Pacific Northwest's Lopez Island offers cyclists a leisurely tour of a peaceful place

July 25, 1993|By Theresa Dent | Theresa Dent,Contributing Writer

The road that circles Lopez Island -- one of the San Juan Islands in Washington State -- greets you with the promise of a great cycling experience as the ferry inches up to the landing.

The Lopez Island loop is 30 miles long and can be completed in one day, but the joy of exploring the island in a leisurely way is what comes with the ride.

Literature on the San Juan Islands bicycle tour warns that "island roads are best suited for experienced cyclists." Our group of four included three strong riders and one novice cyclist determined to conquer the narrow, winding and hilly roads of the San Juans. We spent most of our time on Lopez and San Juan Island, though each of the others has its own character and cycling challenges.

Located 85 miles northwest of Seattle in Puget Sound, the San Juans are easily accessible by Interstate 5 and an excellent state ferry system. Bikes and gear can be taken aboard the ferries; several kinds of bikes can also be rented on the islands for $18 to $23 per day.

Lopez Island is the least hilly of the islands and the first stop on the ferry route. Originally settled in the mid-1880s, it is a peaceful place where farming and fishing are the main activities.

With only 2,000 year-round residents, Lopez retains more small-town charm than the relatively bustling other islands. Lopez Village -- the center of activity on the island -- takes you back to a time with no stoplights, sidewalks, movie theaters or fast food.

The village does have a grocery store and restaurants, a bike shop, library, post office and thrift shop. Arts and crafts produced by local artisans and jams and wines made on Lopez can be found throughout the island.

Visitors can learn something of the island's colorful past at the Lopez Island Historical Museum, with its antique equipment, memorabilia, photos and family histories. Local "Lopez time" means that official opening and closing times are only an approximation, dependent on the weather and the whims of the museum curator.

Lopez was listed as having a No. 1 level of difficulty in our cycling reference books, but our novice rider found it more challenging than that. But the steady and frequent uphill climbs made for an interesting ride, and we were gratified by the many exhilarating downhills that allowed us a chance to appreciate the scenery and beauty of the landscape.

Once away from the village center, we encountered pastoral vistas with sheep, cattle, horses and goats. Bald eagles and red-tailed hawks circled overhead. We stopped frequently to sample the wild blackberries that reach succulent perfection in late August and September. Rose hips clung to thorny bushes close to the road like thousands of small, red, Christmas-tree bulbs.

Near the southern part of the island is the Shark Reef nature preserve, a favorite spot for visitors, whatever their transportation and interests. Our group hiked down the half-mile trail to see what Lopez must have looked like 200 years ago.

Managed by the Department of Natural Resources, the narrow trails to the shore offer stately trees trimmed with moss and mushrooms that attract hawks, woodpeckers and brown creepers. Seals gather by the dozens near the rocky shores of the preserve, and San Juan Island is visible across the channel.

Lopezians greet everyone they pass -- motorist and cyclist -- with smile and a friendly wave. In our search for the tasty Tayberry and Marionbeery jams that the island is famous for, we quickly realized that the islanders have succeeded in converting the island into a hub of specialty food production.

After riding past Madrona Farms, featuring pick-them-yourself berries of every type, we stopped for a lunch of salsa and Cheddar brioche that we had bought earlier at Holly B's Bakery in the village. Holly's -- a small bakery with a young and friendly staff -- offers some of the best breads and buns anywhere and serves as a gathering place for locals.

After a full day of exploring the peaceful beauty of Lopez, we walked to the Bay Cafe, a charming but modest restaurant featuring homemade entrees and desserts. We discovered such appetizing items on the menu as king salmon with pesto and red-pepper sauce from the organic gardens in the area. Other dishes included prawns with couscous, polenta with a delicate tomato sauce and black beans.

When we reluctantly returned our rented bikes, the shop owner confirmed our experience by describing Lopez as "the Aspen of the bicycling world."

IF YOU GO . . .

Weather patterns in the San Juans allow the visitor to enjoy a moderate climate, with sunshine for 247 days a year on average. Temperatures seldom top 80 degrees in summer and fall.

For more information, contact the San Juan Islands Visitors Information Service at P.O. Box 65, Lopez Island, Wash. 98261; (206) 468-3663.

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