Editor’s note: I’ve spent a good deal of time along Puget Sound, but now I can’t wait to go back after reading about such cool petrified wood to be found. For more of Morgan’s rockhounding adventures, click here to visit her index page.
The western coast of the United States includes beautiful geology: sea stacks, purple sand beaches, fossil beds, and much more. The Pacific Northwest, specifically, contains stunning scenery and a unique geologic story.
Invited to visit a friend in Anacortes, Washington, I felt compelled to make the trip a rockhounding journey as well. Packing my car with the normal geology trip tools (buckets, a small yard rake, gloves, boots, spray bottle, and shovel), along with books about Washington’s best rockhounding, I set off on a driving adventure.
Anacortes lies in Puget Sound, an inlet just south of the Canadian border that’s filled with islands and natural beauty. Surrounded by Native American land, US National Parks (both the North Cascades and Olympic National Parks), national forests, and Washington State Parks, the area’s mountain and ocean views attract thousands of visitors each year, including avid hikers and rockhounds like me.
Puget Sound is also famous for its fresh seafood, which I had the pleasure of experiencing often at local mom and pop oyster farms, and talented artists, which fill galleries and museums of all flavors.
Of course I was more drawn to the geology of the area and what rocks could be found, though. With over 1300 miles of shoreline, Puget Sound delivered.
It turned out I didn’t need most of my rockhounding materials in Anacortes; the second I parked my car and strolled onto the rocky beach, I couldn’t help but notice the petrified wood, jasper, and jade littering the shore. When first stepping out onto the rocks, I didn’t realize how dynamic the tide is in the area. The water level varies so much that at low tide the rocks extend eerily far, especially at dusk, when fog often blankets a large swath of rocky beach (one I remembered as ocean just a few hours earlier). The abandoned look and muffled sound of the beaches with fog would make Puget Sound an ideal location for a horror movie.
The only rockhounding supplies I truly needed were my trusty buckets, which I filled with choice samples of petrified wood. Many of these were so perfectly preserved that I picked them up thinking they might simply be pieces of modern driftwood, only to be surprised and delighted to find their weight confirmed them as millions of years old.
Washington State Petrified Wood
Washington’s state gem is a unique one: petrified wood. Most people don’t consider petrified wood to be a gem at all, since it’s technically really a fossil, so the state’s designation can come as a surprise. Most also don’t realize that petrified wood can be found in so many areas of the US: from the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon) to California (where you’ll find the Petrified Forest) to Arizona (Petrified Forest National Park – which is indeed distinct from the aforementioned spot in California) to Texas (where the state stone is petrified palmwood), and even in the northeast (New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to be specific).
Each of the types of petrified wood has a distinct look to it. The ones you’re most likely to recognize are the brightly colored varieties found in Arizona, but the appearance varies quite a bit due to the type of wood that was fossilized and what minerals replaced it.
Petrified wood is created much like other fossils; the organic material (in this case, tree wood) is buried by sediment in some way, then slowly over time replaced with minerals that leach into the wood and replace it with rock. Based on the location of where the prehistoric trees fell, their structure and the minerals that replaced them can vary, too. For example, some wood becomes opalized, meaning that opal is what replaced the wood’s material, while other areas create agatized wood, where agate is the stone that replaces the wood over time. The more well-known types of petrified wood (such as the ones in Petrified Forest National Park) are formed with quartz crystals, opal, or agate.
In the area that’s currently Washington, it’s likely that a large volcanic eruption surged over a prehistoric ginkgo forest, with mounds of ash and lava burying the trees quickly. The minerals from those volcanic materials preserved and fossilized the trees, creating the stunning specimens distributed all around the beaches and rivers today. And in the area that’s specifically Puget Sound’s island land masses, visitors can even see part of the earth’s mantle (which is typically not visible, since it’s below the crust). This exposure happened as the tectonic plates moved and changed the prehistoric volcanic islands and forests.
Discovering Kiket Island
Much of Puget Sound is protected Native American land or privately owned beach, and one day’s adventure looking for accessible rocky coastline took me to stunning Kiket Island. I’d been driving around searching for places to park and continue rockhounding that weren’t someone’s front yard, parking and walking down quiet shoreline streets over and over only to find the blackberry-lined path blocked with a home. Looking at a map led me to attempt to reach some islands in the area (and there are quite a few!).
Kiket Island seemed accessible, and once I arrived in the parking lot I knew I’d made the right choice; even though the signs informed me I couldn’t collect anything from the preserve, I could see the area’s beauty right away. Kukutali Preserve encompasses the island and is managed jointly by the Swinomish Indian Reservation and Washington State Parks.
I didn’t realize until after I left how well I’d lucked out; I read later that high tide can cut the island off from the mainland for hours at a time. This happens when the crystal-clear water rises above the driftwood-lined walkway onto the island. During my hours-long visit the tide remained at accessible levels, but for my next visit I’ll be sure to note the tide tables, as well as bring a map, since phone and GPS services were not functioning. The easy hiking trails of the Kukutali Preserve on Kiket Island provided a peaceful and private location to observe the local ecosystems and geology. Since only members of local tribes are allowed to remove anything from the island, I took photos of the beautiful array of rocks in the shallows, rather than filling my buckets any further.
Overall, the Puget Sound region in Washington offers a diverse and rewarding experience for geology enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.
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