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 in 2014. Cascadia Subduction Zone or not, I still feel incredibly fortunate to live in a region where I am everyday inspired by the warmth of the people around me 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, whale-watchers, and long weekenders looking to recharge their batteries.
So hop on a ferry and break out your binoculars. We’re off to San Juan Island 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—Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, and Shaw—are serviced by the Washington State Ferries that depart from Anacortes. And although each island claims its own unique beauty and character, first-time visitors will find much to love on San Juan Island—a charming hub of whale-watching and the islands’ commercial center.
For your home base this weekend, consider two beautiful options. The guesthouse on the waterfront property of Greg and Jane Gerhardstein offers unbeatable views of the Olympic Mountains and pods of killer whales in the Haro Strait. Campers, meanwhile, can scarce do better than the reservable seaside sites at San Juan County Park, which offer similar incredible vistas at a fraction of the price.
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 sparkling landscapes of Blakely, Decatur, Lopez, and Shaw Islands en route to Friday Harbor, the quaint seaside hub 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).
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 killer whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and otters passing 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.
American Woman, Stay Away From Me
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 established the boundary between the United States and Canada on the 49th Parallel. Lesser known, however, is the exception the treaty included to dip the border southward at the Georgia Strait to keep Vancouver Island in the hands of the British. Yet the treaty did not specify if 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. Today, the remnants of American Camp—part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park—occupy the windswept bluffs on the island’s southernmost peninsula. So spend the day walking, driving, and picnicking through this secluded park, making sure to stroll around the Cattle Point Lighthouse at sunset.
Somewhere, Beyond The Sea
In a place where life is lived on, by, and in reverence to the sea, it seems only fitting to spend a day out on the water. Thankfully, there’s the experienced staff of San Juan Kayak Expeditions, who offer a fleet of half-day, full-day, sunset, and custom kayak tours of the island’s shores. No experience is necessary, but reservations certainly are—and well worth the effort to paddle amongst the orcas (275 A Street).
I Owe My Soul To The Company Store
Bring the afternoon to a close in the resort community 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 sandwiches, burgers, and kiln-fired pizzas—you can 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 and a pod of killer whales likely waiting for you at Greg and Jane’s, there’s no finer place to bid this weekend farewell.
A Few Notes
So, how exactly do the Washington State Ferries 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 questions.
What about interisland ferries, you ask? Reservations are not necessary, nor are they available, for these routes. Just arrive at the terminal roughly 30 to 45 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 San Juan Island. 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 to visit between May and September. If you want some extra reassurance, go in June or July.
If you plan on visiting Lime Kiln Point State Park, take note that the state of Washington charges a $10 day-use fee. If, however, you plan on visiting at least two other state parks 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 Cattle Point Lighthouse | SATURDAY: The view from the Anacortes-Friday Harbor ferry; the view from the ferry; the ferry docked at Friday Harbor; the main house on the Gerhardstein property (the guesthouse is behind); the view from San Juan County Park | SUNDAY: The lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park; a killer whale in the Haro Strait; the Cattle Point Lighthouse; San Juan Island National Historical Park | MONDAY: The coast of San Juan Island; the west coast of San Juan Island; Roche Harbor; the sunset view of the Olympic Mountains from the Gerhardstein property.
Really good job.
I will definitely be bookmarking this, Maura. I’ve been wanting to go to the San Juans, and with two kids at UW, I don’t really have an excuse!