Northwest Cruising Destinations:
Exploring Northern Boundary Islands
Sucia, Clark, Matia, and Patos

Story and Photos by Mark Bunzel

While September has been one of the wettest Septembers on record, October still may offer great fall cruising in the Pacific Northwest. For places like Sucia and the Northern Boundary Islands, the crowds are gone and the vistas are beautiful. If the fall is beyond your boating season for an extended weekend cruise or longer, there is always next season. The Northern Boundary Islands are a location that are high on the list of every Pacific Northwest cruiser. If you have been there before, have you explored some of the smaller hidden coves?

The Northern Boundary Islands are so called as they are the northwestern most islands in the continental United States. Like so many of the islands in the San Juans, they are rich in history laced with intrigue. The island’s unique sandstone, which today forms beautiful natural sculptures, is said to have been formed by the uplifting of ancient sandstone by the collision of the oceanic and continental plates. Over the years some lucky collectors have found fossils imbedded in the sandstone as they explore the island’s trails and rock formations. In 1791 the expedition of Spanish explorer Francisco Eliza mapped the area and named many of the islands. One can only wonder how without the aid of charts the island of Sucia was named “dirty” or “foul”. When one looks closely at the area above the islands on the charts, one can only imagine how often the early explorers made frequent contact with the rocks and reefs as they mapped the islands. The mystery of why the early explorers decided to name Patos (Duck) will remain while the name Matia (little or no protection) is better understood. Clark is much easier as it was re-named in 1841 by the Wilkes Expedition for John Clark, a midshipman killed in battle. The islands names reflect the constant shifting between the original Spanish names and the names given to places by the early English explorers and map makers.

Often the exploration of the Northern Boundary Islands begins from the east with a passage up Rosario Strait passing the eastern side of Orcas Island, and a turn towards the west after passing Lawrence Point. Care should be taken in this area as it is a confluence of currents and under the wrong wind and current conditions can be rough. Take note of the weather, tides and winds before your trip to the Northern Boundary Islands.

The first set of islands visible are Clark and Barnes, with the Sisters Islands as a string of large rocks extending to the South of Clark Island with a light on the largest island rock. Approaching Clark Island from the east, continue north around the Sisters to the east side of Clark Island. Consult your charts as there is a rock to the outside of the cove which needs to be avoided. The cove has six mooring buoys in front of a sandy beach. On the beach are campsites and fire rings with a short trail leading to the west side of the island. Many consider Clark to be a day stop as commercial vessels transiting Rosario Strait can contribute to a rolly night onboard. But it does offer beautiful views across Rosario Strait to Lummi Island and the mountains to the north in BC. On the west side of Clark is a small bight with 3 mooring buoys in front of a scenic sandy beach. This anchorage is between Clark and the private Barnes Island. It is better protected than the east side but subject to the currents that flow through this area. Clark Island is a year round Marine State Park, and due to its camping facilities is often used by kayakers.

Continuing west is Matia Island, also a Marine State Park, with a couple of anchorages from which to choose. On the east end is a small cove with beautiful rock walls, reasonably protected with anchorage in 12-18 feet dropping to 3-5 feet deeper into the cove for small boats. The rock facings are scenic and the inner cover peaceful. This small anchorage can be a find for a small boat under the right conditions where you can tuck in and be away from it all.

Continuing around the south of Matia Island you will note that most of the island is posted as a National Wildlife Reserve, restricting public use. Rounding Eagle Point, there is a small cove that can also be a delightful anchorage for one boat stern tied to shore. Continuing around Matia is Rolfe Cove, possibly one of the most scenic small anchorages in the Northern Boundary Islands. The cove is enhanced by the sheer rock walls and sand stone formations on a small island, referred to as Little Matia on the northern side. This small island forms some protection for the 2 mooring buoys in the cove. There is also a dock and float, with moorage available on the float. The dock leads up campsites and the 1 mile loop trail across the island is highly recommended. Hikers are asked to stay on the trail respecting the National Wildlife Reserve lands. Rolfe Cove is a popular destination and can easily fill up during the busy summer months. There is some room to anchor with limited swinging room near the mooring buoys, but the bottom is considered rocky with limited holding. Currents swing through the cove and moorage at the dock, or on the buoys is recommended. Rolfe Cove is also a popular overnight stop for kayakers traveling through the Northern Boundary Islands.

Continuing west, only 1.5 miles, is Sucia actually consisting of 10 islands many displaying the weather carved sandstone that has become the visual icon of this special place. Sucia is one of the most popular destinations for Northwest boaters with an estimated 100,000 visitors every year. During the best summer weekends one may find it hard to be alone in one of the six primary anchorage areas, and may elect to visit one of the other coves and island anchorages in the Northern Boundary Islands, but Sucia should not be missed.

The Sucia Islands have an interesting history. The original Lummi tribe used the islands for refuge when hunting seals in the area. During the 1800s, the coastal location and numerous islands and coves made it a haven for smugglers. Everything from Chinese laborers, rum, in more modern days, drugs. At one point Canadian wool worked its way illegally through this area using the many coves and nooks as refuge to hide out and escape the authorities. On the west side of Sucia Island are a very distinctive series of rock walls with shallow caves that are said to have sheltered Chinese laborers being smuggled into the country called, China Rock. One distinctive, naturally carved sandstone formation in this area is locally known as The Dragon, for it’s distinctive shape. Sucia Island was homesteaded in the mid 1800s and passed through a number of families. During the 1940s the Johnston family, from Orcas Island, built a summer camp there. When the Johnston’s were made an offer by a wealthy Californian, they could not bear to see Sucia pass into private hands. They contacted Ev Henry who ran Interclub, an organization representing 36 Pacific Northwest boating organizations. The clubs and many individuals began a donation drive raising the initial $25,000 sometimes in increments of $2-$5 from boating families. The land purchases began and the land was placed into the trust of the state to became a state park in 1960. This unique island paradise is truly owned by the people. And because it can only be reached by boat it is a special place for boaters.

The Sucia Islands Marine State Park consists of 565 acres with 48 mooring buoys in 6 major anchorages. On Sucia Island there are two small docks in Fossil Bay and 55 camp sites with 2 large group campsites. Throughout the island are picnic tables, fire pits, water, outhouses, and trash facilities. Although, all are encouraged to pack out their own trash to lighten the load for the local park rangers. There are over 10 miles of trails crisscrossing the island linking all of the anchorage areas and the major facilities, and even an underwater park in Ewing Cove with a sunken fishing boat for scuba diving. Choosing your favorite anchorage can be a challenge and you may want to stay at one or more on a trip to the Northern Boundary Islands. You can base your choice on the winds for that day, or based upon the crowds.

Many approach the Sucia Islands group from the east with the choices being Fossil Bay, Snoring Bay, Echo Bay or Ewing Cove to the north. Fossil Bay is long and wide with 2 state park docks at its head. Both docks are available for moorage at 50 cents per foot with a $10 minimum. It is not unusual to see a group together at the dock with chairs, tables of food and their favorite beverages extending from one end to the other. The festivities sometimes last late into the evening making this not the quietest or most peaceful place to stay. The docks also form the best places from this cove to tie up your dinghy when exploring the island by foot. There are 16 mooring buoys and if full, anchorage is fairly easy with a good mud bottom in 6-20 feet. Fossil Bay is exposed to southeasterlies, but otherwise is reasonably protected.

Just to the north is a small cove called Snoring Bay with 2 mooring buoys and limited room, but an excellent place if you want to be alone.

One of the most dramatic entrances to Echo Bay is between Johnson Point and South Finger Island. Here you pass through a narrow, corridor of sculpted Chuckanut sandstone sometimes only 300 feet wide with a depth of 12-45 feet. After passing the small Justice Island, Echo Bay opens up with a beach area rimming the semi-circular anchorage. Best anchorage and the mooring buoys are just ahead. If the 14 buoys are occupied, which is often the case during the summer months, anchor in a depth of 20-40 feet on a mud bottom. Here you can dinghy to the sandy beach areas on shore and tie to rocks or trees with consideration to the tide as incoming or outgoing. From the beach, marked trails lead to all other areas of Sucia Island.

Just to the north is Ewing Cove which is separated from Echo Bay by a number of rock and islets, some of which you can dinghy to for exploring or lounging in the sun. There are 4 mooring buoys in Ewing Cove which is also open to the northwest. This northwest passage is narrow and should only be attempted by small boats as it is subject to current. The underwater park and fish haven in Ewing Cove is well marked on the charts.

Along the south side of Sucia Islands is the entrance to Fox Cove, which is only separated from Fossil Bay by a narrow isthmus. Typically, not as popular as Fossil and Echo Bay, it can be a better choice for anchorage with 4 mooring buoys and room to anchor in a depth of 45 feet. The head of the cove is shallow and one should keep an eye on the depth and tide schedule. Dinghies can be landed on the beach for exploration of Sucia Island.

On the northwest side of Sucia is the well protected Shallow Bay. The entrance is marked with buoys and once inside, while shallow, has 8 mooring buoys and plenty of room to anchor in 6 – 10 feet, on a sand and mud bottom with good holding. Shallow Bay has a long beach slightly to the north with the China Rocks at one end of the beach and centered in the bay. This sandy beach has picnic tables and fire rings with toilet facilities nearby. It is a perfect place to spend an afternoon exploring and possibly going for a swim. Just to the south of the China Rocks is a gravel beach on an isthmus between Echo Bay and Shallow Bay with campsites and facilities. At the south end of the bay is a stand of dead trees and a marsh for exploration.

One of the most northerly islands in the Pacific Northwest is Patos, just over a mile west of Sucia. There is a small cove just to the south of Toe Point that can be a quiet and remote anchorage for one boat, although the holding can be poor and a shore tie may be best. The more popular anchorage is Active Cove, just to the south of the scenic Alden Point Lighthouse, originally built in 1893. Active Cove has 2 mooring buoys. While it can look quiet and peaceful, the rangers do not recommend it as an overnight anchorage due to the limited holding on a rocky bottom and the current that runs through the cove, or swells from passing tankers in Boundary Pass. On Patos there are 7 campsites and a 1.5 mile loop trail where you can also walk up to the Alden Point Lighthouse with views that extend from the Gulf Islands, starting only 3 miles away, and on a clear day, Mount Baker in the eastern distance. Remote, but scenic, Patos is well worth a visit for the day, or overnight on a mooring buoy.

A good cruising location offers a number of choices and options. The Northern Boundary Islands offers excellent choices with views, big coves, small coves, hiking trails and even swimming on some beaches. It is rustic with the creature comforts limited to your boat. Sometimes the cook may want a break or you may want to explore a new dining treat for lunch or dinner with someone else doing the cooking. One may think this is not possible in the Northern Boundary Islands. While this is generally true we did find one exception worth further exploration.

While the northwest corner of Lummi Island, below Point Migley, is not part of the Northern Boundary Islands, it forms a scenic border to the eastern vista with rolling farms against the hillside. In an area called “The Willows” is The Willows Inn, Bed and Breakfast. It’s pub and outstanding restaurant is said by many locals to be one of the best in the area. The restaurant is only open on Thursday through Sunday during the summer months and reservations are highly recommended. Many of the entrees are prepared with herbs and vegetables from The Nettles Farm, co-located at the Inn, with fresh Judd Cove Oysters, fish, meats and bread from the best local purveyors. The Taproot Pub offers expresso, lunch and early dinners with dining on the sunny deck facing the western sunset and the Northern Boundary Islands.

Proprietors Judy Olsen and Riley Stark, anchor a 40’ converted reefnet barge off the beach from the Inn from May through September for visiting boats. Two or more boats can tie up to the barge and dinghy up to the beach to visit The Willows Inn. Many kayakers use the Inn as there beginning and terminus for trips through the islands. Riley encourages visiting boats to call ahead for conditions at 360-758-2620.

The Northern Boundary Islands offers variety and some of the best and most scenic anchorages in the San Juan Islands. Arrive early or off-season and you can many times grab a mooring buoy. Or, visit during the summer months and drop the hook into the more protected anchorages and enjoy the solitude. The easy hiking trails and unique sculpted sandstone make the islands a place like no other and exclusively for the boating community. Visit The Northern Boundary Islands during this fall’s cruising season or place this on your plans for next summer for an experience like no other.

Mark Bunzel is the Publisher and General Manager of nautical publisher, Fine Edge in Anacortes, WA. The Brentwood Bay area is described in “Exploring the San Juan and Gulf Islands” by Don Douglass and Réanne Hemingway-Douglass, which is published by Fine Edge and available in most nautical stores and bookstores. A special thanks to Scott Gordon for piloting the camera chase boat.


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China Rock
Dragon Rock
Echo Bay
Echo Bay
Fossil Bay Dock
Rolfe Cove
Rolfe Cove
Rolfe Cove
Shallow Bay






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