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San Juan Islands

Photo © cgplatt

Travel Guide North America USA Western United States Washington San Juan Islands

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Introduction

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.

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Geography

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines the San Juan Islands as the archipelago north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west of Rosario Strait, east of Haro Strait, and south of Boundary Pass. To the north lie the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. All these waters are within the Salish Sea. The USGS definition of the San Juan archipelago coincides with San Juan County. Islands not in San Juan County are not part of the San Juan Islands, according to the USGS.

At mean high tide, there are over 400 islands and rocks in the archipelago, 128 of which are named, and over 770 kilometres 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 metres) elevation. The coastlines are a mix of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, ochre-colored madrona trees (Arbutus) grace much of the shorelines while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.

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Cities

  • Eastsound is the largest populated area on Orcas Island.
  • Friday Harbor, the main city on San Juan Island, the most populous of the San Juan Islands, and the county seat of San Juan County.
  • Orcas Village town built around the ferry terminal on Orcas Island.
  • Roche Harbor, on the northwest corner of San Juan Island, is the number two town and a bustling yachting harbor. It has floatplane service to Seattle.

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Sights and Activities

  • Orcas Island has an amazing view atop Mt. Constitution of the Cascade Mountain Range and the Olympic Mountain Range. There is a near 360 degree view from a stone tower built by the public works of the Roosevelt era (a cell phone tower makes it less than 360 degrees, but still worth it). Gene Hackman, Miller of the skiing films fame, Oakley Sunglass owner all have vacation homes here. It is a paradise and home to some 3,500 people. In the spring the J Pod Orca whales are in the area.
  • San Juan Island National Historical Park - here in 1859 the United States and Great Britain nearly went to war over a dead pig

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Weather

The San Juan Islands get less rainfall than Seattle, about 105 kilometres to the south, due to their location in the rain shadow of Olympic Mountains to the southwest. Summertime high temperatures are around 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.

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Getting There

By Plane

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).

By Car

You can take your car on some ferries (see below).

By Boat

Three ferry systems serve some of the San Juan Islands:

  • Washington State Ferries serves Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island 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 offers charter service to Eliza Island, Sinclair Island, Blakely Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and daily seasonal service to San Juan Island from the Bellingham Cruise Terminal in Bellingham, Washington.
  • North Shore Charters provides high speed water taxi service to all of the San Juan Islands.

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Getting Around

By Car

Bringing a car on the ferry is a popular option for exploring the remote areas of the main islands, but car rentals are also available in such areas as Eastsound. Other smaller islands may have unimproved county roads, but due to their remote locations and lack of ferry service these roads often serve as foot trails and you are more likely to see someone traveling by horse than car. The lines for loading cars onto Washington State Ferries can be notoriously brutal during peak season and weekends. It is not unusual to wait in line for many hours and missing the last ferry can mean a desperate search for unplanned accommodations to spend an unplanned night on the islands so plan accordingly.

By Bike

The winding paved roads of the main islands are ideal for exploring by bike and bike rentals are available near many areas in the San Juan Islands, however the smaller more remote islands often do not have paved roads making traveling by bike more of a challenge. Bicyclists have priority boarding on Washington State Ferries so bikes can bypass the sometimes ridiculously long car lines and walk right onto the ferries.

By Boat

The four largest Islands - Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, and Shaw are connected by Washington State Ferries. Water Taxi services can transport to the small islands such as Blakely, Decatur and Henry Islands.

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Eat

Fresh Seafood including fish (especially salmon), Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels and clams is readily available.

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Drink

Few, if any, American regions can challenge the Pacific North West's love of coffee. According to a group of industry market researchers, there were an amazing 1,640 coffee shops in the Puget Sound region in 2011, ranking it the most popular coffee region in the country and the San Juan Islands are no exception to the rule. Coffee shops are frequent and popular and even small harbors with perhaps one store will still be expected to have some espresso options.

Microbreweries and beer in general are a Northwest specialty, and the area has many to offer for beer enthusiasts. The larger brewers, like Redhook and Pyramid, distribute their products regionally or nationally like their coffee cousins, while other brews can only be found in local stores or bars (some notable brewers don't bottle their product). Ask your servers for local beer recommendations and search out regional microbrews in stores.

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This is version 1. Last edited at 6:44 on Aug 25, 15 by Utrecht. 4 articles link to this page.

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