power generating station. The entire island is about 3×2 miles with gravel roads to hike around on.
Besides the cabins, Decatur Head has two docks, one in the main bay and one in a saltwater lagoon. There’s also mooring buoys available for people who come by their own boat. The shoreline next to the main dock is lined with a row of rowboats belonging to members of the cabin association. One extra building between some of the cabins has storage lockers for them, and outside that building stacks of crabpots sit waiting for use when their owners come for a stay. Some of them have kayaks residing in racks on the property as well.
At low tide you can walk nearly all the way around the head on the beach, but at high tide many areas may have no beach at all. Usually there’s a bit in front of the cabins, but the rest of the head has mostly rock cliffs. Occasionally extremely high winter tides flood the road between cabins making small boats the only way to get from one to another for a few hours.
Small trails lead uphill to the top of the head where there’s excellent views on clear days. The top of the head is forested, like much of the area on most of the San Juan Islands. There, like anywhere on the island it’s possible to come across one of the island’s small deer. The island also sports a herd of wild sheep, but I’ve never seen them.
One day during our visit John hiked up to the top of the head with me. We came across a tree he said looked like something out of Harry Potter. It was gnarly enough to be the whomping willow, except for the fact that it’s not a willow.
Most of the time we were there on our most recent visit we could hardly even see much of Decatur through air thick with wildfire smoke, but that day we could actually see across the channel to James Island.
Quite a variety of seabirds dot the shores, along with some crows. Other birds inhabit the island’s trees. The mostly rocky beaches are filled with tidal creatures like starfish, crabs, snails, barnacles, sea anemones, and limpets.
On the side of the head where the cabins are there’s nearly always a bit of beach, but much of the rest of the beach surrounding the head disappears completely at high tide. Around the far side there’s a small indent in the rock with a tiny permanent sandy beach, much of which is occupied by a log that with enough imagination could be a dragon.
The sandy stretch of beach along the road between Decatur Head and the rest of the island collects a lot of driftwood in winter storms and people like to build beach forts out of it. From up on top the head you can clearly see the bit of land connecting it to the main part of the island on nice days. When we were there while the entire western part of the USA was shrouded in wildfire smoke we could barely even see the main part of the island most of the time. Sometimes the smoke from those distant fires was so thick we couldn’t even see the water from the beach.
Like pretty much anywhere in the San Juan Islands, Decatur is a nice place to go for a relaxing break. Although people live on the island, I’ve hiked all around it and rarely come across anyone.
copyright My Cruise Stories 2021
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