Terrain: Fairly Flat
Season: Year Round
Distance: 34 km
Access: See Getting to The Gulf Islands.
Saturna Island is hard to get to and the locals are usually content to keep it that way. With just 350 permanent residents to service, ferry sailings to the island are extremely limited. From Vancouver it is impossible to reach the morning sailing out of Tswwaasen by bus on any day except Saturday. Typically the second and last sailing occurs in the early evening which means visitors will arrive on Saturna at dusk or after dark with just enough time check-in. Since the ordeal is further complicated by stops at other islands and usually one transfer along the way, a trip to Saturna Island usually takes about three hours.
On a Friday for instance visitors could board the 6:30 PM ferry, arriving at around nine o'clock. They could then spend a full two days cycling and hiking then leave on the four o'clock boat on Sunday, arriving back in Tswwaasen by 7 PM. Due to the oddball schedule a simple day trip is out of the question.
The best way to reach Saturna Island is from one of the other Gulf Islands in the context of a longer, multi-day exploration of the archipelago. Visit Saturna last, then, after a day or two of exploration, return to the city on an early-morning run midweek or the late-afternoon one on the weekend. At times it may be practical to hop from one of the other Gulf Islands to Swartz Bay near Victoria then scoot over to Saturna.
Shuttle at Sunset: A flotilla of ferries big and small weaves the communities of Gulf Islands into the larger fabric of the province.
Finding a place to put up for the night is likewise complicated by Saturna Island's overprotective populace. In spite of the fact that the provincial government ministry responsible for parks has long sought to open up its holdings at Winter Cove to camping, fierce local opposition has thus far prevented any such action. And while residents have valid concerns regarding forest fires or way-of-life the less patient among the recreating public sometimes chalk their motives up to mere selfishness. Certainly the self-interest of lodge and B & B owners is well-served by disallowing camping island-wide. A smaller, monied class of tourist is attracted while the budget traveler is discouraged from visiting Saturna by a lack of services. Parks, ferry deficits and infrastructure are all covered by general revenue however, so the island does not belong just to the Islanders. Currently there is no camping whatsoever on the island.
In spite of these controversies and hardships Saturna Island is well worth a visit, not least because the seasonal invasion of visitors that plagues other islands is noticeably absent in this out-of-the-way corner of the gulf.
The price of solitude may come higher but includes a shower. Reservations are a must as Saturna Island boasts just two lodges and a handful of B & Bs and becoming stranded during high season is a real possibility. Most of the B & Bs are located near the ferry terminal in the vicinity of Lyall Harbor, an obvious choice if arriving in the evening.
Progress, in the form of Saturna Lodge, blasted its way onto the accommodation scene late last century. Not only does the luxury resort offer all of the usual facilities, it includes development of strata title condominiums and comes attached to coastal British Columbia's first vineyard and winery. 1999 saw production of the first local vintage. Needless to say local wine figures prominently in the lounge and dining room. The lodge, with just seven rooms, overlooks Boot Cove off Payne Road.
At the very opposite end of both the island and the political spectrum, East Point Resort features six rustic housekeeping cottages and could not be more in keeping with the island ethos. Located on secluded beachfront with views overlooking Tumbo Island, East Point Resort also offers boat rentals for those interested in exploring the offshore islands. Fishing and crabbing off East Point is reportedly the best in the Gulf Islands.
All politics aside, to begin exploring Saturna Island follow East Point Road from the ferry landing at Saturna Point past the government wharf and community hall. The latter structure, built in 1933, serves as locus of a farmers market every Saturday all summer long. The commercial heart of the island lies three kilometres from the ferry at the crossroads of East Point Road, Narvaez Bay Road and Harris Road. Funky Saturna General Store is the place to stock up on groceries, wine and other necessities before proceeding into the hinterland. From the crossroads here East Point Road drops down to Sunset Boulevard which in turn leads a short distance to a small gravel beach at the head of Lyall Harbour. Not ready for a dip? Proceed uphill again for another four clicks to where East Point road suddenly veers right. Veer left instead to reach the waterfront at Winter Cove Provincial Marine Park just a kilometre away.
Top up with water here and set aside at least an hour to loop past marshes and shoreline north to the open waters of Georgia Strait. Tidal currents through Boat Passage, as the narrow gap between Saturna and Samuel Island is called, can reach in excess of 7 knots or 13 k/mh. From shore the turgid waters of Boat Passage are a sight to behold. From the cockpit of a kayak they are best avoided altogether though experienced paddlers may enjoy the thrill of shooting the chute. In a pinch the rocky point overlooking the passage can be portaged over.
As mentioned, 91 hectare Winter Cove Provincial Marine Park was at one time destined to be the site of a wilderness walk-in campground though local opposition put that idea on hold. Now it is the site of the annual Canada Day Lamb Barbecue. Imagine the carcasses of freshly slaughtered baby lambs roasting on giant skewers around a huge bonfire and perhaps you can picture this traditional event. Some may question why such a hedonistic bacchanal can occur on public lands while something as innocuous camping cannot. Direct your questions to BC Parks.
Back on the saddle, East Point Road will now take you for a 10.5 kilometre sprint along the northern coast of Saturna Island. You can expect to pass numerous points of beach access. The waters adjacent to Russell Reef in particular are ideal for swimming. At times the forest canopy arches over the road while at others tremendous vistas of Georgia Strait and beyond are revealed.
While there may be little or no traffic always pedal in single file as you never know what may come barrelling around the next corner. Six clicks into this coastal byway the road passes through native reserve lands. Shortly thereafter the final four kilometres of road becomes Tumbo Channel Road.
A federal light station dominates East Point. The beacon was established in 1888 following a shipwreck two years previously on Boiling Reef. Surrounded by a Regional Park since 1996, the grounds are now open to the public though the lighthouse remains off-limits. The bluffs hereabouts offer unobstructed views of the American San Juan Islands and beyond to distant Mt. Baker. Closer to shore the reefs and kelp beds just off East Point are a pelagic bird watchers' paradise. Tidal currents which rip eastward through Tumbo Channel on both the ebb and the flood churn up feed for a myriad of species.
East Point is also considered the Gulf Islands' best site for land-based orca watching. The whales, usually members of the K pod, are said to pass by nearly every day from May through November in their never-ending quest for salmon.
At the foreshore expect to find pebble and shell beaches edged by wind and wave-whipped formations of sandstone and conglomerate. Photo opportunites abound of course as do chances to explore the watery microcosms left behind as the tide recedes. Sun supplicants no doubt can find a secluded pocket beach on which to worship. Cliffside Road offers an alternative route for the return journey. As the 2.5 km road begins looping back to re-join the main road look for a trailhead on the left side of the road. Just three kilometres round-trip, this amble follows the rocky bluffs above Fiddlers Cove. The arid heights are typical Gulf Islands: sun-burnt meadows dotted with gnarled arbutus. As the trail passes through Indian reserve lands contact the joint owners for permission to enter prior to visiting. The Tsawout band office can be reached at (250) 652-9101 while the Tseycum Indian Band phone number is (250) 656-0858. Please respect the land and the spirit of any posted signs.
To explore other corners of the island return to Saturna General Store. Narvaez Bay Road leads 8 km through the heart of Saturna Island to the waterway named for Captain Jose Maria Narvaez of the Spanish schooner Saturnina in 1791. The island of course took its name from the sailing vessel which Narvaez commanded. The foreshore is inaccessible though the 16 click ride passes through pastoral scenery bereft of vehicle traffic. Look for deer grazing at the side of the road particularly at dawn and dusk.
Harris Road follows the valley bottom between Mt. Fighter and Mt. Warburton Pike. Those in the mood for a thigh burner should ascend Saturna's highest mountain (490 m) via Staples Road. Be prepared to dodge both deer and feral goats while navigating the narrow dirt track. The latter are descendants of livestock brought to the island by the earliest homesteaders. To reach the summit of Mt. Warburton Pike on foot, park bikes at the end of Harris Road. A couple of trails emanate from here.
The course to the left leads to the aforementioned peak with its crown of TV towers and beyond to Brown Ridge Nature Trail. Eight kilometres round-trip, the cliffside route reveals a panorama extending from the nearby Pender Islands and southward to include the San Juan Islands and distant peaks in Washington's Olympic National Park. As this hike passes over private property respect the privilege or lose it. Three-kilometre Quarry Trail also begins at the end of Harris Road. Setting out on a powerline right-of-way the route soon veers off to the right, dropping down to an unsurfaced road. Follow the road right to reach pretty Saturna Beach at Thompson Park. A left turn here leads to Saturna Island Vineyards where tours are offered daily from 11:30 AM to 4 PM June through October.
Arrive early at the ferry dock in preparation for the return voyage. While doing so will ostensibly ensure your passage on the infrequent vessel, more importantly it is a handy excuse to pay homage at the pub next door. The Lighthouse Pub is an ideal vantage point from which to survey the coast for approaching mariners while sampling the indigenous service, suds and supper.