Lily Point Marine Park


Every day Never Closes


Photo Credit: Bud Hardwick
Even among the many wonderful and publicly accessible coastal areas of Whatcom County, Lily Point is outstanding. The far southeastern corner of Point Roberts, it offers unparalleled views from the top of its 200 foot high vertical bluffs over an expanse encompassing the Fraser Valley, Mt. Baker, Vancouver Island, as well as many of the San Juan and Gulf Islands. Thickly forested across the level bluff, ancient trees and rare plants share their space with nesting eagles, and a myriad of resident and transitory birdlife. The views from the beach are no less dramatic stretching across the globally famous birding habitat of Boundary Bay to the busy open waters of the Strait of Georgia. Behind the beach, the cliffs appear even more impressive; and as the tide falls an apron of marine life, glacial erratics and relics of past human activity slowly surface for your closer inspection.

The creation of the park was a long and arduous process involving many different organizations and individuals. At one time envisioned as a nature preserve requiring many restrictions; it was ultimately designated as a Marine Park. This allows significantly wider latitude in access and recreation than would otherwise be possible but relies on visitors to be sensitive and responsive to the preservation status of the park. Nothing may be removed from the park including both natural materials and cultural artifacts. Dogs usually prohibited from Preserves are allowed in the park provided they are leashed and properly attended. This requirement is not only for the comfort of other visitors but for the safety of the pet. Many viewpoints throughout the park are perched on the very lip of the bluff and a frolicking pet (or child) could easily slip over the edge. Not only should visitors never go beyond the protective railings but common sense requires treating even these barriers as suspect since the bluffs are continually sloughing and it is only a question of time before they claim another viewpoint or section of trail.

From the park entrance at the end of APA road, the first views are only a few minutes’ walk down the wide level main trail. At the first major junction, keep going straight. A bright circle of light can be seen down a short dark tunnel of vegetation. This is your first viewpoint. Breathtakingly, the view explodes before you. On a clear day Mt. Baker and other high points of the North Cascades are clearly visible. Sighting directly east, the international border can be discerned: marine markers, the brilliant white Peace Arch, and beyond it the whitish border stripe through an otherwise green forest running up and down the shoulders of Vedder and Black Mountains. Frequently eagles catch the updrafts caused by the wind meeting the vertical bluffs and soar so close to the viewpoint that you can hear the wind rushing over their flared wing feathers. Beneath you, depending on the tide, a vast beach of tidal flats may appear, with the beachside grass and shrubbery of Lily Point far below and to the right.

The labyrinth of trails running through the park offer many choices. Back at the main trail an easy straight walk to the “point” provides the most direct connection to the steep trail to the beach. The main trail is also the only one where bicycles are allowed (they are prohibited from minor trails and especially from the beach). Another trail wanders attractively along the near edge of the bluff, offering viewpoint after viewpoint with each one adding a new element of perspective. Along this trail, ancient trees tortured by high winds offer fantastical structure; their broken tops supporting side branches that would be considered large trees themselves if they were rooted on the ground. Usually a rare forest oddity, a surprising number of living stumps inhabit this woodland. Formed, when a tree still in its prime is cut down, the root system may become intertwined with nearby surviving trees. With no ability to grow a new trunk, the stump heals, eventually becoming a smoothly rounded bark covered knob.

To reach the beach is no simple matter. There are two trails down and neither is easy. The same erosion that creates the vertical bluffs is active even in the forest. Roots for handholds and careful foot placement will be required. At the bottom an interesting transition of vegetation is experienced. At the base of the slope, exceptionally tall trees particularly the big leaf maples offer an open airy atmosphere. The path soon leads to the edge of the forest where sunny bands of grass and shrubs mark the top of the beach. Past them a world of beach and tidal flats is revealed. Sculpture-like wreckage of lost ships and maritime machinery decorate the tidal flats. Some of it large and striking, other pieces small dissolving iron fragments that have bonded with surrounding pebbles. A delightful game can be made of trying to guess the origin or purpose of these relics, though it’s not often easy.

The many remnants of pilings that pattern the beach are from the extensive wharves and piers of the former Alaska Packers Association (APA, like the road name); a fish processing operation begun in the late 1800s. Offshore, huge fish traps were employed to capture the once vast bounty of salmon that passed this location each year. So successful were they that they critically depleted the salmon population and were eventually outlawed. In contrast, Native Peoples had fished for salmon from this location for millennium employing a number of sustainable techniques including a unique method called reef netting. From this very point “first salmon” celebrations of thanks were performed before any salmon were eaten. One of their names for Lily Pt was Chelhtenem which meant “hang salmon for drying” describing the sunny location, fresh breezes and abundant salmon to be harvested and preserved.

Around the point the beach wraps to the west where there’s more exploring to be done. The stratification revealed by the eroding bluffs provides an indication of the geologic history of the area. Point Roberts was once an island. Glacial advances and recessions and the great floods and deposition of the Fraser River eventually connected it to the mainland. Stay a safe distance from all the bluffs; tons of sand and gravel as well as huge boulders can be released without warning. The boulders littering the beach and flats are for the most part glacial erratics. Pieces of distant mountains broken off and carried on rivers of ice as far as the glacier went before a warming trend melted the ice, dropping the erratics wherever they happened to be. Between the repeated glacial advances, the waters and sediments of the Fraser River moved and polished them. Most are well rounded but a few including one whose appearance provides it with the nickname bear or polar bear is all angular (see if you can recognize it). The explanation is probably that this erratic was carried on the last ice advance and never became buried or mixed with the other river polished boulders. The ice may grind the face of a boulder but the river is responsible for the rounding and polishing of them. While investigating the largest boulders don’t forget the smaller pebbles. Colored agates are not that hard to find if you have the patience to look for them.

One section of this western beach appears to be a graveyard for the sturdier parts of antique cars. Engine blocks, struts, leaf springs and axles will prove that one person’s trash is another’s treasure as car buffs try to determine the engine type and models that they may have come from. Uphill of this area and a bit back to the east is a large lone tree set further out from the bluff than others. Its split crown appears to be the perfect place for an eagle nest, and it is. Visible from the beach especially with binoculars it’s possible to see the white head of an adult tending its eggs or feeding its chicks. Elsewhere a safely inaccessible hole in the bluff may mark a colony of swallows, obvious from their frequent trips in and out of their sandy cave if left undisturbed. Further west a few private stairs connect to residences on the bluff and eventually even the beach becomes private necessitating a turnaround but also providing another opportunity to explore on the return. Always consider the timing of the rising tides so as not to become trapped beneath the bluffs.

Any season is good for visiting Lily Point but sunny summer weekends will make the border crossings longer than usual as many people from both countries take advantage of what this area has to offer. While the border crossings may seem a bother to some for others they add to the uniqueness of the outing. If exploring the mud flats is important to you then check the tides when planning your visit. The lowest summer tides occur midday while in winter they’ll be close to midnight. The park is unusual in allowing access at night but be aware that overnight parking is not allowed and fires of any kind are prohibited. By sunlight or moonlight, experience for yourself why Lily Point is exceptional in so many ways.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 8/9/2010


Please note that the Point Roberts roundtrip requires crossing the international border four times. Proper identification is required and for children not accompanied by their parents additional documentation may be required. At the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Highway I-5 becomes Highway 99 in British Columbia. Continue west to Exit 20 for Ladner Trunk Road. As you turn left and south onto the overpass you can see the buff colored cliffs of Lily Point in the distance across the open expanse of Boundary Bay. In Ladner (less than 5 miles) go left onto Highway 17, then after about 3 ½ miles turn left again at 56th street in Tsawwassen. Continue south to the border crossing into Point Roberts. From the border continue south less than 1 ½ miles on Tyee Drive making a left onto APA road. Follow APA road to the locked gate just beyond the cemetery. Roadside parking is available but avoid blocking the gates or turnaround area. No overnight parking is permitted.


Copyright 1998-2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED