Road Trip: San Juan Island

The first time I saw the San Juan Islands I was gazing down on them from above. I was in college and the plane was descending into Vancouver, British Columbia where I would spend the week working on airplanes for my summer internship. It was my first time on the west coast and I didn’t know anything about these islands except that they were beautiful from a certain altitude at sunset. I snapped a photo and didn’t think about it until years later after I had moved to Seattle and learned of the islands from a guide book. Last year my dog and I spent a weekend on San Juan Island. It turned out to be a perfect spring getaway destination.

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Other San Juan Islands from the summit of Young Hill.

I drove from Seattle in the dark north to Anacortes and boarded the first ferry of the day. The iconic white and green boat chugged through the sunrise snaking around the archipelago comprised of hundreds of islands named by a Spanish explorer in 1791. Faraway mounds of land and second-growth douglas fir rise from the glassy water like the backs of orca whales which frequent these waters of the Salish Sea. The ferry lands at Friday Harbor, the largest town in all of the San Juans. Once a hub for the Hudson Bay Company with an abundance of salmon, it is now a sleepy and charming town of about 2000 residents with a great bookstore, Griffin Bay Bookstore, a whale museum and a tavern or two.

English Camp and Garrison Bay with apple trees. Later, the San Juans became a major apple producer.

In the 1850’s as the boundary between the US and Great Britain was disputed, the two countries both occupied San Juan Island. The British set up camp on the northwest side and the US on the opposite southeast side. The dispute spawned the famous “pig war”, an international incident started when an American shot and killed a Hudson Bay pig when it was found rummaging through his garden. When the British threatened to arrest the man and evict all American settlers off the island, a backup army of 64 Americans was sent to the island. For months each side built up it’s military threat with battleships and all until the news finally reached Washington and common sense prevailed. The two countries would not go to war over a pig and ultimately 12 years after the border dispute, a treaty was signed by the US and Great Britain and the boundary was settled by a third party; Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, who decided the island belonged to the US.

Lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point.

We started our island exploration at English Camp. We first climbed above English Camp through the forest to the top of Young Hill. A short spur leads to an old cemetery surrounded by a white picket fence and purple shooting stars. The trail continues on to the summit of the hill with great views of the islands. Back at the trailhead we then headed toward English Camp still partly intact with barracks, a hospital and storehouse. Apple trees were just finishing their radiant white bloom as we headed toward a small loop trail to Bell Point. The San Juan Islands, located in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains has a sunnier and dryer climate than Seattle. This climate is perfect for growing apples and the island was once covered with orchards and known as Washington’s apple capital. Later Eastern Washington would claim this title when irrigation was introduced to it’s arid land.

Nali at Mt Finlayson with the Cattle Point lighthouse in the background.

From English Camp we headed south along the western shores of the island to Lime Kiln Point State Park. A lovely lighthouse keeps watch over the waters that frequent ships and whales. We wandered and had lunch along the shoreline in the sunshine and greeted other tourists. We then moseyed our way to the southern tip of the island, to my favorite part: Mt Finlayson, Cattle Point and American Camp.

Cattle Point lighthouse up close.

Wide open views and tall golden grass welcomed us on this very different part of the island. Deer grazed along the flanks of Mt Finlayson while Nali and I were scorched by the sun on the open trail. We squinted out to the lighthouse at Cattle Point then later drove down to it for a closer look and then continued on to American Camp. The camp is perched on a bluff overlooking the sea and the Olympic Mountains. This was the perfect place to end our wonderful trip with the culmination of history, prairie and lovely views.

We camped and watched sea otters at San Juan County Park.

More information about San Juan Island:

San Juan Island Trails Committee (with excellent trail maps!)

San Juan Island National Historic Park (English & American Camps)

San Juan Island Camping Information

Bonus Camp Read!

Time Shadows and Tall Tales by Jack J. Crawford
Jack Crawford was a resident of Friday Harbor before he passed away in 2000 at the age of 78. The goal he had for this book was to collect the history and stories told about the island before the memories were gone. He succeeded in creating a fun and engaging read, not just about the historical importance of the island but also about what it was like to live on the island in the days before it became the touristy place it is now. We are lucky to have these stories, whether truthful tales or lore, as they are a delight to read.

Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack?  Day Hike
This is a perfect paperback for taking along the trail you blaze from English Camp to American Camp.

Hikes Featured in this Post:

Young Hill and Bell Point

Lime Kiln State Park

Mt Finlayson

Cattle Point Lighthouse

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