Story and photos by Leif Nesheim
Wind whipped across steel gray water at the Marrowstone Point lighthouse. The roaring gale slung rain nearly horizontally as it raced westward across Admiralty Bay in cold fury. We paused just long enough to don rain gear and lean into the wind atop windswept beach logs before driving back up the road to the heart of Fort Flagler State Park.
The wind continued its fierce assault on the former fort. Gray-painted wooden buildings of the past barracks and officers quarters braved the weather in orderly rows.
Today, the buildings are part of the park’s Environmental Learning Center, which may be rented by large groups, or are individual vacation homes and the park’s headquarters.
A decommissioned gun stood guard nearby while a trio of deer browsed and took shelter behind a small shed.
There didn’t seem to be a place to park and hike here so my wife, Mandy, drove through the park to find a place to begin our hike.
We parked near campgrounds by the boat launch on the park’s northeast side. The campgrounds are closed for the winter but the park is open for day use.
Port Townsend was visible to the northwest across the water and the cranes on Indian Island Navy base to the south could be seen from the boat launch areas.
Our trail was the Bluff Trail. After a mild and brief climb, it leveled out with brief glimpses of the water and campground area below. The path was wide, the width of the single-lane road. The surrounding trees tamed the wind and caught the drizzle, creating a pleasant hiking environment.
With my rain pants, fleece and hat, I was soon overly hot. Thank goodness for zippers.
We paused at a former searchlight post. The fort formed part of a triangle of batteries that also included Fort Worden and Fort Casey, guarding the nautical entrance to Puget Sound. Construction on Fort Flagler began in 1897 and continued in spurts until the fort closed in 1953. It became a state park in 1955.
Flagler is kind of like Fort Worden’s little sibling: It has many of the same types of activities, trails and scenery but lacks the crowds and special activities that more popular and closer Fort Worden offers.
While we looked across the water toward Port Townsend from the searchlight position, an American bald eagle soared past at eye level less than 20 feet away. It was a breathtakingly close encounter.
There are a number of trails that connect from the Bluff Trail to the Wilderness Trail that would complete shorter versions of the loop hike we planned but we continued along our chosen trail to explore more of the fort ruins.
We came upon a gun battery, climbed the narrow stone stairs to the grassy top and poked into the open underground storage and ammunition rooms.
The stone and stairs combined with the curved gun emplacements vaguely reminded me of an M.C. Escher painting and we wondered why the stairs were so narrow and small.
We headed along the trail to another battery before backtracking to a trail I thought would lead back toward the buildings by the park entrance. I’d consulted the map in the guidebook but it wasn’t very detailed and I had left it in the car so I wasn’t sure exactly where we were headed.
The path was pretty neat though. Tall fir trees sprung up on either side. The rain left all the plants glistening green in the damp. The road was covered with grass but had the faint outline of former heavy use, symbolically mirroring the decay of autumn and nature’s ability to reclaim its own.
Nature once again exclaimed its power as we approached the fort buildings and left the shelter of the trees. We closed zippers, cinched down hoods and hats and staggered sideways into the fierce wind.
Where my face was bare, the rain bit and stung my cheeks with cold fury. I angled the brim of my hat to absorb most of the punishment. We trudged toward the park headquarters; I was unsure where the return trail began and preferred not to hike on the park road.
We found a map in a kiosk by the visitors center and backtracked a short distance to the trail, which heads west between a couple of the buildings back into the safety of the trees. We passed one of the group campsites before finding the trail that paralleled the road and would soon join the Wilderness Trail we sought.
This trail was narrower than the wide track of the Bluff Trail and after about a mile or so, we climbed atop another battery but didn’t tarry to explore, preferring instead to finish our hike.
Once we found the Wilderness Trail, we took it. It meandered through a thick fir and cedar forest. Ferns lined the ground and bare-branched bushes were ripe with bright red berries.
Sooner than we thought, we were back at the car and headed on our way. We didn’t see a single other hiker our entire trip, though there were a few people at the ELC and several surfers braved the waters near the lighthouse to test the wind-whipped waves.
Fort Flagler offers many of the splendors of Fort Worden but with fewer to share them with; it’s truly a gem off the beaten path and worth the extra drive.