Stimpson Family Nature Reserve


Every day Dawn - Dusk


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
A visit to the Stimpson Family Nature Reserve is a wonderfully easy way to experience an increasingly rare example of Washington State’s low-elevation old-growth forest. In addition to exploring ancient and younger forests, there are small waterfalls, vibrant wetlands and quiet ponds. Wildlife sightings of some kind are almost guaranteed particularly with quiet approaches to the ponds. Though the combined loop trails are less than five miles, the frequent ups and downs as the trails traverse small streams and interconnecting ridges allows many visitors to feel that they’ve gotten outdoor exercise along with their nature viewing.

The Reserve is all about the nature. To protect the natural elements there are more restrictions at this site than other parks, though most people understand the reasons and behave appropriately: no dogs, horses, bicycles, motorized vehicles, fires, hunting, collecting or unnecessary loud noises are allowed. Despite its growing popularity these prohibitions and the complex topography result in a more comfortable separation between hiking groups than one might expect. Strategically placed polished stone benches also encourage quiet contemplation of the natural peacefulness of the setting, as well as an opportunity to catch one’s breath, rest tired legs, or cool down a bit on a hot summer day.

For those with limited time or energy the Beaver Pond viewpoint is not far from the parking lot and offers a very good sampling of what the Reserve has to offer. Water bound snags, lily pads, beaver activity, pileated woodpeckers, ducks, geese, buzzing insects and croaking frogs provide plenty of wildlife listening and viewing opportunities. Additionally, the extra sun provided by the pond’s opening in the otherwise dark forest canopy is put to good use by the surrounding plants. Even the large limbs of deciduous trees overhanging the pond are heavily draped with sun splashed moss and decorated with sprouts of licorice fern.

The forest floor, though dark, can also be showy at times. The most obvious spring flowers include the large glowing yellow lanterns of skunk cabbage and the smaller but no less distinctive white blossoms of trillium. Tiny orchids, usually overlooked, may also be found, sometimes only inches from the trail. In the fall, progressive flushes of mushrooms of wildly different colors and forms can be seen. To protect the plants and wildlife that depend on them, no picking or collecting of any kind is allowed in the Reserve and hiking is restricted to the trails so as not to damage delicate specimens hidden in the often thin soils.

The first trail intersection, not far past the Beaver Pond, is the main loop trail. To the left is the quickest approach to the forest gem, Geneva Pond. To the right, the trail parallels the Beaver Pond and makes use of an old logging railroad grade identifiable by its gentle grade, sweeping curve and steep cut banks. At one time this part of the Reserve was a noisy hub of logging activity: steam engines, axes, saws, and work camps. The revegetated forest in this area is therefore younger and its transitional state noticeable with many older deciduous trees not yet replaced by the longer lived conifers that will one day dominate.

Turning left at the first junction and proceeding to the Geneva Pond side trail, a small stream which eventually flows into the pond is crossed. Just upstream of the trail bridge, a short low angled waterfall races down the exposed sandstone, brilliantly lit on a sunny afternoon. The small forest streams form drainages that are too wet for large trees to grow in. Above them the forest canopy tends to be more open allowing dappled ribbons of light to reach the forest floor encouraging an important diversity of smaller plants to grow.

Circling Geneva Pond by going down the left fork, the trail switches from side to side on a ridge separating the pond from a higher wetland. Descending to the pond, remnants of an old brick retaining wall prettily decorated with sprouting ferns is passed. At the far north end, an artificial berm that was constructed to increase the water depth provides an open grassy area with expansive views down the entire length of the pond. The trail continues to circle the pond with small openings providing better potential views of the pond’s inhabitants but not so close as to disturb them. Signs of beaver are plentiful here, characterized by the gnawed saplings and muddy slides at the shoreline. About mid-pond, the out flowing stream is enclosed by a complicated fence and pipe structure. Known as a beaver-baffler, it is designed to keep beavers from satisfying their powerful instinct to dam flowing water which could potentially damage the pond’s stability.

Back on the main loop, past the Geneva Pond cut-off, the trail dips and rises before making a long traverse along a steep slope through the area containing the oldest members of the Reserve. The trail weaves around huge trees; the massive swelling trunks indicative of the extensive root systems intertwined in the thin soil covering the sandstone bedrock. Some of the largest tree trunks provide an historical record of wildland fires; some of their blackened fire scars obtained long before the current settlement period. Untouched by human intervention, the forest here is made up of not only ancient giants of different species but an ecologically sound mixture of younger and smaller trees as well.

Nature is not always quiet here. Along the trail many of the trees both living and dead show the results of insect hunting by woodpeckers. The size and pattern of the holes are a clue to the identity of the bird that made them. If you hear one and are lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it from the trail, you may be surprised to observe that the loudest sounds of wood pecking are often made by the smallest birds.

The main loop eventually leaves this primordial forest, passes mysterious black water pools and climbs to the highpoint of the trail on a long narrow ridge. Nearby a spur trail connects with a street end in the Sudden Valley community. From here, the main trail descends through the younger transitional forest notable for the patchy abundance of deciduous trees which on sunny winter days can glow with golden light. Passing by the far end of the Beaver Pond with nice peek-a-boo viewing opportunities, the trail merges with the old railroad grade completing the main loop.

The creation of the Reserve is the result of an assortment of individuals and organizations. The seven Stimpson children generously donated a large parcel of family land in memory their parents, Edward and Catharine and as a continuing legacy of giving generously to their community. Another large parcel of state land managed by the Department of Natural Resources (known as the Lake Louise NRCA) was included along with parcels purchased by the Whatcom Land Trust and others owned by the City of Bellingham, Western Washington University, and Whatcom County. Today the trail and facilities are maintained by the Whatcom County Parks Department which also coordinates an Adopt-A-Trail program.

The low elevation of the forest and the seasonal changes of its wetlands and deciduous plants make it a wonderful outing in any season. It may be best however to avoid hiking in the Reserve during periods of exceptionally strong windy weather due to potential windfall of trees and limbs.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 2/27/2011


From Bellingham, drive east, away from downtown on often busy Lakeway Drive (I-5 exit # 253). Follow the curvy main road which eventually becomes Cable Street. As it descends the last hill (Lake Whatcom in sight ahead) turn right onto Austin Street; this is the first right turn after the well marked pedestrian crossing. After a stop-sign, the street becomes Lake Louise Road. In about 1.5 miles look for the large trailhead parking lot on the left; be cautious of traffic when turning in. A WTA bus stop is also located directly across the road from the parking lot. Some Sudden Valley residents use the small second entrance to the Reserve located near the top of High Cliff Lane.


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