The San Juan Archipelago in the northwestern corner of the continental United States is divided. The San Juan Islands are part of Washington State, whilst a second group belonging to Canada is known as the Gulf Islands. The archipelago has more than 450 islands but fewer than one-sixth are occupied and only a handful may be reached by public ferry.
The islands were initially named by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza in the 1790s, but subsequent American and British expeditions in the 19th century changed many of the original Spanish names, though not that of the archipelago itself. Most of the islands are hilly, with valleys or flat areas in between. Coastlines vary enormously, with sandy and stony beaches, inlets, coves, bays and harbours. Many shorelines are characterized by the presence of gnarled madrona trees, with pine forests often covering inland areas.
The four main San Juan Islands are San Juan itself. Orcas (the largest), Shaw and Lopez. Nearby Guemes is small limited facilities. The islands serve as an important tourist destination, easily reached from booming Seattle, much appreciated by those who love the sea, unspoiled nature and the great outdoors. Principal activities are hiking, sailing, kayaking and orca-watching.
But the islands are well organised to serve all the needs of visitors with numerous facilities such as museums, galleries, boutiques and restaurants to be found, especially on San Juan and Orcas. The towns are small but welcoming – historic Friday Harbor on San Juan and Eastsound on Orcas head the line-up, supported by numerous villages and hamlets full of character.
For those who can afford it, the very best way to visit the San Juan Islands is by seaplane, with views to die for all the way (be sure to get a window seat).
When to visit:
Although the islands boast an average of 247 annual days of sunshine and low rainfall, winters can be windy and chilly, so they are an ideal May-September destination.
How to reach:
Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan (usually in that order) are reached by ferry from Anacortes. Guemes Island also has a ferry service from Anacortes, Fly to San Juan by light aircraft from Seattle.
Orca-watching from Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island (May to September).
The Panorama seen from the highest point in the San Juan Islands, Mount Constitution on Orcas Island – is said to be the most impressive view in Puget Sound.
Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island, is a completely natural park with sensational cliff-top sea views. Total tranquillity on Shaw Island, where the only commercial operation is the general store run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist.
You should know:
Some lesser San Juan Islands can tell their own story – for example, Barren Island, Cemetry Island, Justice Island, Picnic Island, Skull Island, South Finger Island or the Wasp Islands (named after a ship rather than the insect).