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  • The Curious Traveler

Washington’s San Juan Islands: History and Highlights

Nestled between Vancouver Island and the mainland, you’ll find quintessentially west coast geography where mountains rise dramatically from the sea and humpback whales swim peacefully through the straits. Time moves more slowly in the San Juan Islands; the archipelago is a remarkable enclave that draws naturalists, artists, and history buffs alike with its laidback pace, incredible wildlife, and unique culture.

The region abound with quirky stories, so we’ve complied a few notes about what you’ll see and learn on the Washington: San Juan Islands Exploration tour.

A lighthouse on a rocky shore

How Friday Harbor Got Its Name

These days Friday Harbor is the San Juan Islands’ commercial center, home to museums and galleries, oyster bars and cafés.

Friday Harbor takes its name from Hawaiian sheepherder Joe Friday (some versions give his first name as Peter), who was living on San Juan in 1859. A British survey ship passing nearby sent out a skiff to investigate the area. One of the oarsmen called out to the shepherd on shore to ask the name of the bay, but Joe misheard. He replied with his own last name, and history was made.

After strolling through town, the Washington: San Juan Islands Exploration tour takes another view of the area with a hike up Mt. Grant. The panoramic views are commanding, and it’s not unusual to find soaring bald eagles hunting here. On a clear day, Mt. Rainier is prominently visible in the distance.

A moody sunset in the San Juan Islands

How a Pig Started a War 

The same afternoon we descend Mt. Grant brings us to American Camp, where we learn more about the island’s colorful history.

 Around the same time Joe Friday was busy tending his sheep, the US and Great Britain were debating border issues. The Oregon Treaty had already divided disputed territory along the 49th parallel, but the San Juan Islands proved tricky. The earlier agreement separated US and British territory along “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver Island, and thence southerly through the middle of the said channel.” However, since there are straits on either side of the islands, the argument continued.

A single pig was all it took to tip the politically fraught situation into crisis. When an American farmer found a pig digging up his potatoes, he shot and killed it. He offered to pay the British owner $10 for it, but the owner demanded ten times as much. Tensions rose, and American settlers called for military backup.

The so-called “Pig War” would continue for over a decade, but fortunately the pig was the only casualty. Parts of the site where American forces were based are still standing, and on Day 1 we visit American Camp and see relics such as the officers’ quarters and an earthen fortress. Day 3 of the tour takes us to English Camp, where the barracks, commissary, and formal garden gives us a glimpse of the British equivalent.

A colourful shed on Orcas Island

Whale Watching, Kayaking, and More

The Pig War is a fascinating curiosity, but San Juan Island’s natural scenery proves at least as compelling. On a whale watching boat tour you’ll keep an eye out for humpback whales, orcas, and other marine life. Because many of these beautiful creatures rely on annual migration routes, your guide might even be able to point them out by name.

Later we take to the waters ourselves by kayak to explore the tidal zone of Griffin Bay. Scan the horizon for porpoises, harbor seals, and sea birds, or look higher for views of glacier-capped Mt. Baker. As a bonus, the sheltered location makes paddling comfortable even for the uninitiated.

The journey continues with a trip to Orcas Island, where you’ll have the chance to explore the breathtaking network of trails in Moran State Park. You’ll see a completely different side of the San Juans on your hike, including freshwater lakes, waterfalls, and the highest mountain the in the entire archipelago. Finish the day off in style with a visit to heated soaking tubs and a sauna to relax your muscles while you revisit all you have seen and done over the past few days.

All that and we haven’t even touched on the incredible seafood, the sculpture park, or distilleries… there’s lot to see, but you’ll set your own island pace.


Read more about the Washington: San Juan Islands Exploration tour here
If you’ve enjoyed reading and are inspired to join us or have questions about the adventure featured in this post, please give us a call at 1-800-941-8010 or send us an email at info@boundlessjourneys.com.

An orca leaps from the water

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