Beaches and cliffs offer a walk full of intrigue at Tahlequah

The cliff face on Dalco Point shows steepness, water seeps, vegetation and massive slumped sediment on the beach. - Ann Spiers Photo
The cliff face on Dalco Point shows steepness, water seeps, vegetation and massive slumped sediment on the beach.
— image credit: Ann Spiers Photo

Meanderings is an occasional series on local walks by author and naturalist Ann Spiers. She wrote a similar series a few years ago.

A suite of thrills occurs on this beach walk that proceeds west from Tahlequah, around Dalco Point and north to Spring Beach Park. Cliffs host locally rare flora, the salt-chuck churns as tidal currents snag on underwater Dalco Wall, and the sharp turn north opens views up Colvos Passage.

Park in the Tahlequah ferry lot, if only to inhale the aroma of low tide and honeysuckle as you exit down the stairs. Cross the road to access the beach through the jersey barriers graced with grasses and pink beach peas. The site’s owner, Washington State Ferries, at one point planned to close the beach access. The South End Community Club reacted, resulting in the barriers left ajar for walkers, ferry waiters and the beach launch of hand-powered boats.

Next to the ferry dock, the wacky second dock is bird famous for its perching crowd of spread-winged Brandt’s, double-crested and pelagic cormorants.

Crossing the first beach’s shallow bowl, feel the shore’s matrix underfoot, just right for clams: gravelly and slightly mucky. Bivalves squirt from their fleshy siphons. Three kids play in the tide pools. One lifts a good-sized fish, and her mom comes out of the cabin to check on the excitement. American flags furl in the wind, one being a black and white POW/MIA flag. Rightly named Clam Cove, this community oozes good times, the soft partying that happens in small cabins, wide decks and rowboats. The beach is not open to public clamming, but longtime islander Carol Slaughter offers a clam-digging opportunity through Vashon Community Care’s auction each year.

At the cove’s end, a lone boulder has a federal survey marker that reads Dalco Point, locating Vashon’s southwest tip. A mammoth cement revetment (lacking a house) pinches the beach. Check your watch to time your hike so the tide doesn’t block your return. Look back across Dalco Passage, the name for this part of Puget Sound. Tacoma has smoke stacks, and perhaps Mount Rainier is out. What’s missing is the 571-foot ASARCO chimney, that, when blown up in 1993, brought island crowds to witness its demise. Point Defiance is directly south.

Once past the empty bulkhead, the backshore rises to become cliffs. The Vashon Stade of the last ice age deposited the massive layers of sand and gravel about 15,000 years ago. Now, the cliffs weep with groundwater at various levels. Some cliffs present sandy faces, pocked with bird-nest holes, and some are dark, slimy green, attesting to continuous dripping water. Large chunks slough to the beach delivering shore-building sand and gravel. Alder and fir trees with giant root balls accompany this sediment buildup so at anytime but low tide, walking is a scramble through the tipped-over trees.

These cliffs host hanging gardens of verdant vegetation, a curious mess of rampant invasives (blackberry, Scotch broom), garden escapees (St. John’s wort, rose campion) and both common and locally rare Northwest natives. Among the more common natives (coltsfoot, pearly everlasting, ferns, mosses, salmonberry, thimbleberry) grow tough goldenrod and flashy yellow monkey flower. Spotted midbluff through binoculars, scarlet Indian paintbrush bunches up, an inholder on Vashon’s south-facing exposure. In a seep, tiny iris grow in the clay.

Islanders who are adults now remember Indian paintbrush growing rampantly among the south-end cabins. They recall adventures traveling this beach around Dalco Point, and Grandma’s warning not to wade too far out because of giant whirlpools and big dropoff.

Indeed those fears are well founded. Listen to the noise of the water. Rips, whirlpools and fast-colliding currents create that ruckus. Pigeon guillemots dive for fish; motor boats troll, jig and mooch. In the kelp bed, a seal head bobs, a silver cast to its forehead, looking shoreward. Island artist Mike DeVoe has rendered that dark-socket gaze in public art works: the wild animal interested in us humans, our curious stare returned.

What causes this watery to-do? Think of Vashon-Maury Island as the center of a great clockwise movement of salt water. Incoming tide flows from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, past Seattle, then down Vashon’s East Passage. The current pushes west through Dalco Passage, then constricts and gains force as it flows through the Tacoma Narrows and heads into the mud flats of south Puget Sound.

The returning tide’s journey gets complicated. The Tacoma Narrows constricts the flow, strengthening the tide’s force like water through a nozzle. This energy meets the waters off Dalco Point, and the outgoing tide is forced north up Colvos Passage. The action of this two-way, circling river of sorts keeps the Sound healthy by twice daily flushing the south sound and delivering its nutrient-rich water north through Colvos Passage into central Puget Sound.

Adding to the tidal journey’s complication, massive Dalco Wall creates an underwater barrier of what the divers call sandstone, running parallel to Dalco Point’s east reach. Divers’ blogs describe the wall as dramatic and dangerous, a geologic feature eroded by “power washing” and “waterfalling ” of tidal currents in and out of the narrows. One blog, Emerald Diving, describes the Wall’s appearance: “Current from the Tacoma Narrows has sculpted amazing vertical channels into these sandstone sections. Ebbing tide blasts huge volumes of water through the Tacoma Narrows and across Dalco Passage. These waters hit Dalco Wall and carve the soft sandstone as they waterfall. The carvings look like exaggerated ripples on a sandy beach turned vertical. Nature is truly a fabulous artist.”

A few cabins inhabit this stretch of beach. Gone are the days when one could trespass to peek into windows for a look into beach life. And certainly gone are the days when off-island teens, solo or in pairs, could “vacation” on Vashon as modern Goldilocks, cabin hopping, choosing the best beds, and eating, not porridge, but summer folks’ store of tinned goods. The ethic, shaky I know, held to today’s backpackers’ motto of leaving no trace. Today, cabins have cameras, motion detectors and alarms.

Abruptly, the beach turns so Colvos Passage displays that iconic Puget Sound view: a wide ribbon of glinty water and the shore’s fir-textured points receding mythically into the marine haze.

Ahead, Vashon Park District’s Spring Beach Park (south of the Spring Beach community) has a stream spreading across the beach, large drift logs to picnic on and a wetland fronting 46 acres of trail-less ravine and ridges.

The return rewards constantly: River otters swim purposely along the shore, Mount Rainier looms ahead, the ferry boat slides into the dock. And before I turn back into Clam Cove, a humpback whale visits, its blow so noisy that cabin dwellers are drawn out onto their decks.

Ann Spiers is a local writer and the coauthor of “Walks, Trail and Parks on Vashon Island,” a guidebook containing hikes’ full directions and shorter descriptions. It is available at Vashon Bookshop, The Country Store and Thriftway.

Walk details

Four miles round trip, three hours round trip. Cautions: Cobbles and barnacles. Wear sturdy-soled shoes. Difficult going for dogs and small children. Passable only on outgoing, low tide.

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