Hike a short trail that leads to one of the best viewpoints in the San Juans, with views of other San Juan Islands and of Canada's Gulf Islands. In the distance, Vancouver Island and the Olympic mountains will be visible. Along the way, enjoy an exuberant display of mosses and, in season, wildflowers. Sightings of golden eagles, turkey vultures, and many other birds are likely.
The signed North Trail starts out from the parking area. It may seem wide, and it's actually an old logging road. If you don't relish road walks, no worries. Things get much better farther along.
At first it's gently uphill. But the slope soon steepens from gentle to moderate, and about a half-mile from the trailhead a signed side trail appears on the right. It offers an optional break from the road, and leads 0.15 miles to the North Valley Overlook. Enjoy a great view across to Mt. Constitution and other Orcas Island high points. A tree near the overlook is favored by turkey vultures, and you might see one perched there.
Return to the North Trail and continue on uphill. The way levels out briefly and passes a skunk cabbage bog before climbing some more.
Just over 1.5 miles from your trailhead, come to another signed side trail. This short (0.05-mile) trail leads to the Waldron Overlook, a viewpoint located on the edge of a sheer cliff (be careful!) where you can look out across President Channel to Waldron Island, and beyond.
Return to the North Trail and, almost immediately, come to an intersection where the North Trail veers sharply left. It leads to other trails that continue down to the South Trailhead along Deer Harbor Rd. (That's an alternative route to this point, but one that is longer and has more elevation gain.)
Your route leaves the old road here and heads down the obvious foot trail that continues on toward Turtlehead Summit (once known locally as "Orcas Knob," a name that still appears on some maps.)
The trail out to Turtlehead Summit opened in 2013, and was constructed by volunteers from WTA, Washington Conservation Corps, and Orcas Island Youth Conservation Corps. It begins as a gentle downhill grade, losing about 275 feet before the uphill resumes. This trail was constructed with great sensitivity, and it winds carefully around mossy boulders and tree trunks.
As you approach the Turtlehead Summit the area opens up completely. While the San Juans and nearby islands have a wealth of outstanding viewpoints, many hikers proclaim Turtlehead to be the best of them all.
A number of islands are visible from here. (Bring a map and try to identify some.) Vancouver Island is visible off to the far west, and the Olympic Mountains off to the south. On a clear day, the summit dome of Mt. Rainier will be visible in the far distance.
You are likely to see a few swallows gliding around the summit on their never-ending quest for an insect lunch. More dramatically, a golden eagle may soar by.
The best time to appreciate the mosses is late winter or early spring. Wildflowers will appear later in the season.