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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