A few weeks ago, The New Yorker scared the living daylights out of those of us lucky enough to reside in the Pacific Northwest. In gripping fashion, writer Kathryn Schulz told of a devastating earthquake and tsunami that are doomed to destroy the coastal communities of Oregon and Washington while wreaking havoc in Portland and Seattle—possibly in the next 50 years.
As I nervously tore through Schulz’s piece, I began to rethink my decisions to rent in a brick building, to live without an earthquake kit, and to read such a terrifying article in the first place. But the one thing I never reconsidered was my decision to move to the Pacific Northwest last year. Cascadia subduction zone or not, I still count myself as incredibly fortunate to live in this region, where I am every day inspired by the warmth of the people around me, my constant closeness to nature, and the wild beauty of the mountains, forests, and coastlines.
One such extraordinary landscape can be found 65 miles north of Seattle in the Salish Sea, where killer whales, bald eagles, and a few lucky humans make their homes in the San Juan Islands. Isolated and tranquil, these 172 named islands and reefs are an ideal destination for kayakers, cyclists, hikers, wildlife enthusiasts, and long weekenders in search of a place to recharge their batteries.
So hop on a ferry and break out your binoculars. We’re going to the San Juan Islands for the next three days.
How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
There may be 172 named islands in this archipelago, but only the four most populous—Shaw Island, Lopez Island, San Juan Island, and Orcas Island—are serviced by the Washington state ferries that depart from Anacortes. And while each island claims its own unique beauty and character, first-time visitors would be wise to make their home base on either San Juan Island or Orcas Island. Whereas San Juan is known for its unrivaled whale-watching and the charming town of Friday Harbor, Orcas is a pearl of nature, a bit quieter, and a tad less convenient.
So what is it that tips the scale in favor of San Juan Island on this trip? A long weekend stay on the beautiful waterfront property owned by friendly local residents Greg and Jane Gerhardstein. Their comfortable guesthouse, which sits roughly 15 minutes west of Friday Harbor, offers unbeatable views of the Olympic Mountains, the eastern reaches of Vancouver Island, and pods of playful killer whales that traverse the Haro Strait.
His Girl Friday
Traveling by car ferry never seems to get old—especially when the ferry in question is sailing westward from Anacortes. For a little more than an hour, the boat weaves through the pristine forest landscapes of Blakely, Decatur, Lopez, and Shaw Islands, before arriving in Friday Harbor, the quaint commercial center of the entire island chain.
Over the next several days, you’ll come to know this town of 2,100 residents well. Each morning, Café Demeter makes the island’s most buttery pastries (80 Nichols Street); each afternoon, the Bluff Restaurant at Friday Harbor House serves happy hour drinks with a picturesque view (130 West Street). And Market Place is your one-stop shop for meat, produce, wine, beer, and any other groceries you might need (515 Market Street).
American Woman, Stay Away From Me
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 established the boundary between the United States and Canada on the 49th parallel, but it also made an exception to keep Vancouver Island in British hands by dipping the border southward at the Georgia Strait. Yet the treaty did not specify whether the border should cut east or west of the San Juan Islands—leaving the United States and Great Britain in a protracted border dispute for nearly three decades.
In the midst of this stalemate, the American and British armed forces built encampments at opposite ends of San Juan Island. And today, American Camp—part of the San Juan Island National Historic Park—occupies some of the most beautiful coastal bluffs on the island’s southernmost peninsula. So spend the day walking and driving through this secluded park, making sure to capture the sunset view of Cattle Point Lighthouse.
The Eastsound Boys And West End Girls
In an island chain famous for its resident pods of killer whales, you wouldn’t be alone in thinking that Orcas Island was named for these majestic mammals. But the island’s name is actually a shortened form of Horcasitas, a reference to Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, the viceroy of Mexico who chartered an expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1791.
Even if you aren’t staying there, Orcas Island is a short and scenic ferry ride from Friday Harbor and well worth the day trip. The island—the largest of the San Juans—is naturally beautiful and overwhelmingly rural, yet the central town of Eastsound features two must-visit culinary destinations. Brown Bear Baking is beloved for its fresh-from-the-oven breads, pastries, scones, muffins, and quiches (29 N. Beach Road), while Hogstone’s Wood Oven is an island favorite for locally sourced pizzas served on a picnic table patio (460 Main Street).
The Butcher, Mt. Baker, The Candlestick Maker
Moran State Park opened on Orcas Island in 1921, thanks to a 2,700-acre gift from Robert Moran, a shipbuilder and former mayor of Seattle. In the decades since, the park has expanded to more than 5,200 acres, encompassing five lakes, 38 miles of foot trails, and the highest peak in the San Juan Islands.
That rocky, demanding mountain—the 2,409-foot Mt. Constitution—is your destination this afternoon. The good news? Mt. Constitution can be summited from a variety of trailheads, whether you’re looking for something more relaxing (park at Cold Springs and join the Mt. Constitution Trail, three miles roundtrip) or challenging (begin the Mt. Constitution Loop Trail at the Mountain Lake picnic shelter, 6.7 miles roundtrip). And no matter which path you choose, you’ll enjoy a view that reaches Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and Vancouver on a clear day.
Whatcha Doin’ In My Waters?
Among the many benefits of staying on the west side of San Juan Island is your proximity to Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. Standing on these 36 acres of rocky shoreline, you’ll have an excellent chance of seeing the killer whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and otters that swim through the Haro Strait—especially if you time your visit for June or July. Curious to learn more about the orcas that frequent these waters? Step inside the lighthouse, built in 1919, which now serves as a whale research center.
I Owe My Soul To The Company Store
Take a break from whale-watching in the nearby resort town of Roche Harbor, a former 19th century company town for John McMillin’s lime works. From the terrace of the Lime Kiln Café—a favorite for its tasty sandwiches, burgers, and kiln-fired pizzas—soak in the view of the 377-slip marina and the Hotel de Haro which, having hosted visitors since 1886, is the oldest continually operating hotel in the state.
But a word to the wise: don’t linger too long in Roche Harbor. With a bluff-side picnic table, a bottle of wine, and a pod of killer whales likely waiting for you back at Greg and Jane’s, there’s no finer place to bid this weekend farewell.
A Few Notes
So, how exactly does the Washington ferry system work? Anacortes is your launching point to reach the San Juan Islands, and online ferry reservations for this route are highly recommended for travelers with vehicles, especially in the summer. The reservation slots are released in phases: the first third become available two months before the start of the season; the second third are released two weeks before the sailing date; and the final third become available two days before the sailing date. Yes, it’s a complicated system, so click here and explore the website if you have any additional questions.
What about interisland ferries, you ask? Reservations are not necessary, nor available, for these routes. Just arrive at the terminal roughly 30 minutes early.
To bring a vehicle or not to bring a vehicle? I say bring it. Unless you’re an avid and fit cyclist, you’ll need a car to get around both San Juan and Orcas Islands. Yes, it makes ferry rides more expensive, but the convenience is well worth it.
Wildlife watchers, take note. If you want to see killer whales, plan your visit to the San Juan Islands between May and September. If you want some extra reassurance, go for June or July.
If you plan on visiting Lime Kiln Point and Moran State Parks, take note that the state of Washington charges $10 day-use fees for both. If, however, you plan on visiting at least one other state park in Washington in the same year, be sure to purchase the $30 annual Discover Pass instead. For more information about park fees and free days, click here.
TITLE: The lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park | SATURDAY: The view from the Anacortes-Friday Harbor ferry; passengers on board the ferry; the main house on the Gerhardstein property (the guesthouse is behind); the private cove on the Gerhardstein property; the port of Friday Harbor; San Juan Island National Historic Park | SUNDAY: The interisland ferry between Friday Harbor and Orcas Island; Mountain Lake, from Mt. Constitution; Mt. Baker, from Mt. Constitution | MONDAY: The lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park; Roche Harbor; the sunset view of the Olympic Mountains from the Gerhardstein property.