A PNW travel guide for the big island in the San Juan Archipelago

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San Juan Island

To experience the Salish Sea, and have a taste of Pacific Nortwest Island life, look no further than San Juan Islands. Whatever the adventure; hiking, biking, birdwatching, dining, or whale watching, the islands have plenty to experience for the novice or experienced PNW traveler. Here is a weekend guide to the big island.

The Wander-list

San Juan County Park:
A small park with camping available to hikers and bikers only, leave the car at home! Small, picturesque, with a private alcoved beach. No discovery pass required!

Ornithology Look-Out near Forest Glen:
About a quarter mile before Roche Habor, stop and look at the tree tops and you can catch a glimpse of the national bird. There is a small pull off near a gate and trail head that will let you see bald eagles without the need for binoculars or an expensive camera lens. We sighted eight in a single tree, including fledglings.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse

Built in 1919 by the US Coast Guard, Lime Kiln Lighthouse is on the northwest point of San Juan Island, WA. The lighthouse gets its name from the lime kilns located nearby, where the stone was fired into lime. If you feel adventurous, from the park you can hike about a quarter mile above the lighthouse to see the once active kilns.

The park has several areas to whale watch from, and the volunteers at the lighthouse can fill you in on the latest sightings. The park even has limited WiFi; with your smartphone, you can tune into the live broadcast of the sounds of the sea and the pods of orcas that commute the waters.

Cattle Point Lighthouse

 

On the southern tip of the island is Cattle Point Lighthouse, built by the US navy in 1921. It is not the most picturesque of light houses, as it is simply a concrete octaval light beacon, but the view you have from its bluff is fantastic. Access to the lighthouse is only available by foot through the sandy beach trail.  

Travel Tip: both Lighthouse parks are part of the Washington State Parks, and a Discovery Pass is required. They can be purchased at Lime Kiln Park, or, before you head out to the park stop in at the Ace Hardware in Friday Harbor and pick it up before you start your adventure. 

Roche Harbor

Named in honor of Richard Roche, the harbor was formerly the company town supporting John S. McMillan’s company of the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company (1886). It now sits as a travel destination and resort as well as popular island wedding venue. The lime kilns used can still be viewed at the Roche Harbor resort, and the McMillan family has a large mausoleum near the resort. 

Travel tip, if you are staying at the resort, the McMillan suites have the best view, with a terrific balcony and an old world feel. If you are looking for modern luxury stay in the Quarryman Suites. If you are out to enjoy dinner, reservations at the McMillan’s Dining Room after the harbor’s tradition of the colors ceremony will not disappoint. Exquisite island and Pacific Northwest cuisine, and a view of the harbor at sunset is a fantastic combination. 

English & American Camp
American/English Camp

San Juan’s Pig War, or more commonly referred to as the Northwest Boundary Dispute, was a three century dispute between the Great Britain claim and the American claim of the land and sea resources of the Pacifict Northwest.

In 1846 the Treat of Oregon was signed in London, and with it the western boundary of the US and the British’s holding of the 49th parallel “to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver island.” The issue came from the verbiage of the ‘channel,’ was the treaty in reference to Haro Strait or Rosario Strait. This dispute lead to having both the US and Great Britain occupying San Juan Island, up until 1872. It wouldn’t be until arbitrator Emperor William I of Germany would act as neutral arbitrator after the Washington Treaty of 1871 was signed, and decided that Haro Strait was the referenced line, yielding the San Juan archipelago to the United States.  

Travel tip: these parks are both National Parks, so the WA Discover Pass is not needed. Each camp has a unique stamp that visitors can get as a free souvenir. When visiting the English Camp, be sure to walk through the Formal Garden on the waterfront. Also, at both camps, the park rangers set up telescopes to view the local bird life including osprey or bald eagle nests.

 

Food

Crows Nest, Friday Harbor:
Locals who love coffee and even the other baristas on the island come here for their morning java.

Churchill Bakery, Friday Harbor:
Perfect stop when your waiting at the ferry, or it’s worth the walk since it is just off the beaten path of most of downtown Friday Harbor. It has the buttery light airy texture the baking connoisseur seeks in good morning bread – best chocolate croissants in town!

Cask & Schooner, Friday Harbor:
Great service and delicious food no matter what you order; Shepard’s pie to fish ‘n chips, they have the working folks’ food down.

McMillan’s Dining Room, Roche Harbor:
Delicious, everything.