San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States between the US mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The San Juan Islands are part of the U.S. state of Washington.
In the archipelago, four islands are accessible by passenger ferry operated by the Washington State Ferries system.
The San Juan Islands were part of the traditional area of various peoples of the Coast Salish ethnolinguistic group..
In 1852 the Territory of Oregon created Island County and in 1853 Island County became part of the newly created Washington Territory. The US claimed Haro Strait as the international border, while Britain claimed Rosario Strait. With both sides laying claim to the San Juan Islands, an escalating dispute led to the Pig War in 1859. The boundary dispute became a stalemate and with no clear legal arguments, it continued until the border, through Haro Strait, was finally established in 1872.
The name “San Juan” was given to the islands by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, who charted the islands in 1791, naming them Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan.
The islands forests are covered with extensive second-growth Coast Douglas fir, Pacific madrone, Red alder and Bigleaf maple forests. There are also rare stands of old-growth Douglas fir and Western Red cedar. In some of the highlands you can find Grand fir, Western hemlock and other subalpine trees.
The San Juan Islands host the greatest concentration of Bald Eagles in the continental United States. Great Blue Herons, Black Oystercatchers, and numerous shorebirds are found along the shore and in winter, the islands are home to Trumpeter swans, Canada goose and other waterfowl. Peregrine falcons, Northern harriers, Barred owls and other birds of prey are found. In addition diving birds such as Rhinoceros Auklet, Pigeon Guillemots and endangered Marbled Murrelet frequent the surround seas. Western Bluebirds, who went extinct 50 years ago because of competition for nesting sites by non-native European Starlings, were recently restored to San Juan Island thanks to the efforts of volunteers and conservation organizations.
The islands are famous for their resident pods of Orcas. There are three resident pods that eat salmon but also some transient orcas that come to take Harbor seals. Other marine mammals include the River otter, Steller sea lions. Common minke whales, Dall’s porpoise, and other cetaceans.
Columbia Black-Tailed Deer are the largest mammals on the San Juan Islands, which are unusual in their absence of large carnivores historically, except for wolves which were extirpated in the 1860s.
Today in the San Juan Islands
Today, the San Juan Islands are an important tourist destination, with sea kayaking and orca whale-watching by boat or air tours, two of the primary attractions.
There are 172 islands in the archipelago, some little more than rocks, and over 300 miles (480 km) of shoreline. The majority of the San Juan Islands are quite hilly with some flat areas and valleys, often quite fertile, in between. The tallest peak is Mount Constitution, on Orcas Island, at almost exactly a half-mile (800 m) elevation. The coastlines are a mix of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, madrona trees still grace much of the shorelines while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.
The San Juan Islands get less rainfall than Seattle, about 65 miles (105 km) to the south, due to their location in the rain shadow of Olympic Mountains to the southwest. Summertime high temperatures are around 70 °F (21 °C) while average wintertime lows are in the high thirties and low forties. Snow is infrequent in winter except for the higher elevations, but the islands are subject to high winds at times—those from the northeast sometimes bring brief periods of freezing and Arctic-like wind chills.
There are no bridges to the San Juan Islands; therefore, all travel from the mainland is either by water or by air.
Three ferry systems serve some of the San Juan Islands.
- Washington State Ferries serves serves Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island from terminals in from terminals in Anacortes, Washington and Sidney, British Columbia.
- Puget Sound Express provides passenger-only service from Port Townsend, Olympic Peninsula to Friday Harbor, San Juan Island.
- Clipper Navigation‘s Victoria Clipper provides whale watching to Friday Harbor.
Passenger-only ferries serve more islands. Passenger-only ferry service is usually seasonal and offered by private business.
- San Juan Cruises and North Shore Charters offer charter service and high speed water taxi service all of the San Juan Islands.
Air service to the San Juan Islands is provided by:
- Kenmore Air (To & From: Roche Harbor, Orcas Island, Seattle/Boeing Field, Seattle/Lake Union)
- San Juan Airlines (To & From: Anacortes, Bellingham, Eastsound (Orcas Island), Lopez Island, Blakely, Decatur)
- Northwest Sky Ferry (An inter-island carrier serving: Bellingham, Anacortes, Friday & Roche Harbors (San Juan Island), Eastsound (Orcas Island) and Lopez, Waldron, Shaw, Stuart, Blakely, Center, Crane, Decatur and Eliza Islands, and also Seattle)