The 700+ Islands of San Juan County Washington
Introducing San Juan County
On October 31st, 1873, the Washington Territorial Legislature split a group of islands off from Whatcom County to create San Juan County. The smallest county by land area, San Juan County covers only 175 square miles. Adding in the water that surrounds the 700+ islands of San Juan County, the county moves up four places, passing Island, Wahkiakum, and Kitsap Counties in total area. You may think it foolish to consider the various bodies of water that surround these islands, but traveling through San Juan County, it’s hard to discount the importance of water to island life.
You may have noticed the obviously fake “Entering San Juan County” sign at the head of this article. The fact remains that you will not see such a sign anywhere on the islands. There is no highway that takes you to San Juan County. Islanders rely on their own watercraft, airplanes or the Washington State Ferry system for connections to the rest of the state. And of the 700+ islands of San Juan County, the Washington State Ferries stop at only four.
The only incorporated town on any of the 700+ islands of San Juan County is Friday Harbor. It serves as County Seat. With a 2020 population of 2,406, the town is the chief commercial center for the county. The town’s namesake was a Hawai’ian native, Joseph Poalie Friday, who moved to San Juan Island and raised sheep on the shore of the harbor that now bears his name.
Arriving by Washington State Ferry, you approach the town past a marina of impressive pleasure boats. They set the stage for the colorful town-scape that rises before you as the ferry docks. Once off the ferry, you have your choice of restaurants, coffee shops, gift stores, as well as more traditional business enterprises. Should you walk off the ferry, you can rent bicycles or mopeds within a couple of blocks of the terminal. With a car, you have your choice of good roads to follow as you explore San Juan Island.
San Juan Island
The second largest of the 700+ islands of San Juan County, San Juan offers a great variety of sight-seeing and recreational opportunities. We started out driving northwest toward Roche Harbor. Roche Harbor capitalizes on its history as a lime producing town. Many of the community’s buildings date back to the old lime production times, but the marina now takes center stage.
The Hotel de Haro, overlooking the marina, dates back to the mid 1800s when the Hudson Bay Company built a log structure. In 1886, John McMillin built his hotel around those original logs, and today, the logs can be seen in openings in the hotel’s walls. The hotel welcomed both President Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, before closing in 1942. After a complete restoration, the hotel reopened in 1960 and now welcomes guests from around the world.
Roche Harbor Marina, San Juan Island, Washington
The Pig War
Any American child should know about the American Revolution. Most should know about the War of 1812, if only from Johnny Horton’s song The Battle of New Orleans. A few may even know of President Polk’s slogan “54-40 or fight!” The latter refers to the northern border of Oregon Country, where English speaking North America met Russian Alaska. But Polk, faced with the possibility of a two-front war, accepted the British compromise of 1846. The line separating British America from the U.S. was set at the 49th parallel. Well, from Minnesota to the channel separating the mainland from Vancouver Island anyway. Vancouver Island remained wholly in British hands.
The problem was in the wording of the boundary compromise. It indicated the border would be the middle of the channel connecting the Strait of Georgia with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Trouble is, there are two channels. The British claimed the eastern Rosario Channel was the border. The US preferred the western, or Haro Strait. This put the San Juan Islands in a territorial no-man’s land. The British claimed the islands, but the US sent settlers. One of whom killed a pig. Both countries sent in the military until the dispute was finally referred to Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. It was not until 1874 that the dispute was resolved in favor of the U.S. For an entertaining view of The Pig War, I recommend the National Park Service’s site.
Today, the whole fiasco is remembered as a blip in history. The only casualty of the Pig War was the pig itself. The National Park Service has established the San Juan Island National Historical Park, with two separate locations. English Camp is to the north. American Camp is near the southern Cattle Point Peninsula. Both are well worth your time.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse State Park
While on San Juan Island, be sure to visit Lime Kiln Point State Park. A 36-acre day-use park, the location features the last major lighthouse built in Washington. First lit in 1919, the light still serves navigators on their way through the Haro Straits. The park is also known as a great place to watch the Orca and Minke whales that swim the Straits regularly. Remnants of the old limestone quarries are on site, and specialists are often available to guide tourists through the natural history of the area.
The largest of the islands in the archipelago, Orcas does not honor killer whales with its name. Instead, like the San Juans themselves, the island got its name when Francisco de Eliza charted the archipelago in 1791, and named it for the Viceroy of New Spain, under whose authority de Eliza sailed. The full name of the Viceroy was Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo. As near as I can tell, the Viceroy was never canonized, but de Eliza probably felt it politic to honor thus his sponsor. As for Orcas Island, well Orcas is a shortened from of Horcasitas, don’t ya know.
Shaped something like a fist with three fingers pointing down, Orcas Island covers 57.3 square miles (148 km2). Some 4,500 people live on the Island year round, with the Summer population often approaching 5,000. There are no incorporated towns on the Island, but the community of Eastsound serves as a commercial hub. Several resorts dot the shoreline, and two state parks offer recreational space for islanders and visitors alike. Moran State Park is the largest of Washington’s 124 state parks. Mount Constitution, the highest point in San Juan County at 2,409 feet, is the central feature of the park. With over 150 campsites and 38 miles of trails, Moran State Park is a popular destination.
Indian Island, off the coast at Eastsound, was known for its camas roots and shellfish when the only visitors were the Northern Straits Indians who lived in the San Juans. In modern times, the island has been a park, but too many footsteps severely decreased the camas plants which the Native people used for food. Today, the people of Orcas Island are working to restore the natural balance of the island’s ecosystem.
Other Islands in San Juan County
San Juan County is an archipelago of over 700 islands in the waters that connect the Strait of Georgia with the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Lopez Island is the third largest and along with neighboring Shaw Island the only other islands served by the Washington State Ferry. Other islands are inhabited, notably Blakely, Decatur, and Waldron, but if you wish to visit these, or any of the smaller islands, you’ll need a boat. Even a kayak should do, as most of the islands are fairly close together. Just watch for speedboats and the ferries, should you take to the water in a small vessel.
I have been through the San Juans many times. Back in the day, my friends and I would drive all night to catch the first ferry from Anacortes to Sidney, British Columbia. The ferry stopped at Shaw, Lopez, Orcas and Friday Harbor before crossing the international border. From Sidney, we’d drive south for a weekend of Scottish Country Dancing in Victoria. We would return by the same ferry route. In all those trips, we never left the ferry, so my first time to disembark was in August, 2021. This makes San Juan County the last of Washington’s thirty-nine counties for me to visit, camera in hand.
On this trip, our time was limited, as were our funds, and we were able to visit only San Juan and Orcas Islands. Had I read the ferry schedule a bit closer, we could have gone to Shaw as well, but… As it was, we barely made the last ferry from Orcas to Anacortes where we had supper before retiring to our motel. Another trip is clearly needed, along with more time and money. And if anyone has a boat they’d like to use, I’d love to visit some of the smaller of the 700+ islands of San Juan County, Washington. In closing, let me share one of the first photos I took in San Juan County. All of the photos in this article are available as wall art at my Etsy shop. www.sharrottcreekgallery.com.