Off The Beaten Path: The natural curiosities of Edmonds 

Edmonds is known for its driftwood-lined beaches and forested parks. Slightly hidden away from these natural attractions, though, sits an intriguing array of arboreal deformities, unusual botany, and various oddities from the geological world. You will not find these curiosities listed on any maps or included in any municipal records. Some serve as neighborhood landmarks, but most remain hidden and unknown – esoteric signposts of a natural world having gone slightly askew.

From Chase Lake (a prehistoric bog that reportedly contains a rich reservoir of ancient fossils) to the colossal trees of Yost Park, there’s evidence of this phenomenon scattered throughout our community. In fact, the main part of town itself is a bit of a geologic anomaly. The so-called Edmonds Bowl – that stadium-like hillside of expensive homes which overlooks the waterfront – was once full of trees and is what initially grabbed George Brackett’s attention when he was out searching for new sources of timber back in 1870. This amphitheater-shaped basin was formed thousands of years ago by glacial erosion, though the earliest known reference of it being mentioned under its current title can be found in a July 6, 1968 Everett Herald article, which described our downtown area as the “Bowl.”

Plaque from when the Chase Lake bridge was constructed in 1968. (Photo by Brad Holden)

It is from this same period of ancient glacial activity that brings us to our first oddity. You can sometimes catch glimpses of it while driving westbound on Edmonds Way as it sits on a small hillside overlooking the intersection at 232nd Street. It is the largest boulder in town that, amongst local geology enthusiasts, is otherwise known as the “Edmonds Erratic.”

The Edmonds Erratic on Edmonds Way, with a car included for scale. (Photos by Brad Holden)

Before we go any further it should be noted that, while natural history is endlessly fascinating to me, it is not my area of expertise. So, for this article, I have called in a couple of friends to help me better understand some of these things. First up is fellow HistoryLink writer and acclaimed local natural historian, David Williams, who wrote such popular books as Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography and Homewaters: A Human and Natural History of Puget Sound.

I asked David about our large boulder which, of course, he was quite familiar with. Referring to such giants rocks as the “flotsam of the Ice Age,” Williams even wrote an essay about them titled “Erratic Behavior,” which helps explain their origins: “Erratics are rocks — technically, any size but often noticed because they can be as big as the proverbial school bus — carried by glaciers and abandoned when the ice melted and retreated.” Thus, the Edmonds Erratic – the size of a small camper – was deposited here by a glacier over 12,000 years ago and is believed to have originated in the Fraser River Valley of British Columbia.

There are several other erratics scattered throughout the Puget Sound region. David mentions the Wedgewood Erratic – a North Seattle landmark so popular that it has its own Wikipedia page. There is also the behemoth “Lake Stevens Monster,” which is widely believed to be the largest erratic in Washington state. Other erratics can be found in nearby Ravenna Park, Martha Lake and Thornton Creek.

The Wedgewood Erratic. (Photo by Brad Holden)

In addition to these, there are likely many other erratics that simply haven’t been discovered yet. In 2015, a 30,000-pound boulder, dubbed “Granite,” was unearthed and excavated during some road work on 220th Street in my own neighborhood of Esperance. When attempts to break the boulder apart resulted in the destruction of the power equipment being used, the city – desperate to be rid of the giant stone – offered to deliver it for free to anyone who would accept it on their property. Many Esperance residents, myself included, felt the erratic should remain there in the unincorporated area, but in the end it found a home in North Edmonds.

The Granite boulder from 2015. (Photo courtesy City of Edmonds)

In addition to giant boulders, Edmonds is also home to some rather interesting trees. As noted above, the founder of our town was first drawn here after seeing all the giant trees on display in the Bowl. These same trees would then go on to fuel the town’s first lumber and shingle mills. Remnants of these old-growth forests can still be found, including some century-old stumps in Yost Park that were left behind by early lumberjacks, as well as some tree-themed roadside attractions further up north. At a rest stop in Arlington, off of Highway 99, sits a giant cedar stump so large that cars used to drive through it. A similar one once existed near Snohomish that became known as the Bicycle Tree, as a tunnel had been carved through its massive trunk, allowing people to ride through it.

Old postcards showing the Arlington tree stump tunnel as well as the Snohomish Bicycle Tree. (Brad Holden collection)

Ancient trees aside, there are still plenty of living trees here in Edmonds that keep people talking. Just a few months ago, in fact, fellow Edmonds historian, Byron Wilkes, wrote a fantastic article about the 90-foot-tall redwood known as “Big Red” (History: ‘Big Red’ and the Lewis and Wilson family legacy – My Edmonds News). The comments for that particular column were almost as interesting as the article itself, with the town seemingly divided over Big Red’s fate.

Big Red (Photo by Byron Wilkes)

Another noteworthy tree actually has some botanical ties to America’s first president. Sitting in the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery, not too far from George Brackett’s gravesite, is a red maple that was grafted from one of the original trees found at George Washington’s historic farm in Mount Vernon, Virginia. Planted here in 1999, the red maple replaced a dying cherry tree and was dedicated in honor of the late Ruth Sater, who had been an accomplished businesswoman and civic leader here in Edmonds. The tree has a surprisingly diminutive stature, which Cliff Edwards – the sexton of the cemetery – attributes to its shady environment. “It was planted in the wrong place,” he explains.

Mount Vernon Red Maple at the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery, as well as Ruth Sater’s dedication certificate. (Photos by Brad Holden)

And as it turns out, this is not the only George Washington-related tree here in the local area. To better help me out with his part, I would like to introduce Taha Ebrahimi, whose recently-published book, “Street Trees of Seattle: An Illustrated Walking Guide,” has quickly become a local bestseller. When talking with Taha, her excitement and passion for trees is almost contagious.

As Taha explains, “We do have some history with the George Washington Elm, even if it’s not from the George Washington farm.” She goes on to tell me the story of a tree at the University of Washington campus that started out as a scion (cuttings from a tree used for grafting purposes) of the famous Washington Elm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Legend has it that this was the tree that George Washington stood under when accepting command of the Continental Army at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. When the original Cambridge Elm died in 1923, scions from the UW tree were used to replace it and grow a new, genetically-identical version. Then, in a curious twist, the UW campus elm died in 1963 and was subsequently replaced by a sapling taken from the re-grown Cambridge tree. Therefore, thanks to this century-long, back-and-forth tree swap (the scion of a scion of a scion), the genetically-identical descendants of the famous Washington Elm have been impressively maintained. Sadly, Taha tells me that the UW Elm died in 2016, a victim of Dutch Elm Disease, but that a scion version of this tree can also be found at the Arboretum.

One of the town’s more unusual trees can be found not too far from the Edmonds Erratic and has become somewhat of a landmark for the Esperance neighborhood. Sitting at the corner of 226th Street and 80th Avenue West, the tree provides a rare example of a phenomenon known as edaphoecotropism, which is the process of plants incorporating foreign objects into themselves as a means of stress avoidance. In simple layman’s terms, it is when a tree engulfs something as it grows around it. In this case, the tree started growing around a small boulder many years ago, creating the appearance that it is actually eating the rock. Over the years, local residents have had fun with the tree, adding embellishments such as giant googly eyes and teeth. It’s hard not to crack a smile when you drive past it.

The Esperance Rock Tree. (Photo by Brad Holden)

The Esperance Rock Tree recalls similar cases of edaphoecotropism, such as the Vashon Island Bike Tree which, according to a popular legend, was created over a hundred years ago when a Vashon Island boy enlisted in the military to help fight in World War I, parking his cherished bike next to a tree. He became a casualty of the war, never to return, and over the years the tree has grown around and consumed the abandoned bike, creating the odd spectacle that we see today. There is also the so-called Hippie Bus Tree in Arlington, in which a tree has grown through an old Volkswagen Bus.

The Vashon Island Bike Tree. (Photo courtesy of the Vashon Island Beachcomber)

In addition to these, there are also a few other interesting curiosities to be found around town and perhaps, someday, I will write a follow-up article to this. In the meantime, I encourage everyone to explore all the nooks and crannies of your surrounding neighborhood as you never know what kind of interesting things you’ll find. As a certain adolescent philosopher once remarked back in the 1980s, “Life moves pretty fast: if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Local “gnome home” built into a living tree. (Photo by Brad Holden)

A big thanks to David Williams and Taha Ebrahimi for their assistance with this article. For those interested in learning more about local natural history, I highly suggest checking out David’s online newsletter, “Street Smart Naturalist: Explorations of the Urban Kind”, as well as Tara’s website.

— By Brad Holden

A 25-year Edmonds resident, Brad Holden is a columnist for Seattle Magazine, is a contributing writer for HistoryLink.org (an online encyclopedia of Washington state history) and his work has also appeared in the Seattle Times. Holden has been profiled on KIRO and KOMO news, Seattle Refined, NPR, KING 5 Evening! and various publications. Holden’s trilogy of books related to local Prohibition history — including his latest book, Lost Roadhouses of Seattle — are available online and at bookstores.

  1. Such fun information. When I go on walks I’m going to look for some of these places. Thanks Brad, for being curious about where we live. and I plan to read your books!

  2. I keep my eyes peeled for the old growth stumps and see them all over once I started looking. Now I’ll have to add rocks to my list! Thank you for the great article.

  3. Very interesting and enjoyable article. And thanks for the links to the Williams and Ebrahimi websites.

  4. What a great article. Thank you, Brad for the research and writing this piece. Just finished your book on the old Roadhouses of the past. Great read!

  5. My buddy Ed Sibrel wrote the blurb advertising the moving of the big rock. It was funny and a bit spicy, just like Ed. RIP, my BFF.

  6. Regarding the Chase Lake Bridge, it would be more accurate to say that the “current” bridge was constructed in 1968, or even more accurately, completed that year. Previous to it was a wood bridge, producing a characteristic rumble from its plank driving surface, which was audible from our home on 220th Place, two blocks away.

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