Celebrate Spring in the San Juan Islands


Spring is an especially good time to go visit one of the many gems of the San Juan Islands – the Yellow Island Preserve! Although the 11-acre island preserve can be visited year round, spring is when the island at is most glorious, carpeted with an array of colorful wildflowers. Truly a dream comes true for professional and aspiring photographer’s and artist’s alike!  

Before the arrival of Europeans, the island was used by the indigenous population for harvesting plant foods such as the roots of the camas flower. Intentional burning kept the tree population in check, helping to maintain the prairies needed for camas. Lewis and Elizabeth Dodd bought the island for $8000 in 1947, and sold it in 1979 to The Nature Conservancy, who administer it as a nature preserve.

The Nature Conservancy continues to maintain this island, protecting this beautiful and unique ecosystem. Ongoing ecological research on the island has focused on understanding the extent and rate of invasion of non-native species and developing strategies to restore native species. Results are shared with partner organizations and agencies to help maintain and restore grasslands in other regions of the Puget Sound lowlands; this includes periodic controlled burning of the grass to discourage larger vegetation from taking hold, and creating a flora unique among the lesser-developed   San Juan islands.

The native grasslands on Yellow Island are unique and an absence of grazing has preserved the diversity of native plants. More than 50 species of wildflowers, including broad leafed shooting star and hairy Indian paintbrush bloom on Yellow Island. The only cactus species native to western Washington, the brittle prickly pear cactus, also makes its home on the island. Bald eagles fly majestically above the island’s trees and harbor seals can be found on the rocks off the island’s west spit. Harlequin ducks and the black oystercatcher can be seen in the intertidal zone and mink and river otters are common on the island too. Further out in the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the island, marine mammals such as orca whales, harbor porpoises and sea lions can be seen swimming and feeding.

Visiting rules for the Island are very specific: no pets, no picnics, no camping or overnight moorage, no smoking, no water, no public bathrooms. Walking is encouraged, but only on the established trails. Some beaches close for seal rearing, so boaters need to be aware. The preserve is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., hours which are strictly enforced so that the wildlife gets a break from people. Groups larger than 6 should request special permission to visit the island. Please contact the Conservancy at (206) 343-4344 for written permission.

In 2018, Nature Conservatory naturalist Phil Green retired after spending 19 years as the solo steward on Yellow Island.

Hired in the summer of 2019, Matt Axling is the new steward on Yellow Island, but unlike the previous steward, Matt brings his family along! Matt is responsible for maintaining the unique Yellow Island prairie ecosystem, monitoring the Marine Protected Area around Yellow Island and welcoming visitors.  He draws on his background in environmental education and outdoor recreation to implement conservation and stewardship projects that are based on science and achieve tangible results.  

Before coming to the Nature Conservancy, Matt ran outdoor education and environment education programs for urban youth in Seattle and Albuquerque. He has led trips throughout the Pacific Northwest, American Southwest, Norway and Argentina.  He comes from a long line of islanders with multigenerational ties to Bainbridge Island and the San Juan Islands. In his free time, Matt enjoys kayaking, photography and traveling. 

Special thanks to Noelle van deer Straaten, Nature Conservatory Volunteer for providing most of this information contributed to this blog!