It's the most blissful part of summer: late enough in the season for warm days but with crisp mornings that make hot coffee the best discovery ever. I'm perched in the cockpit of my 32-foot sailboat, its bow line tied to a state-park buoy, with Mount Rainier filling the horizon like John Goodman fills a TV screen. As the sun rises the moorage is perfectly quiet, with just two other sailboats in Delano Bay.
Instead, the whir of wings breaks the silence as a great blue heron suddenly descends to perch on the boat's bow.
The big bird proceeds to preen with that long pointed beak for five minutes, just like it owns the place, until our little ginger cat – all 7 pounds of her – awakens from a nap, spies the pterodactyl-like interloper and begins a lion-of-the-Serengeti stalk. This isn't going to end well, so I jump up. The heron takes flight.
This is what I did on my summer vacation, exploring South Puget Sound. For the first time in more than 20 years of living on a sailboat around Seattle, I ventured south of Blake Island. My only question: Why did I wait so long?
The San Juan Islands are almost like a salty theme park, a Knott's Berry Farm for boaters. I've gone back to explore them summer after summer, loving the experience despite the growing flotilla of boats competing for anchorages and buoys.
But I always told my wife, "We should check out the South Sound one summer, it's supposed to be nice – and I bet it's a lot quieter."
Right on both counts.
You don't need a big boat to enjoy the delightful, lightly used waterfront state parks south of the Tacoma Narrows. Pop a kayak on the car roof (they have special campsites for you), trailer your runabout southward or just sample a half-empty drive-in campground (in peak months) and you might be a convert.
Boating beneath the towering double bridge spans of the Narrows was a good lesson in what currents do when a lot of water (filling all the inlets and channels from Olympia northward) constricts through a channel just under a mile wide. (If you're in a small boat, consult current tables; it can be dangerous if you catch it wrong during a major tidal swing.) On a flood tide, the current spit us grapeseed-like through the Narrows at 11 knots – about twice our normal motoring speed.
The Narrows is like the gateway to a more rural, slower-paced Puget Sound. A few spots we sampled:
PENROSE POINT STATE PARK: This is the Key Peninsula, an enclave of utopian free thinkers (and, it's said, nude swimmers) in the late 19th century. Narrow, forested Penrose Point – appearing on the map to give the finger to neighboring Fox Island – was the summertime getaway of Dr. Stephen Penrose, an early-days president of Walla Walla's Whitman College.
Today's park comprises 165 acres with almost two miles of saltwater frontage. We found tart blue huckleberries along the 2.5 miles of little-used trails. For good tideland exploration, go when low tides expose a long sand spit reaching from the park's main beachfront almost to the end of the half-mile-long point. (Boaters, study your charts, there are no warning markers here.)
The 82-site campground had plenty of empty campsites during our midweek late-August visit, and seven mooring buoys never filled (including three in Delano Bay, with that eye-goggling view of Rainier). Tucked into a curlicue of shallow water at the head of Mayo Cove is a small park dock across from tiny Lakebay Marina Resort, which pleasantly preserves the ambience of its 1930s origins (with ice cream, beer and a snack bar/grill; open weekends in September).
CUTTS ISLAND STATE PARK: Ours was the only boat staying the night among the eight buoys at 2-acre Cutts Island, about three miles up Carr Inlet from Penrose.
Unlike much of the San Juans, few South Sound moorages are out of sight of waterfront homes, and that's true of Cutts Island. You'll also see occasional buzzing personal watercraft (Jet Skis and the like), which are banned in the San Juans. But for putting up with a few more burdens of civilization we enjoyed a spectacular over-the-Olympics sunset, more harbor-seal neighbors than we've seen in a long time, and an island of our own (shared with an occasional kayaker and paddleboarder). It took 10 minutes to walk the circumference, admiring tall firs and madronas that spiked like birthday candles from atop the cupcake-ish island.
JARRELL COVE STATE PARK: Affable, seventy-something Rocky and Ann Lamb, from Mount Vernon, were doing their second monthlong shift of the summer as campground hosts at this remote Harstine Island park when we visited. It's their favorite state park, they told us. We quickly saw why.
Named for 1870s settlers Robert and Philura Jarrell (she was the island's only nonnative woman for their first 15 years), the park is 67 acres, with only 22 tent spaces, alongside two fingers of narrow, almost hidden saltwater cove off Pickering Passage, which is spanned by a bridge to the Mason County mainland.
Everything about the park feels cozy. Deer browse among old apple trees in a meadow. Walk-in campsites enjoy wonderful privacy on a wooded hillside above the cove. A hidden, water-view campsite reserved for paddlers, part of the Cascadia Marine Trail, comes complete with a kayak rack and a ramp to the water's edge.
Wander the woods on a mile of trail and glimpse a sublimely secluded group campsite for which pushcarts facilitate gear toting. Two horseshoe pits offer a perfect pastime when there's happily nothing more to do.
Across from the park a small private marina with a store (Memorial Day to Labor Day) doesn't detract from the "away from it all" feel. Boaters may choose from 14 mooring buoys and two docks. Paddle to the end of the narrowest inlet and keep an eye peeled for the "Creature from the Black Lagoon" – it has that feel.