Live Life in a Postcard.
Say farewell to worry and stress when you head to the San Juan Islands . . . and say hello to the mellow islands vibe, a temperate year-round climate, and long, lazy hours of doing just what you want. Count on temperatures around 70° in the summer and 40° in the winter. A happy confluence of weather systems also accounts for the high level of air quality you’ll appreciate across the San Juans. There are 172 named islands and reefs in San Juan County, however the four ferry served Islands; San Juan Island (with the county seat Friday Harbor), Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island are the most populous and host the vast majority of lodging and dining options and tourism activities. So breathe deep, get comfortable (casual is the rule on these islands, from clothes to the friendly greetings you’ll receive.) Relax—you’re on “island time” now.
Islands of the San Juans
The second largest island in the county at 55.3 square miles, San Juan Island is the economic, cultural and social center of the county. The county seat is Friday Harbor, with a population just over 2,000 people and is one of the last fishing villages in Puget Sound still looking very much like it did 100 years ago. Sculpted by glaciers that formed the character of all the islands, San Juan is perhaps the most diversified in terrain and feeling. There is ranch and pasture land in three interior valleys, most featuring beautiful territorial views of wooded hills or lakes. Contrasting the expansive landscapes of the valleys are the peaks of Mt. Dallas and Young Hill to the north, and Mt. Finlayson in the south of the island, which is bordered by open grassy hillsides leading down to an open beach area. San Juan’s West Side is famous for whale watching, stunning views of Victoria, Vancouver Island, the Olympic Peninsula and marine traffic destined for Seattle, Vancouver or Alaska. Of the 6,176 real estate parcels on San Juan Island, 20% of some 1,268 parcels are on the waterfront. Properties currently listed range from a $119,500 condo to a $7,500,000 waterfront home. There is a great deal of history in the San Juan Islands. Most notably on San Juan was the dispute between the British and the Americans over ownership of the San Juan Islands.
The neat sweep of the 49th Parallel, accepted by Great Britain and the United States in 1846 as the U.S./Canadian border, did not fit the maze of the San Juan Archipelago. Predominantly occupied at the time by workers of a British trading company, American settlers, ignoring British claims, began to homestead the San Juans. When an American shot a boar belonging to the British that was rooting in his potato garden, tempers flared and sides were drawn. The British set up camp on the north end of San Juan Island, the Americans set up camp on the south end, and the Pig War began. Both camps are still there as National Historic Parks today, enjoyed by tens of thousands of visitors annually.
Roche Harbor Village
The quaint seaside village of Roche Harbor is on the National Register of Historical Sites. In 1881, two brothers bought Roche Harbor and started the islands’ lime industry. Home to the famous Hotel de Haro, this lovely landmark was built in 1886 by John S. McMillan and named for Gonzales Lopez de Haro, an early Spanish explorer.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt stayed in room 2A while visiting McMillan, his long time friend and the hotel’s owner. Roosevelt’s room is one that to this day, you can still stay in and is called, appropriately, the Presidential Suite. In the Hotel Lobby is a register bearing the President’s signature from a 1907 visit here. In 1975, when the road in front of the hotel was paved, the yellow pavers used are actually the fire bricks which lined kilns one through eight. Many more were recycled from a couple of rusty kilns dismantled in 2004 and are used in the paving of the village core parking.
During many summer evenings, a crowd gathers at the flag pavilion to watch Roche Harbor’s own Colors Ceremony, a tradition passed down since the 1950s from former owner, Reuben Tarte.
Moran State Park was established in 1921 by shipbuilder, Robert Moran. Mt. Constitution is within this 5,252 acre park and at the top, is a 52-foot stone observation tower patterned after 12th century watch-towers of Russia’s Caucasus Mountains. Rosario Resort was at the time, the private mansion for Robert Moran and his family.
Orcas Island is now home to more than 4,500 islanders who celebrate the rural character of the largest island in the chain. With 5,369 parcels of land on Orcas, just 22% or 1,163 are waterfront and only 61% of the total parcels are improved.
The friendly village of Eastsound is in the center of the island, with schools, stores and a new senior center.
Before irrigation was introduced east of the Cascade Mountains, Orcas, San Juan and Lopez Islands made up the prime apple and pear-growing region in the state of Washington. Many properties still have remnants of the old orchards, but today most fruit is consumed locally or sold at island farmer’s markets.
There are 2,200 people living on the nearly 30 square miles of Lopez Island. Fewer than 200 people live in Lopez Village. A total of 3,311 parcels of land can be found on Lopez, with 1,019 along the waterfront, and 1,950 parcels considered improved.
If San Juan and Orcas Islands are the realm of the pleasure boater, Lopez is more attractive to bicyclists and local horseback riders. Miles of relatively flat country roads, populated by some of the most considerate drivers in the world, make this a biker’s paradise.
Probably the first word that comes to mind about Lopezians is friendly. Drivers have evolved a subtle wave from the steering wheel that they offer to locals and visitors alike. Lopez is an enduring stronghold of family-farming values. Many islanders make their living on small farms, with most practicing organic principles. In summer, a well-attended farmer’s market offers this bounty for sale.
Like San Juan and Orcas Islands, Lopez Island has excellent schools, a great library and a well-developed sense of community. It has a quiet pace reminiscent of days gone by and is a wonderful place to live.
Shaw Island is perhaps best known for two orders of Catholic nuns. Benedictines at Our Lady of the Rock operate a large farm, selling many handmade and homegrown products. Shaw Island was the home to many Coast Salish Indians and their village locations are under study by archeologists.
There were nearly 750 Indians living here in the 1700’s. Many of those on Shaw, as well as other islands, died from diseases brought by Europeans. Many also died or were kidnapped during raids from the more aggressive Haida Indians. Some remained on the islands and a few Salish women married American and British settlers.
Most of the island roads are inland, with few views of the water and surrounding islands. Of the 518 parcels to be found on Shaw Island, there are 228 along the waterfront, and 263 of the total parcels are improved.
There are few public services and only one park, the South Beach County Park. In addition to the general store, Shaw has a lovely little schoolhouse in a lush setting and a small post office. There are no medical facilities, restaurants or hotels. It’s very private and quiet, in a natural way, just how Shaw Islanders like it.
This was the first development in the San Juan Islands to have extensive self-imposed environmental restrictions, thanks to Sam Buck and his partners in the development. There are only waterfront homes and lots here. Cars are not allowed. Of the total 58 lots on Brown Island, just 13 are still unimproved.
During Prohibition, several wagon loads of illegal hooch were seized from Brown Island and placed for safe keeping in the county jail in Friday Harbor. Six cases were subsequently stolen from the jail which is likely one of the few recorded instances of someone breaking into a jail. To learn more about this and other historical tidbits briefly described in this publication, read the Pig War Islands by Richardson.
Blakely Island is the namesake of Johnston Blakely, a U.S. naval commander in the War of 1812. It is also known as the Flying Island, because many of its residents are pilots with homes adjacent to the airport. They simply taxi right up their driveways and park. Blakely covers seven square miles and holds a total of 276 parcels – 119 are waterfront and only 142 are considered improved.
Blakely Island has forested slopes, two good sized lakes, a 100 foot high waterfall, deep shores and a few beaches. There is a small marina with fuel and temporary moorage. There is also a private airport and roads, but only for the use of owners and guests.
Several islands around Blakely are part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. About a quarter of Blakely was donated to Seattle Pacific University to be used in its natural state for biological and environmental research and education.
Blakely’s first permanent settler, E.C. Gillette, was also Justice of the Peace during the Pig War era (1860), San Juan’s first surveyor, and pioneer of San Juan’s lime industry. He sold out in 1889 to Richard Straub, who subsequently was convicted of a gruesome murder scheme over a dispute with some neighbors.
Center Island is a 178-acre private island just a short distance from Anacortes, nestled between Decatur and Lopez Islands. Residents and visitors alike enjoy sheltered waters for moorage and mild temperatures. There are mostly summer vacation homes here, however a small number of residents live on Center year round, including full time caretakers. A total of 199 parcels exist on Center Island, with 74 waterfront and 63 un-improved. Facilities include a new clubhouse, community picnic areas, a community dock and a place to pull small boats out of the water and put them on land. There is also daily mail service and a private 1600 foot airstrip.
Crane Island, with 222 acres and 84 parcels (59 of which are waterfront and 46 of the total are improved), is the largest and most developed of the Wasp Islands group, lying between Orcas and Shaw Islands. It is one of the more easily accessible islands being very near to Orcas Island and is within relatively protected waters. It has community docks on both Crane and Orcas and a private airstrip. Interestingly there are no cranes on the island. There is however, an abundance of herons which look very similar when not in flight. It is quite possible that Richards (the surveyor for the British Admiralty) saw some herons and thought they were cranes, hence the name.
By some resources, Cypress Island is actually the fourth largest island in the San Juan Islands and is one of the San Juan Islands not in San Juan County. (It’s part of Skagit County.) This four and one half mile long island is mostly public land managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. It has tall stands of old growth forest, (there is relatively little old growth left in the islands), 25 miles of hiking trails, campsites, beaches, mooring buoys, outhouses, small lakes, wildlife, rugged scenery and beautiful views. There’s no drinking water though.
And there are no cypress trees on this island. In 1792, William Broughton, a lieutenant for Captain George Vancouver during his discovery of the islands, named it Cypress after trees on the island that looked like cypress to him, but they are actually Rocky Mountain junipers.
Broughton, unaccustomed to maneuvering a ship with the local challenge of winds, tides, rocks and reefs all at the same time, lost an anchor off of Cypress that even after great effort, he could not pull free. It is supposedly still there.
Coastal Salish tribes lived here during the summers long ago and many archaeological sites have been identified.
Decatur Island is named after Stephen Decatur, a famous U.S. naval officer during the war of 1812. Sixty or so people live on Decatur Island year-round and many more seasonally. There are 459 parcels with just 107 of them along the waterfront and only 228 parcels considered to be improved.
The island has a small store (with a B&B above), post office, grade school, boat launch, airport and small shipyard. Miles of scenic county roads are open to the public, however the lands are all private and beaches are not easily accessed. There are various good spots for anchorage around the island.
Decatur Head is on the east side of the island. It was once a separate little island, but the action of wind and waves over centuries of time built up the sand neck so that it now joins into Decatur Island. That geological formation is called a tombolo.
There is the awful and unfortunate story of a shooting involving a man known as John Kay, who squatted at Davis Bay. His old cottage later became part of the Frank Henderson summer camp for boys and the tale of the shooting has been told around many a beach campfire. The old Kay cabin is still livable and used to house the Henderson camp’s caretaker.
Frost Island lies beside Spencer Spit State Park. Its uplands are all privately owned and there are a small number of private residences. Of the 17 parcels on Frost, 14 are waterfront, plus 9 are improved.
Henry Island is named for Lt. Charles Wilkes’ nephew, Wilkes Henry, who served as a midshipman on the Wilkes Expedition. Along with a shipmate, Henry was killed by Fijians during the expedition’s exploration of that area and was buried on an island not far from where he was slain. Wilkes’ reasoning for choosing an island in a northern Pacific archipelago as his namesake is unclear, other than that Henry was the only son of Wilkes’ widowed sister. Shaped like an ‘H’ and located just west of San Juan Island’s Roche Harbor, it protects several bays in that general area. There is good fishing and whale watching off its south and west shores. A total of 191 parcels are in place, 178 along the waterfront and 114 considered improved. Its land parcels are privately owned, apart from about 80 acres on the southwest side that are part of a lighthouse reservation. However the shoreline at the lighthouse is steep and rocky, making landings hazardous.
Almost like a piece of a puzzle, 132-acre Johns Island lies immediately east of Stuart Island. It is a little more than a mile long and has a mixture of rocky bluffs and pristine beaches. The land is privately held and there are no public facilities. A total of 69 parcels exist on Johns Island with 60 of those on the waterfront, 46 of the total parcels are improved.
Obstruction Island is located between Orcas and Blakely Islands. It too, is a privately held island with a mixture of rocky shores and pebble beaches.
There are a small number of residences and no public access. It is comprised of 49 parcels, all along the waterfront, and 27 are improved.
Pearl Island is located just off the shores of San Juan Island on the outskirts of Roche Harbor and helps protect the resort area from northerly winds. It is small and flat with 44-all waterfront parcels, 36 are improved. One side faces south overseeing the activity of Roche Harbor, the other faces north with broad views of the outer islands. There’s a wonderful little story about a bride to be, (Mary Smith), who waited on Pearl Island while her husband to be, (Ed Chevalier), walked the nine mile wooded trail to Friday Harbor in order to get a minister to marry them.
Sinclair Island was named by the Wilkes Expedition of 1841 for Arthur Sinclair, a U.S. naval captain during the war of 1812. This mostly private island is just north of Cypress Island on the outer edge of the San Juan Islands. Like Cypress Island, Sinclair is part of the San Juan Islands, but not in San Juan County. There is a county dock on the southwest end of Sinclair along with a small village called “Urban”. Two thirds of a mile from Urban, on Sinclair’s dirt roads, is the Sinclair Island Natural Wildlife Area, encompassing 35 acres with beachfront. Combining the beachfront with interior roads, you can spend quiet hours walking within public lands.
A large portion of Sinclair was once owned by a man and wife with the last name of Kelly. (He actually kept the property in his wife’s name for devious purposes). Kelly was a notorious smuggler of various interests including Chinese people and opium. His property on the northwest shore allowed him expansive views helping him keep an eye on customs vessels.
Stuart Island has a population of about 40 people which reside there year-round and many more joining them during the summer months. It rests up along the Canadian border, near the Gulf Islands, 3.5 miles north of Roche Harbor. It encompasses 1,786 acres and has shorelines that range from steep rock faces to protected coves with beach. It also has a private airport. The island has 360 parcels with nearly one half (176) waterfront and 161 parcels considered to be improved.
Stuart has perhaps the most interesting school in the State, including a classic one-room school house built in 1902 that is now used as the library for the more recently constructed but still one room school house adjacent to it. It is one of the last American schools without electricity or flush toilets. In the old days, children from nearby islands would row over to Stuart and then hike over to the school.
Stuart Island Marine State Park, off the southeast side, encompasses 88 acres including over 4,000 feet of waterfront within Reid and Prevost Harbors. Those harbors often provide shelter for boats traveling to and from Canada. There are state park docks, mooring buoys, basic campsites and picnic areas, but no other facilities.
There is much history to be learned about Stuart Island, including its historic cemetery and lighthouse. A classic example of the unique lifestyle preserved in the San Juans is Reef Netting – a fishing method developed by ancestors to the Lummi Indians of the San Juans which is used primarily for sockeye and humpback salmon. The only place in the world this type of fishing is used, it remains an effective technique for the San Juans with their clear water and long, shallow reefs. Current residents of San Juan Island, who still commercially fish today, are descendants of local Indian tribes that used to reef-net off of Reid Harbor many generations ago.
Waldron Island holds a mixture of beautiful long beaches, high cliffs and rocky medium banked shoreline, depending on which side of the island you’re on. There is also a mixture of personalities from those who want complete privacy to those who welcome visitors. With a total of 283 parcels, 126 are waterfront and 152 are improved. It is a very self-sufficient island and has no community water, electricity or land line phone, as is true with most outer islands. The fact is, most outer islanders prefer it this way and once you have experienced it, you can understand why.
Waldron is near the west side of Orcas Island and has close to 100 year round residents. Public access is very limited. This island has no stores or facilities other than a county dock with a few abandoned buildings nearby. There are county roads, but most of the land is private. It has a small post office, grade school, cemetery and landing strip.
478-acre nature preserve with 4,000 feet of shoreline is located here. It was fostered by Waldron residents who wanted to preserve it in its natural state and is now managed by the Nature Conservancy and the San Juan Preservation Trust. Point Disney, the location of the island’s only commercial activity was once a sandstone quarry in operation during the early 1900s. Today it is a popular dive site with its sheer walls delving far under water providing a home to an abundance of sea life.