Cycling Weekend on San Juan Island, Washington: The Island that Could’ve Been Canadian!

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Wonderful cycling on San Juan Island, Washington

Back in June, I had one of my best weekends of the summer—a two day cycling trip on Washington’s San Juan Island. Just days before our departure I was perusing  John Crouch’s Cycling the Islands. I was looking for an island within reasonable distance of Vancouver, with great cycling and scenery that wasn’t too large, too small, too mountainous, too flat, too busy, too quiet, too beholden to too many ferries…Bingo! With its stunning coastal vistas, pleasantly rolling terrain, good roads and courteous easy-going drivers, San Juan is a total pleasure for cyclists. Damn! To think that this island could have been ours (Canada’s).

From Vancouver, we drive to Anacortes where we park the car at the Washington State Ferry Terminal. It feels great to leave the car behind, unencumbered, with only our bikes and small panniers. The hour long ferry ride is pretty and by the time we arrive at San Juan’s Friday Harbor we are already feeling the laid-back island vibe.

Friday Harbor is a scenic, bustling little town with plenty of pubs, cafés and ice cream places. It has some very cute small hotels and B&Bs. We don’t stay in any of them. The thing is, San Juan is dreadfully expensive, especially when you factor in the exchange rate for Canadians. I’m blaming Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I for our financial woes (read on). As luck would have it, we stumble upon the Orca Inn. It looks like army barracks, the walls are thin and the rooms are small, but the price is right and the friendly owners and surprisingly comfy beds more than make up for the no frills infrastructure.

On Saturday morning, Friday Harbor’s market is in full swing. My friend Eva and I are lured by the lovely crafts and colourful flower arrangements. Mike and Mats, Eva’s husband, are impatient to get cycling but at least there is food to keep them happy. They load up on cheese, bread and pastries.

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Ferry arriving at San Juan’s Friday Harbor

Our route today is a loop of about 33.3 miles (50.7 km) in the north and central portions of the island. We head out on Roche Harbor Road, a designated Scenic Byway that passes along fields, meadows and small lakes. There’s a good shoulder and traffic is light.

Roche Harbor is a swanky resort area and marina. Rumour has it that Oprah has bought a house here. It’s a gorgeous place. Mike is drooling over the fancy yachts. I’m impressed with the nicely preserved and restored architecture, particularly the historic Hotel de Haro. The hotel was originally built in 1886 around a log cabin structure left by the Hudson’s Bay Company (one of Canada’s oldest and best known retailers that got its start in the fur trade).

Not far from Roche Harbor’s village centre we stop for a wander through the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park. It covers a huge area with trails through meadows dotted with over a hundred sculpture pieces. They’re made of everything from driftwood to scrap metal and range from wonderful to whimsical to weird.

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Mike and Mats surveying Roche Harbor Marina

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Beautiful grounds in front of Hotel de Haro

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Roche Harbor village center

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Yachts and charming old buildings at Roche Harbor

We make our way south along the west side of the island. The road is narrower and hillier here and we’ve lost our shoulder. Shout-out to the drivers on San Juan Island: thank you for being so accommodating and courteous to cyclists. There are idyllic coastal views along the entire stretch. We stop at a couple of nice parks to take a rest and try our luck at orca spotting (sadly no whales today).

At Wold Road we turn inland to complete the loop back to Friday Harbour. The countryside just oozes bucolic charm. There’s a lavender farm along the way, but we’re just a few weeks early. I try to imagine what it would be like to see these fields in full purple bloom.

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Secluded beach on west side of San Juan Island

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Taking a break at San Juan County Park

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Awesome coastal scenery along San Juan’s West Side Road

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Flowers just starting to bloom at San Juan’s Lavender Farm.

Our ride the next day is an out-and-back route of 25.5 miles (41 km) to the southern tip of the island—American Camp and Cattle Point. Orange poppies carpet the grassy headlands that fall down to crescents of driftwood-strewn beaches. The area, part of San Juan Island National Historic Park, is spectacular and has a colourful history.

Back in 1859,  both Americans and British were pursuing their territorial claims on the San Juan Islands. Things came to a head when an American killed a stray British-owned pig, sparking the international dispute known as the Pig War. Both sides set up military-backed camps, American Camp on the southern end of the island, and English Camp on the northwest. The camps were occupied for 12 years in a peaceful coexistence (the pig’s was the only blood ever shed). In 1871, the two countries negotiated the Treaty of Washington, and selected Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany as arbitrator. He awarded the islands to the United States. Thanks Willy! 

There’s more crazy history at pretty Cattle Point Lighthouse. Why the name, you ask? Well, the British introduced cattle to the island and used the southern point to off-load their livestock. In 1857, one of their vessels became stranded near the point and cattle were forced to swim ashore. Soon after, Cattle Point showed up on British charts and the name has stuck.

Although the water is frigid, the beaches on this part of the island are glorious. We picnic on South Beach, and soon after, all four of us nod off, heads propped up against the driftwood and bodies caressed by the warm sand. An impromptu snooze in the sun ranks right up there for me on life’s little pleasures.

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Poppies carpet the hills down to San Juan’s South Beach

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Heading to the southern tip of San Juan—Cattle Point

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Beautiful beach just past Cattle Point Lighthouse

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Cattle Point Lighthouse with bald eagle keeping watch

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Expansive views on the southern end of San Juan Island

We’re back in Friday Harbor in plenty of time to catch our ferry to the mainland. In fact, the ferry is late (a not uncommon occurrence). Fine by us; we hang out at  San Juan Island Brewing Company for a toast to a wonderful weekend. You Americans are lucky to have nabbed this beautiful island.

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San Juan Brewing Company in Friday Harbor

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Day 1 route in yellow, Day 2 route in blue, from John Crouch Cycling the Islands

Categories: Biking, United States | Tags: , , , , , | 22 Comments

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22 thoughts on “Cycling Weekend on San Juan Island, Washington: The Island that Could’ve Been Canadian!

  1. Uncool Cycling Club

    That sounds like a perfect cycling weekend 😎

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When I’m bicycling I’m wishing all roads look like the empty one in your photo. Love all the beautiful blooms you captured on your trip.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think we were lucky with our timing just before the busy summer holiday season got started. Most folks seemed to hang out in Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor so surprisingly quiet roads for us.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve realized that since you began posting about your trip to Argentina I’ve unconsciously started waiting to read your posts and look at your photos until I could do so on a larger screen. But I’m going to abandon this plan because I’ll never read them if I wait to open up my computer. So, please forgive all my recent delayed responses. I loved your photos of the island, and your biking adventure sounds absolutely wonderful! Such good weather you had too!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh my, absolutely no need to apologize Meghan. I love getting your comments, but please never worry about delays in responding (or not responding for that matter). I have a few more posts coming from Argentina (one today I hope) but decided I needed a sunny, localish interlude with my San Juan post. We’re off to Germany/France for a cycling trip starting next week so I’ll be taking a break from blogging and the computer/phone in general.

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  4. Mike Hohmann

    A lovely weekend get-away, in a beautiful location… and so close to home -very refreshing! And I even learned about the Pig War, and the 12 year dual-occupation by American and English military forces… all this occurring as the American Civil War was taking place! No wonder it,the Pig War, lasted so long! Thank you, Caroline, for weaving the well-written narrative, beautiful photos, map, and local history together so smoothly. You do such a nice job with this blog!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mike, I’m glad you gleaned some historical information from this post. I was thinking that 12 years seems like a really long time but it makes sense now that you mention the simultaneous occurrence of the American Civil War.
      I appreciate your kind comments. Writing (writing well) is a life-long learning process and blogging has really helped me (though I shudder when I reread my stuff after publishing and often find mistakes). Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What amazes me is how this northwestern island (no matter its country!) reminds me so much of islands everywhere, from Massachusetts to Georgia and farther afield. The constant proximity of a coastline, the flowers up on a dune, the boats, and of course the ice cream shops! It looks like a heavenly place to cycle for a couple of days.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting Lexie. I’ve noticed that St. Juan and even some of the Canadian islands further north are much drier than the mainland. They don’t always have that Pacific Northwest dense rainforest look. It’s a welcome change for cycling.

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  6. I wonder why Kaiser Wilhelm I awarded the island to the American — how did the British react when they found out the German ruler was not in their favor? This truly sounds like a really nice, relaxing, yet invigorating trip, Caroline. I love how blue the skies are and how colorful the landscape is thanks to those flowers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good question Bama, and one I can’t answer. All the information at the park and in its visitor brochure stressed the peaceful relationship between the British and Americans, with no mention of any issues after the arbitration. Maybe this is a bit hard to believe with all the current turmoil and disputes in the world. I’m sure there is more to the story but I like this version, which is somehow fitting for such a beautiful, easy-going island.

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  7. This sounds like a truly idyllic weekend – and so close to home!
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Caroline, thanks for your beautiful write-up and photos. I tried to reblog your article to FitandFunNow but it did not work (I would be grateful if you would care to delete the section “Tony Reblogged this on tonyjoburg” – this is a website I used for testing purposes a while back). Since I wasn’t able to reblog your post I took the liberty of copying your post (manually) to FitandFunNow. Thanks again. Kind regards, Tony

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tony, thanks so much for your attempt to reblog (how frustrating) and now the manual copy/paste. I believe I have deleted what you asked. I’m glad you enjoyed the write-up and photos. Cheers, Caroline

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: Cycling Weekend on San Juan Island, Washington: The Island that Could’ve Been Canadian! – FitandFunNow.com

  10. it is crazy to think that those land disputes were settled so recently in terms of human history. The Alaskan/Canadian border on the coastal area has a similar history of near war. Looks like you had some great weather on that trip, something you don’t always get up there.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So true Jeff, it really wasn’t that long ago. I’m often reminded of this when I take visitors to a local park with a historic lighthouse. There’s a plaque there stating among other things that the first white child in West Vancouver was born in 1880.
      The weather couldn’t have been better. We were very lucky.

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  11. josypheen

    This looks fantastic Caroline! I might have to copy you with this trip!! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Copy away Josy! It really is a great island for cycling. There are some nice camping spots too but we weren’t prepared for biking and camping. If you end up going and have any questions, feel free to contact me.

      Liked by 1 person

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