Let me just start by saying this: the view at the top is worth it. Just keep reminding yourself that as you round yet another switchback and find yourself staring up at a sloping trail collection of roots and rock face. Oyster Dome, located near the peak of Blanchard Mountain, is a barren-rock cliff with a panoramic view of the San Juan Islands. Like many of the intricate and fascinating geological features in the region, Oyster Dome was carved out by receding glaciers during the last ice age. The cliff is a striking juxtaposition to the evergreen second-growth timber in the region. The ledge is an ideal picnic spot—and you'll most certainly have worked up an appetite getting there.
The trailhead is accessible from Chuckanut Drive (a destination in and of itself, Chuckanut Drive is continually rated as one of the most scenic drives in the country). Starting out on the Pacific Northwest Trail, the first mile of serpentine trail will make you glad to see a much needed bench in a clearing. Take a seat to catch your breath, drink some water, and take in the view of Samish Bay. This sunny area is also enjoyed by local wildlife, as we found the last time we hiked the trail and I let out a small yelp at the sight of a garter snake, sunning itself on the path.
At the 1.5 mile mark, Oyster Dome trail meets up with the Samish Bay Connection Trail. An alternate approach to Oyster Dome—thus avoiding the first 1,000 ft gain of elevation via switchbacks—can be taken from the Samish Bay Overlook on Blanchard Mountain's east side accessible from Alger. At the Samish Bay Connection junction, hang a left and continue on Oyster Dome trail. At this point, the trail becomes rougher—roots and mudholes compound with a steep grade. Watching your footing is important—I speak from experience, after sliding down a mud-slick rock and promptly landing on my ass the first time I hiked the trail.
Around the 2 mile mark, you can spot large boulders (erratics) just off the trail, and small streams stemming from both Lizard and Lily lakes. This section of trail is under denser tree cover, keep the trail a welcome cool in the warm summer months. The next trail junction will be quite obvious for a sad reason. Talus Trail, which leads to the base of Oyster Dome, has been closed due to the negative impact of human interaction with the bat colonies that make their homes in the caves created by the craggy talus rock formations. Please respect the trail signs and continue to the right towards the peak of Oyster Dome. At the top of this section of trail, you'll come to the final junction. The trail to the right leads to Lily and Lizard Lakes, while the Rock Trail to the left leads to the top of Oyster Dome. The signage here is slightly dubious, and the only obvious marking indicating Oyster Dome's location is an “O” with an arrow pointing left carved into the bark of a tree.
Along this stretch of path, you'll likely notice rusty cables, leftover relics from logging. But logging isn't just some apparition of the distant past—the area was slated to be logged in 2006. Thanks mostly to organizations like Friends of Blanchard Mountain and Conservation Northwest, Blanchard Mountain trail system is now a protected recreation area, enjoyed by hikers, bikers, hang-gliders, and equestrians. All trails are maintained by volunteers—which is really awesome considering how great this trail system is.
Before undertaking the final knee-aching slope, you'll cross the largest of the few stream crossings on this trail. You shouldn't worry about getting wet, as there are strategic rocks for easy hop-skip-jumping to the other bank. Again, just be careful—these rocks are wet and slick. You'll looking straight up at perhaps the steepest part of the Oyster Dome trail. Here, tree roots have helped to create natural stairs up the slope. But just think, at the top of this last slope, that pint-worthy view is waiting.
Oyster Dome presents one of best views of the San Juans from the Bellingham area. Looking at Samish Bay, when the tide is out you'll be able to see the beds of Taylor Shellfish farm. To the left, you'll see a sliver of rural fields in Skagit County and the outcropping peninsula of Samish Island. The islands in view include Guemes, Cypress, Orcas, Sinclair, Vendovi, Eliza, and Lummi. Beyond, on a clear day, you'll be able to make out the snow-capped peaks of the Olympics. Take in the view—you've earned your pint.
For a detailed account of the geological features of Blanchard Mountain, the science nerd in me implores the science nerd in you to read Dave Tucker's fantastic post over at Northwest Geology Field Trips:
As always, a great resource for trip reports, Washington Trail's Association has a great page on Oyster Dome: http://www.wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/oyster-dome