The San Juan Islands comprise an archipelago of 172 jewels set in the sparkling blue waters of Washington State’s northwest corner. (There are as many as 743 at low tide.) Within these islands are 15 State Parks ranging in size from the 5,225 acre Moran State Park on Orcas Island to the entirety of tiny Posey Island with its single acre. These islands are essentially continuous with the Canadian version called the Gulf Islands. Until recently they were considered more or less separate, with the Gulf Islands sitting within the Strait of Georgia and the San Juans as either a separate group or according to some, the northern Puget Sound.
Technically, most agree that only those islands that fall within San Juan County’s 175 square miles are officially the San Juans, even though there are others that are geographically related. These islands are sparsely populated and mostly rural with only about 15,500 fulltime residents. However, these numbers swell in the summer with vacationers and those owning summer homes.
In 2009, a new designation became official, recognizing that all these islands sit within a single body of water with common heritage. They have been populated by Coast Salish speaking people for at least 9,000 years. This area, now called The Salish Sea, stretches from the south end of Puget Sound well up into coastal British Columbia. This change was accomplished due to the dogged work of marine biologist, Bert Webber who campaigned and provided documentation that this entire area was really a continuous geographical and marine ecosystem.
So, how did this single body of water with seemingly continuous sets of islands become separated in the first place? The border differentiating these island groups as either part of Canada or the US, was set by Kaiser Wilhelm in 1872, acting as an international arbiter between US and British claims. The Kaiser was called in when British and American war ships began to assemble by San Juan Island to settle the territorial dispute following an American shooting of an errant British pig. This conflict has come to be known as the “Pig Wars” and fortunately, the pig was the only casualty in this war, but that is a story for another post. In the meantime, check out the US Canadian border in the islands on Google Earth. You’ll see what almost looks like gerrymandering.
The islands themselves are products of the Rim of Fire the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate activity, and geologically recent glacial carving during the last ice age, and its subsequent rising sea. Before the last glacial age ended about 10,000 years ago, these islands were mountain tops while glacier carved valleys are now sea bottom dropping to as deep as 145 fathoms (870 feet).
The island names are a curious mixture from rather varied origins. Of course the Native Americans were first name them and unfortunately, few of their names or name-sakes survive (e.g. Lummi). Following this indigenous naming, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore these waters and assign their names. San Juan Island itself and the group of islands, was named after the Viceroy of New Spain (1790) who had sent Lt. Francisco Eliza to explore the north coast. Eliza honored the Viceroy by naming the island group after him and further honored him by using the title: “san” or saint, (he was not a saint but they probably used it as an honorific). Other island names of Spanish origin include Sucia, Lopez, Fidalgo, Orcas, Eliza, and Patos. Next came the British to add their names, which they did in wholesale fashion, apparently unaware that the Native Americans and Spanish had already done so. Islands were named for officials of the Hudson’s Bay Company who had been in the area since 1820’s. Soon, the Americans got into the naming act, and in particular, Commander Wilkes in 1841 who named the islands liberally after many War of 1812 heroes and their ships such as Decatur, and the USS Constitution "Old Ironsides.”
The Washington State Ferry system, the largest in the country, serves four of the larger islands (Orcas, San Juan, Shaw, and Lopez) on a frequent schedule, sailing at least every hour in the summer months and less often in the off-season. You can check the sailing schedule on line. Using these large car ferries, a visitor can access four of the 15 parks, including Moran State Park on Orcas Island. Other islands and parks can be accessed by private boat or by hiring private foot ferries from Bellingham or Anacortes. Small, local commercial airlines flying from Bellingham and Seattle connect with airports and Seaports on San Juan and Orcas islands. The Float plane service from Seattle brings visitors to Roche Harbor on San Juan and to Deer Harbor and Rosario Resort on Orcas Island. Several of the islands also have private grass landing strips.
Washington State Ferry entering Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
What to do in and around the parks?
Once you get to the islands, what is there to do and to see? I guarantee that you will not have time to do or see but a fraction of the possibilities, but that is OK. You will be plenty busy while there and you can come back to see and do more another time. Several activates are common to all of the islands and I’ll just mention some here and save those specific to particular parks for when I describe them.
Whether you come by ferry, private boat, kayak, or by plane, your vacation starts the minute you leave the mainland. It’s the scenery. You’ve heard that getting there is half the fun. Well you might not have believed that before, but in this case, it is very true. The spectacular scenery of the islands is 360 degrees from any vantage point. On the trip out, be prepared to see interesting sailing vessels. While cruising through the islands, I once saw the Russian Navy training tall ship with its cadets all lined up on the rigging in their white and red outfits. You will surely see harbor seals, possibly porpoises following along, gulls and sea birds of all types, and occasionally, Killer Whales or “Orcas”. If you don’t see them on the ferry, go to Lime Kiln State Park on the west of San Juan Island overlooking Haro Strait. This is the most reliable Orca viewing site, or you can easily take a whale watching tour boat.
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Harbor Seals lounging in Rosario Strait
Beach combing and walking are open to anyone at any time. The beaches are easily accessible and are either sandy or pebbly. Children always enjoy finding sea shells and interesting rocks. The beaches are typically interrupted by sandstone rock formations with interesting patterns and holes eroded into them by winds and tides. As you walk the shores and beaches, you might see River Otters cavorting and hiding along the shore or right on boat docks. From any vantage point, you can see Bald Eagles and Osprey sitting high in trees or lazily circling on air currents high above and then diving to bring up fish for their young or for themselves. Ravens too soar and perch high in trees. If you see something soaring that looks the size of an eagle, but has red on its head and neck, it might be a turkey vulture. Deer are plentiful so be careful driving.
Bald Eagle fishing River otters out to play in Shallow Bay
Another popular way to view the islands accessible by ferry is on bicycles. For the serious biker, there are plenty of camp sites (with reservations) and accommodations ranging from primitive to luxurious. I must warn bikers that Orcas Island is quite hilly.
If you love sea food, the islands are a mecca. You can buy fresh crab and prawns from the fishermen at the docks. With minimal gear that can be bought at any of the towns and villages, you can fish for Dungeness crab, or dig clams yourself. You can readily sign on to charter boats to take you around the islands whale watching, sightseeing, or salmon fishing.
Dungeness Crab on peebley beach Great Blue Heron fishing
The three island state parks that I will highlight in this post include Moran State Park on Orcas Island, the largest, most popular, and easily accessible by car ferry. The other two, accessible only by water are Posey Island, the smallest, and Sucia, the gem of the islands, both of which are State Parks in their entirety. These are three of the northern most of the Islands and among them, there is something for everyone to enjoy. I invite the reader to travel along on Google Earth so you will be able to see exactly where I am talking about and see the virtual sights.
Moran State Park
Moran State Park is by a considerable amount, the largest of the Island parks. It spans 5,252-acres and has 151 camping sites that are accessible by motor home, car, or by bicycle.
Although Moran does not have saltwater access, it does have five freshwater lakes within the Park’s boundaries and over 30 miles of maintained forested hiking trails. The land that now comprises the park was donated in 1921 by Robert Moran, a former Seattle mayor and Seattle shipyard owner. His original mansion on Cascade Bay still stands and is the centerpiece of Rosario Resort and Spa which abuts the Park.
The most accessible of the lakes is Cascade, with sandy beaches that are great for playing and swimming. Canoes, row boats, paddle–boats, and kayaks can be rented on site. If you are inclined to fishing, bring a rod as Cascade and the other lakes are well stocked with rainbow trout.
Entrance to Moran St. Park Swimming Beach at Cascade Lake
A must-see feature is Mt. Constitution, (named after the US ship, “Old Ironsides’). Its 2,409 foot rise above Rosario Strait is the highest point in the island group. From its lookout tower, one can see the mainland with Bellingham and Mt. Baker to the east. To the southwest you can see the Olympic Mountains and Victoria, British Columbia. At this point, the San Juan Islands are north of parts of Canada. There is so much to see, be sure to bring binoculars. From Mt. Constitution you can watch large ocean going freighters plying Rosario Strait as they enter from the Pacific Ocean through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Most that you see here are from Asia in transit to Vancouver B.C.
Bikers on Mt. Constitution view to the East Kayakers touring the islands
In addition to the State Park, there are many sights to see on the Island itself. East Sound village sits at the top of the island’s horseshoe and is the commercial hub and the largest community. You pass through it on your way from the Ferry to the park. You’ll want to explore it a bit as it is a seaside village with plenty of amenities including a large grocery store, a hardware store, excellent restaurants and eateries, and plenty of arts and crafts shops. You will also want to visit Olga, a quaint community, with a wonderful restaurant and arts and crafts shop just a few miles down the road from Moran.
If you want to camp at Moran, be sure to get reservations online well in advance. If you prefer less rustic accommodations, there are numerous, resorts, hotels, B&Bs available throughout the island.
Other sites to see include Deer Harbor Resort that lies on the west side of the island. It has cabins for rent and a marina with a shop where one can get snacks, and a few supplies, rent kayaks, or take guided whale watching tours.
Sucia Island State Park.
Sucia Island is considered the crown jewel of the state's marine park system at 564-acres and 77,700 feet of shoreline. It is consistently ranked as one of the top boating destinations in the world. Sucia Island itself and several smaller islands comprise the "Sucia group." For those not staying on boats there are 55 onshore campsites. For boaters there are 48 mooring buoys, three docks, and plenty of space for anchoring for the late comers. At midsummer Sucia is full, so reservations for campsites must be made early. Although Sucia is accessible by water only, many campers here either kayak over from Orcas Island about 2.5 miles, or hire charter services or water taxis in Anacortes to deliver them and pick them up later. Although camping is relatively primitive, there are five outhouses, running water, and if you are lucky, you can get one of the three covered eating areas with campfire rings and barbeque pits.
Arial view of Sucia Island's crescent Mt. Baker from Echo Bay - sucia
Sunset from Lawson Bluff, Sucia Is. Madrona/Arbutus trees in Shallow Bay
The island proper forms a crescent shape with separate fingers extending out through the crescent facing to the southwest. Inside the crescent is Echo Bay, the largest mooring area for boaters. Other fingers make “Snoring Bay” and Fossil Bay which is loaded with prehistoric fossils imbedded within the sandstone rocks. At the top of the crescent there is a thirty foot isthmus connecting to Shallow Bay facing west. Shallow Bay is also a popular mooring area although one needs to be careful of the unpredictable winds because it is indeed shallow averaging only 12 feet deep.
Covered picnic/camping area on Sucia High and dry in Shallow Bay
Even with the high volume of summer traffic, the animal life abounds. You will see river otters, seals, eagles, osprey. At low tides children can spend hours exploring the numerous sandstone dugout tide pools and examining the “tidepool critters” (shore crabs, sculpins, snails, anemones, chitins, barnacles, and mussels).
Looking for Tidepool critters Hiding in sandstone caves on Sucia
Posey Island State Park
Posey is a small, one-acre marine camping park with only 1,000 feet of shoreline. It is located a quarter mile north of Pearl Island, off the northwest corner of San Juan Island. It sits in Spieden Channel, across from Spieden Island to the north. This tiny island will be of interest primarily to kayakers since access is restricted to vessels that are either human or wind powered – no motors allowed. Kayaking in the San Juans is very popular today. You will see kayaks throughout the islands, traversing straits, crossing to islands, and pulled up on sandy beaches. Some are casual day trippers on a guided tour while others are hardened veterans who travel and camp through the islands. For those hardy kayakers, Posey Island is part of the Cascade Marine Trail, one of 55 such camp sites spread over 140 miles from the southern tip of Puget Sound to the Canadian border.
Posey Island State Park with kayaks on beach
Although accommodations are sparse, (no fresh water) the island does have one amenity - a self composting out house. Posey is a short 2 nm from the Canadian border and just a few minutes’ paddle from Roche Harbor Marina and Resort.
This post provides an introduction to the wonders of the natural water world that is the San Juan Islands with its 15 state parks. I hope to share some of the other parks in our beautiful archipelago in the northwest part of the “lower 48.”
Eric Michael Katin, Mt. Constitution