The adventure begins with a ferry ride. The Washington State ferry system is easy to use, and the scenery along the water route is magnificent. After parking your rig on board (the ferries can accommodate even the largest RVs), choose a comfy seat next to a large window on one of the ferry’s upper decks. Then sit back and relax with a snack or a beverage as the ferry sails by lush wooded islands, hidden coves and marinas. Watch for glimpses of marine wildlife and enjoy the distant panoramas of Mount Baker and the Olympic Mountains.
Thanks to the “rain shadow effect” created by these grand mountain peaks, the San Juan Islands enjoy an average of 250 sunny days each year and only half the rainfall of Seattle. So even if you see clouds building on the horizon, the mountains usually prevent raindrops from falling on the San Juans. Temperatures rarely exceed 75 degrees in the summer or fall below 35 in the winter.
Alongside the spectacular scenery and comfortable climate, the islands’ main attraction is the wildlife—especially the orca or killer whales! From mid-April through early October, about 80 orcas live in the waters of the San Juan Islands. These graceful animals are frequently spotted right from the shore, or you can take a naturalist-narrated whale-watching excursion. Harbor seals, sea lions, otters, cormorants, murres, gulls, sea stars and a great many other marine creatures also call the water their home. On land, you’re sure to spot deer, great blue herons, raccoons, rabbits and more. And don’t forget to look up—at majestic bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s fairly common to see this flying national symbol while on the islands since Washington has a larger bald eagle population than any of the other Lower 48 states.
San Juan Island
Dynamic San Juan is the most populated of the four main islands, with about 6,500 residents. Ferries arrive at Friday Harbor, the only incorporated town in the island chain. It’s a common destination for mariners, seaplane pilots and tourists alike. The full-service marina is open to the public and many whale-watching excursions leave from there.
Friday Harbor has an old-fashioned walkable downtown and is the best place to stock up on camping supplies and groceries, grab a bite to eat and shop. Numerous art galleries and some interesting museums are here, too.
Once beyond Friday Harbor’s city limits, commerce and crowds fade into a rural setting of farmland, forests, gently rolling hills, and of course, miles of gorgeous waterfront. You’ll likely see more grazing alpacas and llamas than cows when driving around the 15-mile long island, but they’re cuter anyway!
The Whale Museum
Before heading out of Friday Harbor, visit The Whale Museum to learn about the island’s orca population, known locally as the J, K and L pods. Each orca has a name and can be identified by the size and shape of its dorsal fin and its unique black and white saddle patches. The museum also covers the history of many other marine mammals and has an appealing collection of exhibits, including real whale skeletons. Once you listen to the “songs” of whales and watch a 30-minute video of Pacific Northwest orcas, you just might want to participate in the museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Funds are used to ensure the long-term well-being of the resident pods.
Lime Kiln Point State Park
About 10 miles west of Friday Harbor, situated on a rocky tip facing Haro Strait, Lime Kiln Point is the best place on the island to view orcas from the shore. Also called Whale Watch Park, the 36-acre day-use park is dedicated to whale watching. A small but new visitor center provides everything you need to know about the orcas. You’re also likely to spot porpoises, seals, sea lions and otters along the shoreline, as well as deer along the wooded trails.
National Historical Park
San Juan has a national park with an odd history—it commemorates the Pig War. In 1859, the Pig War crisis arose because for over 10 years both the British and Americans who resided on the island hoped to take possession of the San Juan Island group. The crisis was triggered when an American shot a pig belonging to a Brit. For a few months, American soldiers and the British Royal Marines were on the verge of war, but fortunately officials on both sides restored order before casualties occurred. Both nations continued to jointly occupy the island until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, acting as arbitrator, awarded the islands to the United States in 1872. Appropriately, the national park is split into two camps 13 miles apart—American Camp on the south end of the island and English Camp up north. Each is distinctive and together they interpret the Pig War and celebrate how Great Britain and the United States demonstrated that it is possible for nations to settle their differences without violence.
In the Zulu language, pelindaba means “place of great gatherings,” which is quite fitting for a certified organic lavender farm founded to serve a greater good: preserve the rural island’s farmland from development and pollution, create employment opportunities, and provide a destination of natural beauty for all to enjoy. The owners, Susan and Stephen Robins, have succeeded. Pelindaba is now regarded as an important agri-tourism destination. Visitors may stroll freely through the demonstration gardens and fields where over 50 varieties of lavender plants are on view. Bring your camera—rows and rows of endless purple hues and a sweet fragrance permeate the scenic surroundings.
Roche Harbor Resort
On a picturesque harbor at the north end of San Juan Island, Roche Harbor Resort is a quaint, self-contained village complete with a historic hotel, formal Victorian gardens, a fine dining restaurant, casual café, full-service marina, seaplane base, airstrip, grocery store and small boutiques.
Roche Harbor started as a company town around 1886 when John McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, turned the largest deposit of lime in the Northwest into a large-scale business. McMillin built the 22-room Hotel de Haro and within a few years a well-established town grew around the magnificent hotel—complete with modern lime factory, a barrel works, warehouse, docks, ships, piers, offices, company store, church, school and homes for workers and their families. At its peak, Roche Harbor was home to about 800 residents. Eventually, the lime works closed and the full-scale town was dismantled, but Hotel de Haro continued to provide casual elegance for vacationers, and the marina became a popular destination for boating families and for movie stars, such as John Wayne.
Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, built in 1892, is the only privately owned Catholic Chapel in the United States. The petite church overlooks the harbor and can be used by couples of all denominations for their wedding day. Roche Harbor’s fantastic formal gardens also make a fabulous backdrop for weddings. But even if it’s not a special occasion when you visit, take a stroll and enjoy the myriad of fragrances and color. The hanging baskets attract every hummingbird within flying distance!
Although the resort is not pretentious, it very much stands on ceremony. Each evening at sunset, “The Retirement of the Colors” dazzles visitors whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the tenth. The non-military observance is taken very seriously by resort employees and has been a tradition at Roche Harbor since 1957. It can be viewed and heard (especially the booming cannon) from almost anywhere on the grounds. Some of the most spectacular sunsets in the Pacific Northwest can be seen at Roche Harbor.
Westcott Bay Reserve
Just across the road from Roche Harbor, more than 100 sculptures by noted Pacific Northwest artists are scattered on a 19-acre site, creating an outdoor art museum filled with works in bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass and ceramics. Even without the artwork, the reserve itself is a tranquil retreat and perfect for strolling. Situated on the edge of a pond, it showcases San Juan Island’s ecology: forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands, saltwater wetlands and rocky outcroppings. Especially in the cooler evenings, it’s a great place to spot deer.
If you’re in the mood to island hop, there’s even more great scenery nearby. Grab a ferry schedule in Friday Harbor, hop aboard, and discover what the other islands have to offer.
Lopez is dubbed the “friendly” island because of its genuine spirit of community and the local custom of waving to all passing motorists. The commercial hub is Lopez Village, home to several art galleries, restaurants, shops and a fully stocked grocery store. Laid-back Lopez is the flattest of the main islands, so it’s particularly popular with bicyclists who enjoy whizzing by a blended landscape of woods, farmland and water views.
There’s not much to do on Shaw Island. It’s the least visited of the four ferry-served islands, and an ideal destination if relaxing at a picturesque campsite is the only item on your to-do list. There’s just one commercial operation on the island—a general store run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist—but there’s plenty of peace, privacy and good beachcombing.
Horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island is dotted with art galleries, charming hamlets, villages and resort areas. Eastsound is the heart of this diverse island where you’ll find casual to fine dining, boutiques, a grocery store and a movie theater. Moran State Park is a 5,252-acre camping park with five freshwater lakes and miles of hiking trails. The highest point in the San Juan Islands is here—2,409-foot Mount Constitution. You can drive within 100 steps of the top, and then walk the rest of the way up to the stone observation tower that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. Incredible views of the neighboring islands await at the top!
Tranquil and unspoiled, the San Juan Islands are like no other. With the islands’ relaxed pace, rugged outdoor fun, and strong connection to nature, you’ll leave refreshed and rejuvenated and already planning your return!
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith assists businesses with their graphic design, copywriting, and marketing needs. She can be reached through www.DeniseSeithCo.com or (503) 623-2062.