Hike a varied, nearly-four-mile forest loop in the eastern part of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL). Appreciate the variety of coniferous and deciduous trees of different sizes and ages. View a few wildflowers in season, and some fall colors later in the year.
Because the ACFL has a complex network of trails, a map really is essential. Fortunately, an excellent map, "Principal Trails of the ACFL (Whistle Lake Area)" is available as a pdf. Alternatively, paper copies of a set of three ACFL maps are available for purchase at some Anacortes bookstores and other businesses, or from City Hall and the Visitor’s Information Center.
This four-mile loop hike is offered as a forest exploration, although it does include a quarter mile of lakeshore. The route involves trails of varying difficulty. Some are smooth paths following the routes of buried gas lines or former forest roads. Others are more challenging: narrow, rooty and rocky like backcountry trails. While there is little overall elevation change, short sections of trail can be steep. Select your footgear accordingly, and consider bringing a trekking pole for balance.
Begin at the Whistle Lake parking lot and head south, gently uphill, on the wide gravel road of Trail 20, passing a few very tall conifers along the way. In about 700 feet, turn gently left between two low posts onto the signed Trail 218 that will be your route for almost a mile.
In 300 feet, Trail 229 merges from the right. Continue straight ahead here, remaining on Trail 218. You will find a bewildering sequence of twists and turns, with minor ups and downs and varying forest scenery. There are moist bogs with skunk cabbage and standing water, and dryer areas where the trail may be gritty in summer. The route is never in doubt, so just enjoy the variations.
About 0.65 miles along Trail 218 an obvious but unsigned side trail heads sharply left. Your ongoing route will be to the right here, but if you like to explore you can check out that trail that heads left.
SPOILER: That optional trail initially drops, passes over a moist area on a crude boardwalk, then climbs steeply, eventually reaching a dirt road. But at the low point, near the moist area, a prominent side trail heads right. It leads past a gas pipeline "Regulator Station," then continues on to reach a residential area near the end of Canyon Ridge Drive.
Back at that unsigned trail junction, continue SE on Trail 218, now following the wide route of a buried gas pipeline. In about 0.15 miles, a wide side trail (Trail 28) heads off to the right. Just ignore that trail — although you will meet it again — and continue on Trail 218, losing a bit of elevation. Note the interesting rock ledge off to the right.
At some point your trail bends abruptly to the right and heads steeply uphill. The ongoing route is much rougher, and along the way the trail number changes, becoming Trail 219.
Near the top of a ridge, an unsigned but obvious side trail heads left. It's worth checking it out. It leads about 200 feet to a rounded knoll where you will be looking east across the Highway 20 roundabout with a view of the Cascades in the distance, clouds permitting.
Your ongoing Trail 219 soon bends left and you will begin to see hints of a wide trail down below to your right. That's the same Trail 28 whose NE end you saw earlier. It soon veers right, but you will continue straight on the much rougher Trail 219.
In another eighth of a mile your trail merges with the wide Trail 29, a former forest road. While your route continues on straight here, you may wonder about a sharp left turn onto Trail 200 that continues on past a metal gate. That's an optional side trip, in and out, that would add about three-quarters of a mile to your hike. Refer to your map, and check out Trail 200 if you like. It's forested all the way and has some steeper ups and downs, including an abrupt turn at a low fence that marks an ACFL boundary.
Whether or not you opt to explore Trail 200 first, continue SE on Trail 29. In 0.12 miles, Trail 235 merges on the right. Just continue straight here. In another 0.12 mile Trail 29 will veer off to the right, but you will continue straight ahead, now on Trail 217. This is another narrow trail. It gains a bit of elevation at first, then drops gently and heads toward a SE corner of the ACFL before looping around and heading back NW toward Whistle Lake.
Access Note: If you hiked Trail 217 in the summer of 2018 or earlier, you may recall that its southernmost arc ventured out onto private property and led past a viewpoint. Unless the map has been revised, that route still may be shown. Unfortunately, the current landowner has withdrawn permission and posted no-trespassing signs. By the spring of 2019, the trail had been rerouted to remain on ACFL land. Please respect the landowner's rights and stay on the official trail.
Trail 217, on its way back northwest, heads gently uphill. Look for some dramatic rocks off to your left, and a few picturesque tree trunks along the way. Soon, Trail 217 merges with Trail 245 (you passed its northeast end earlier.) Stay left here to remain on Trail 217. In a short distance the uphill ends, your trail levels out and then starts to head gently downhill. Hints of Whistle Lake will begin to appear through the trees.
In its final few feet, Trail 217 drops steeply. It ends at a T-junction with Trail 205, where you will turn right and head generally north. The ongoing Trail 205 remains a few feet above lake level, and you will have good views out to the water.
In about a quarter mile, come to an area with prominent madrone trees. If you look out across the lake there is a good view of Mt Erie in the distance.
Your ongoing route will head inland here. Look for the signed Trail 29 off to your right. (You passed its eastern end earlier.) Take Trail 29 for less than a quarter mile, then turn sharply left onto Trail 234. This will be your route for the next half mile or so as the trail climbs gently over a rounded knoll, then drops back down to join Trail 20 near a convenient privy (the only one you will see on your hike.) Follow Trail 20 back downhill about 0.4 miles to return to your trailhead.
While this is not specifically a wildflower hike, a few wildflowers will be out in season. In April and May look first for buttercups, miner's lettuce, and Indian paintbrush. Later look for foam flower, starflower, white daisy, asters (two or more varieties,) avens, agoseris, Oregon grape and salal. In July and August you are likely to see occasional tall pink penstemons, a lot of ocean spray, and some foxglove. If you are a flower fancier, take photos and later try to identify any you don't know. Perhaps file a trip report to share what you have seen.
On your hike you are likely to see Douglas squirrels. While larger critters (deer, skunks, porcupines, coyotes) are out there, they are not often seen. Barred owls and great horned owls frequent this area. Seasonally, you will see robins and the usual mix of small birds. You will hear the loud calls of ravens, but might not see them. Be alert for the tapping of woodpeckers and you may be treated to a sighting.
The trails are open all year, and generally are in good condition except for an occasional seasonal muddy section or blowdown. Sometimes nettles or berry bushes lean in over the trail so be alert for these pricklies.
In late spring and early summer you might be bothered by a few mosquitoes, so it's good to carry repellent.
Like other trails in the ACFL all these are open to hikers. Some trails (check the map) are open to equestrians and non-motorized mountain bikers, and a few to motorized bikes too. If you are hiking on a good-weather weekend in spring or summer you might encounter a few of these folks. But if you are hiking on a week day you might have these trails all to yourself.