May 20, 2012

Paradise in the Pacific Northwest

The San Juan Islands are often referred to as Paradise in the Pacific Northwest.  Tim and I found out why during our brief two-day visit to San Juan Island, the largest of the four islands served by the Washington State Ferries.  There are actually 172 named islands in the San Juans, and these islands are a world apart.  The San Juans are known for both their natural attractions and their distinctive island experiences. 

The ferry deposited us in Friday Harbor, the largest town on San Juan Island.  It’s a quaint seaport town that seems to thrive on the ferry traffic that inundates the town on weekends.  Although the town offers everything a visitor to the islands may be looking for, it is not too touristy.  We were happy to find a local hangout where we enjoyed fresh fish and scallops.

Arriving in Friday Harbor
There is even a national park on San Juan Island.  San Juan Island National Historical Park tells the story of a little-known episode in American history often dubbed the Pig War.  During the mid-nineteenth century, the ownership of the San Juan Islands was undetermined, with both the United States and Great Britain claiming title.  The two countries almost went to war when an American farmer killed a British pig.  Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the two nations resolved the dispute peacefully without resorting to violence.  Now isn’t that a great lesson to teach at a park?

We relived the Pig War on the self-guided history walk around the former American Camp.  We walked through the parade ground where two original buildings are preserved, and we also admired the beautiful views of the Strait of San Juan de Fuca and Griffin Bay across one of this region’s last remaining natural prairies.  Even Mount Baker was visible in the distance. 

Parade Ground at American Camp
Prairie Landscape at American Camp
Jakles Lagoon at American Camp
Lighthouse at Cattle Point
We wanted to see more of the island, so we drove to the west side where we encountered pastoral landscapes and more stunning water views.  We stopped at San Juan County Park where we had planned to camp.  I guess our luck had to run out sometime, however.  For the first time on our trip, we were turned away.  We missed the last RV site by five minutes!  It would have been a great site with water views through the trees, but we were able to find another campground not too far away.

Roche Harbor is the other town on San Juan Island, and it is a quaint, historic seaside village.  We visited the town this morning, and I actually thought it was more interesting than Friday Harbor.  It was surprising to find the ruins of several structures associated with the area’s lime kiln history preserved as part of the landscape.  The arts are also a big deal here, and a large sculpture park on the edge of the village intersperses rotating sculptures with a nature display.  Hopefully, all of the ongoing development we saw will not destroy the unique character that makes Roche Harbor special.

Roche Harbor
Remains of the Lime Kiln Industry
Sculpture Garden
One of the favorite springtime activities in the San Juans is a whale watching tour.  We arrived back in Friday Harbor before noon, just in time to get on one of the boats.  It was cold and damp today, and I was glad we could sit inside the boat to watch for the marine mammals that frequent the area.  On our three hour tour, we saw harbor porpoises, sea lions and, finally, a pod of minke whales.  These whales are relatively small and stay underwater for a long time, so they are often harder to spot than the larger orca whales.  We did have a fun time trying to guess where the minkes would surface, and we watched for them for quite a while.  We never did see the resident orcas that live in the San Juans year-round, so we got a rain check for a future whale watching tour.  I guess that means we’ll have to come back to the San Juan Islands.  I wouldn’t object to that.

All Aboard for a Whale Watching Adventure
Sea Lions Basking on the Rocks
Minke Whale Surfacing for Just a Second or Two
Tim and I had debated about whether to stay in the San Juans and visit another island, but we decided we’d better return to the mainland.  We found out just how difficult it can be to catch the ferry on the weekend when we were informed that the 4:15 pm ferry was full.  We would have to wait for the 6:25 pm instead.  We took advantage of our extra time in Friday Harbor by visiting the whale museum where we learned more about these majestic creatures than we ever thought possible. 

The best part about having to wait for the later ferry was being put at the front of the line.  We ended up in the front row on the ferry with an unobstructed view of the water and passing islands.  How cool was that!  Parked next to us was a couple with a yellow cat that had made his home on the dashboard.  Kitty eyed him, but decided she really wasn’t interested.

We Were First to Board the Ferry
The View of the Islands and Passing Ferry Would Have Been Better
If It Hadn't Been Raining
Who's That Kitty Watching Me?


  1. Lovely! I like the sculpture garden. And I think your bears enjoyed the view from the ferry too! LV

    1. LV, The sculpture garden was such a nice surprise. And yes, the bears have always had the best view. Sarah