Island Hopping To San Juan, WA -> Lighthouses, Harbors & Pig Wars
What is it about the San Juan Islands that is so enticing?
Is it the fact that there are so many of them? Around 170 actual islands, with numbers upwards of 400 if you count all the rocks and odd bits that stick up.
Is it that they bridge the sea between Canada & Washington? Travelling around the Islands you get glimpses of the Olympic Mountains, the Canadian Coastal Range and Mount Baker, like a living Zoetrope rotating past your windshield.
Or is it just that Island living has a certain feel, a certain thrill to it? Island folks are the first to tell you that you either love this kind of living or you hate it, and if you love it…well, you may never leave…
It’s an adventure to get here no doubt, but once you’re on the Islands you become part of their story. Your time slows to their time and your outings involve drives and sails. The cool thing about the latter is that it’s actually quite cheap. Once you shell out the up-front investment to leave Anacortes and sail over here, Island-hopping is a breeze. You can walk-on (or bike-on) any inter-Island ferry for FREE, or take your car for only $26.50 round-trip. Even if you don’t have a motor vehicle (and prefer one) many of the Island docks offer day-rentals that you can catch once you get there. The trips take a wee bit of planning & time since you typically have to be early to catch the ferry and wait out the stops to get to your destination, but with so much to explore it’s well worth the effort to get out.
The first free day we had from work we did just that and targeted San Juan Island. The second largest of the archipelago (Orcas is the biggest), it is perhaps the most developed with two port cities, TWO lighthouses (!!!) and the roots of much of the history that developed these islands as they are today. Plus it’s touted as one of the best places to view whales in the entire world.
On a clear and sunny Wednesday we drove the 40 mins from our mountain-top retreat and took a noon ferry over allowing time for the morning fog to disperse and with the goal of tackling the lighthouses and the ~50-mile scenic drive around the Island. A single afternoon really isn’t enough, but this is what we managed:
Cattle Point Lighthouse & The Pig War
At the very southern tip of San Juan a lonely peninsula juts out to sea. The dry and rocky slice of land once supported the cattle for Hudson’s Bay Company (still in business today!), an English company who claimed the point as their sovereign land in 1853 and whose infamous pig became the one and only casualty of the 1859 “Pig War” that eventually established the boundary between US and British Empires in this area. A lens lantern operated in this area since 1888 with the current lighthouse structure built in 1935.
The lighthouse is sadly neglected today, as is the peninsula, but in my mind this is one of the prettiest locations on the Island. Almost no-one goes here, yet the pretty cliffs support miles of trails with arguably the most impressive views around. Plus, if you’re interested in the whole pig thing, you can visit the American Camp on your way out and touch the other side of the war story with the English Camp when you get north. We arrived early afternoon in dense fog, but found the area so alluring we went back in the late afternoon for another hike once the fog had dissipated. So worth it!!
Note/ Cattle Point Lighthouse is on BLM land and the hike to the lighthouse is ~0.2 miles on an unmarked trail from the pull-out. When you see the lighthouse you’ll see the pull-out. Free and dog-friendly. Plenty of other trails in this area too.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse & Whale-Watching
Anyone who comes from anywhere to San Juan knows to come to Lime Kiln Point State Park. Surprisingly it’s not the gorgeous 1919 38-foot octagonal lighthouse (the last major light established in WA) that is the main draw here, but rather the possibility to view whales. Thanks to three resident killer whale pods Lime Kiln is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from a land-based location, so you’ll typically find hoards of fanatics glued to their binoculars along the rocky shoreline. While I was gushing poetic and clicking away at the lighthouse, I commented to our neighbors that it was a nice bonus to see the whales breaching in the distance. “Are you kidding me???” she exclaimed “I’ve been waiting here three days to see them!!!”. Guess we got lucky, eh?
Note/ Lime Kiln Point State Park has a $10/day use fee (or you can enter with $30 WA State Parks annual pass). All trails are dog-friendly. Lime Kiln lighthouse only offers tours twice per week in summer on Thurs & Sat 7PM-sunset.
Posh Roche Harbor
If you imagine an upper-class port, marry it with impeccable Victorian-style houses, throw in a spa and pack it into the space of a few blocks you’ve just conjured up the perfect image of Roche Harbor. This little island village on the northern tip of San Juan might have you thinking you’ve walked into an exclusive Mediterranean retreat. The big surprise here are the original lime kilns which no-one seems to talk about and which (even more surprisingly) are no-where near Lime Kiln State Park. Find the Petanque court in the back of town and you will find the lime kilns towering incognito behind it. Lime was a major source of industry in the San Juans from 1860-1956 so it’s a treat to see some of the original history still intact. The town has a few mostly over-priced spots to eat (although the local lamb burger at Lime Kiln Cafe was outstanding), but the pretty views and spotless architecture are worth the stop.
Note/ Lime Kiln Cafe has lots of outdoor seating which is completely dog-friendly.
And The Rest of It…..
Between hiking & lighthouses our time ran out before we needed to catch the ferry back home. Lots more to see on the island including the San Juan Vineyards, the Pelindaba Lavender Farm, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and pretty Friday Harbor (the main town), but alas one must live (and ride) by the ferry schedule when one is an Islander. Our little “Island Hop” took 5 hours of travel time to get there and back, and everyone (including doggie) was well exhausted by the time we got back to the mountain. A looong day for a short visit, but well worth the trip. And besides I got to see TWO lighthouses baby…I’m well chuffed. 🙂
Useful Links And Info:
- San Juan Island – General visitor information HERE with detailed hiking maps/info HERE
- San Juan Lighthouses – Link to Cattle Point HERE and Lime Kiln HERE
- Southern Resident Killer Whales – Info on the local whale population HERE.
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Your photos are just wonderful, particularly the first lighthouse. I am really happy that you’re getting decent weather while you’re here.
It was great to get good weather for our island hop. In fact it’s been fabulous weather all month. Can’t complain at all.
So call me confused, but did you see the whales or not? I know… I should pay attention! Since you got to enjoy Sequim I’ll tell you – don’t be very disappointed if you don’t get back to Pelindaba. We did our trip in reverse of you, so of course I was in love with it! But after arriving at Sequim… forget about it! The time would be much better spent eyeing the water for Orcas!
Yes we DID see whales. They were quite far in the distance so no pics, but we did see them 🙂
Lee and Shelia says
I’m happy you and Paul have been able to take a “bigger bite” of what Washington has to offer. The San Juans are truly amazing….but there are more “treasures” to be found. Hope you guys are able to do more exploring up here in the near future.
This year is all about the OP, but yes we would like to come back to see more of WA in the future. As you said tons more to see. We’ve only touched the western edge of the state.
John and Pam Wright says
This area sounds so much like the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River between NY and Canada except there are a thousand of them. It is one of the islands that we ferry to bike across and then ferry again to mainland Canada. One of the largest islands is right across from my mother’s town. The only way to the mainland is by boat. In the summer the island is packed. In the winter they drive cars across on the ice if the river freezes as it did last year. Hope you are able to visit many of the islands while you are there.
I’ve heard so much about the Thousand Islands area and would like to see it one day. We sure enjoyed your blog posts from the area.
Looks like it was a great time for you. Did you you bike or drive while on the island?
We drove. We brought the dog, so it made more sense to drive around.
Absolutely stunning. What a beautiful place to spend a month.
Looking at the map, I noticed you are northeast of Canada. That could be quite a conversation starter for you, as typically one would picture that to be Greenland! Having been born in Detroit, I always enjoy telling others that I was born north of Canada.
Enjoy your time in what appears to be a little slice of heaven!
I guess technically you’re right. We’re only *just* NE of Victoria, but we are definitely NE. Hadn’t thought of that.
Rick Garboden says
If you haven’t already been there, don’t miss Howe Art just out of Eastsound. His art is amazing and wonderful to watch move in the wind. Enjoy your stay there.
Cheers for the tip. We’ll make sure to stop and see his studio.
Cheshire Cats says
What a fabulous trip. I think this is yet another place to add to our ever expanding ‘to visit’ list!
Th islands are definitely worth a stop for some extended exploring. Amazing how many things there are to see and do here.
Jodee Gravel says
I’m already thinking that a month can’t possibly be enough. Of course then I remember Cape Blanco and look forward to that as well -’tis a grand life you share with us! I bet those whale-watchers didn’t even notice there was lighthouse there :-))))).
You’re right…and yes, most of the folks there weren’t interested in the lighthouse at all. It’s a funny turn of events. We came for the lighthouse, but got to see whales as a total bonus, whereas most folks come for the whales, never get to see them and barely notice the lighthouse.
Beautiful description of a wonderful region. Watching the Orcas was certainly one of my favorite parts of our visit, but the aroma of the sea and the headlands are such treasures.
We took the ferry over to Vancouver Island–I think I was mean to be a fish. I love the water.
I know what you mean about the smells. Something very particular about being by the sea up here.
I wish I was more “fish-like”. Sadly I get seasick at the drop of a hat. I’m amazed that I’ve felt OK with the ferry crossings, but so far we’ve had VERY calm seas.
David Rathbone says
Love your stories we live in Victoria ON. Vancouver Island we have been to many islands along our coastline but we have never been to the San Juan islands it’s on our bucket list now,we are wanna-be rv’ers and are planning a trip to Mexico this coming winter in our motorhome. Reading your blogs has given us confidence about travelling alone in our rv thanks for sharing your adventures with us.
Congrats on your up-coming RVing! Cheers for following along on the blog and best of luck w/ your RV adventures.
Glad you’ve made it to the islands — sounds like you’re having a wonderful time. We’ve been on Lopez in our camp hosting gig for a couple of weeks and will be here into mid-September. If you’d like to get together, we can show you around Lopez. Great hiking here with beautiful dog-friendly trails! (Feel free to contact me via email if you’d like.) 🙂
Talk about perfect timing! I was just thinking about you since we’re planning to ferry over to Lopez on one of our days off this week. I will send you an e-mail.
We did enjoy a bike ride around San Juan Island, and we did see some of these beautiful places you mentioned. Weather must be very nice around there at this time of the year.
I’m super impressed. Biking around San Juan is actually quite an effort! I think we drove 50 miles on that Island last week. They’re larger than you think!
Though we enjoyed the sights, I was not a happy camper after the ride and I blamed Steve for it 🙁 It was a tough ride and we barely made it to the ferry that afternoon.
Nina, I have been a lurker and loving your blog for a while now. We hope to be full time in a bit more than 4 years. I had to comment on the sea sickness, as I also get car and sea sick very easily. Have you tried the wristbands? We went to Yosemite recently and they worked for my carsickness. I was amazed.
Also, of note. We found some of our distant relatives through your blog! Hi Russ and Donna!
You know I haven’t tried the wrist bands…and I should. I typically take Dramamine which works, but also zonks me out. I should look into the wrist bands. I get car-sick too.
Try Bonine…much less of a “zonker” than Dramamine. Let me know if you want me to find you some.
Sounds like it might be worth a try. Dramamine really zonks me out, even the non-drowsy kind.
Bob and Jo says
San Juan islands are amazing.
This is like another world to me, one that I so want to explore. We really hope to spend some time in WA next year and my mind is already churning with possibilities. Your photographs as beautiful Nina. Love the two lighthouses. 🙂
Such a treat for us nutters to see two lighthouses in one day.
Hey Nina, we also took in San Juan Island. One of our highlights was taking a whale watching boat trip. We were able to get close to one of the pods and I got some great photos for our posting. They put on quite a show. You are so right about these islands–they’re full of special delights. Looking forward to hearing about your adventures on the islands that we missed!
I’m hoping we get to see some whales up-close on the way to Pathos Lighthouse next week (I’ve managed to get on a trip to go see it). Fingers crossed!
Victoria Rains says
We lived in Tacoma, WA about 30 years ago and traveled a lot around the area then, but your blog is making me want to go back and explore it again. You write beautifully and the pictures are awesome! Thank you.
Definitely an island to spend more time on, but alas… Two lighthouses and whales was a bonus. Haven’t been there in years. Last time was anchored at Friday Harbor. Hope you get a chance to go back.
Nina, you did so much in that one day, good for you. I read your comments and I too have used Bonine, doesn’t get you as drowsy. I tried the wristbands recently, and they seemed to work, but it was a pretty calm sea, and I don’t feel seasick unless it’s pretty rough. But you’ve done well, with two ferry rides under your belt.
Good to know. I have GOT to try one of those bracelets. I don’t know if it’ll work for someone who gets as queasy as me, but it’s worth a try.