Monday, November 21, 2016

A favourite new hike, just minutes from home.

I have discovered a new hiking trail, just 15 minutes from home.  It has, apparently, been there for a while, albeit in a different, more difficult form and a lot less accessible.  Stoney Hill Municipal Forest Reserve, as it was known then, was accessible only through private property, or by water to Sansum Point.  After several years of negotiations, a few boundary adjustments, some land title changes, and a summer of building a public access road, the end result was renamed Stoney Hill Regional Park, and opened to the public this fall.  It is, without a doubt, my favourite hike this close to home, and a hot contender for my favourite of all the ones I have done on the island.

The trailhead starts 1.2 km up  Stoney Hill Road - the new road which branches off to the left from Genoa Bay Road just past Bird's Eye Cove Farm.  There is a small well marked parking area and a sign indicating this is the 'temporary trail head' to the regional park.  I have been unable to find out where the more permanent trail head, parking, and staging area is going to be located - if that has even been decided yet.

I first hiked the 3.5 km loop trail with my friend Sally a few weeks ago.  The weather was a mixed bag - a bit of rain, a bit of sun, a bit of cloud, a bit of blue sky - making for some wonderful photography opportunities in the ever-changing light.  It took us about 2.5 hours for the full loop, which included a half hour lunch break at the top. Younger, more fit hikers would likely take only 1 - 1.5 hours.  I repeated the hike last Monday with Pat and the poms in wetter, muddier conditions. Most of these photos are from the first hike (I'm saving some of the  ones with the poms for another blog, because...well....they tell a different story!).  

A short distance along the trailhead, we reached a t-intersection, and based on what I'd read online, we chose to go to the right, the easier route up, and travel the loop counter clockwise.  We traipsed up the duff-covered wide trail at a slow but steady pace.  Though we anticipated the views would be as magnificent as those we have seen from Mt Tzouhalem, the grade on the trail is significantly easier for this unfit hiker.  The trees provide enough cover to give shade in summer and protection from rain in winter, but not so much as to obliterate the sky.

A walk in the forest is never boring, always beautiful as we spot colourful fungi clinging to moss-covered logs, or tiny toadstools poking up from the ground. The one kilometer walk up to the bluffs passed quickly.  And then began the best part of the loop - just over a kilometer of nonstop views of the Salish Sea and Sansum Narrows - views that reveal ferries from Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay, and beyond that, the larger ferries heading to the mainland, or perhaps to Port Angeles.  We could see large cargo ships waiting at the mouth of Cowichan Bay for tide and traffic to be just right.  We saw hills covered with the homes of Arbutus Ridge down in Cobble Hill, and when clouds drifted away, we could see all the way to the San Juan Islands and the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.

A ship waits to enter Cowichan Bay;
the homes of Arbutus Ridge are visible beyond.

More views. On the point below, you can see a home which was
 once accessible only by water or through Bird's Eye Cove Farm property, 

A weak morning sun slips through thinning clouds,
spilling light on the seas and hills.

There are five lookout spots marked on the map, though in reality the water is always visible as we made the trek along the top third of the loop.  The bluffs stretch along the Maple Bay peninsula, across from Salt Spring Island, high above Sansum Narrows.  The waters are a greeny-blue, dotted with pleasure craft and fishing boats.  Eagles soar overhead, and birds twitter in the trees.

Looking across at Salt Spring Island

The views are not the only thing to delight the eyes.  Arbutus trees are everywhere up here - along the bluffs in front of us, and edging the forest at back of us.  The cliff hangers are bare of their leaves now, and of their bark too - they dance naked on the moss covered rockface, their red and yellow flesh reflecting the light through the darker trunks of evergreens and oaks.

The arbutus further back from the ocean winds still have their leaves - and are covered with millions of red berries, a harbinger, perhaps, of a long cold winter.  Among the arbutus are trees heavy with lichen, so heavy one might imagine Christmas has come early and the forest creatures are only waiting for presents to be tucked beneath the boughs.

Arbutus trees heavy with berries

Lichen hangs heavy from an old oak tree
as if fairies have draped it in angel's hair

Everything is thick, thick, thick with moss up here - many kinds of mosses, from fine lacy ones to dense spongy carpets.  Sometimes there are deep crevices visible from the trail - long, long rocky chutes that drop down between boulders, with mossy tree trunks or fallen rocks wedged tight in the gap.

Moss covered cliffs 

And moss covered roots and rocks

Looking down a deep crevice in which
a mossy boulder is stuck
(It was about 25 feet down - I couldn't get a good angle to show the crevice). 

On both recent hikes, we munched our sandwiches from the last viewpoint before the trail becomes narrower and more difficult for the downward third of the loop.  On a dry day, it would still be only a moderate hike - some tricky and steep parts but nothing a good trekking pole and good hiking shoes can't handle.  When Sally and I did it, the ground was muddy in places which complicated things for short legged me with the bum knee, who needed a helping hand from my hiking buddy.  (Because the weather - and even the path up - was so much wetter when Pat and the poms came with me the second time, we opted to turn around at this point and descend the way we came.  I'll take Pat back up on a drier day next spring to do the full loop).

Lunch?  Did someone say LUNCH?

The descending part of the loop took Sally and I through yet another ecosystem - for the first time on the hike, we began to see some underbrush and small amounts of salal and ferns.  It is one of the few hikes we've done where swordferns were not plentiful.  The final hundred feet or so back to the t-intersection where we would head back to the parking lot  was exceptionally muddy - and looked even more so when I went back with Pat two weeks later.

A great easy to moderate hike for late spring through early fall for almost any able-bodied person; a good winter hike for those who don't mind mud.  On the Mondays I went, we saw very few other people - two couples the first time, one couple the next.  But when I drove by on a weekend, the parking lot was full.  Dogs on leash are welcome - I saw off leash ones the first time, though the moss-covered boulders that make up the bluffs are not a place where I'd want my dog wandering off leash - one slip of the moss, and the dog plunges hundreds of meters to the sea.

Mom, is this the cliff Cosmo is always telling me to jump off?

How blessed we are to live on such a beautiful island, and to have access to such beautiful parks!


Nancy Houben said...

So beautiful! You have such a vast talent for photography and story telling. Looking forward to seeing it for myself!

Marie said...

Jean, you are so poetic and also good with the camera, that Sparkle and I just went on that fabulous hike, thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a lovely hike and your photos are stunning.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful pictures Jean and it sound like a wonderful hike. Thank you for blogging again.