North America

Exploring the San Juan & Gulf Islands

A seascape of towering firs and rocky outcrops against a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks and sun-streaked seas beckon travelers to the San Juan and Gulf Islands on the Northwest Coast of the United States.

By Gail Wilkie

An archipelago with hundreds of islands stretches nearly 100 miles along North America's rugged northwest coast. Separated by an invisible international boundary, the San Juan Islands are in Washington State and the Gulf Islands in British Columbia waters. Lying in the lee of Vancouver Island, well protected from summer gales, the islands provide a sunny summer haven. Each of the islands has its own unique shape and character.

The largest and most populated islands are accessible by Washington State and British Columbia ferries. These islands offer camping facilities as well as small inns and B&B's. Several of the smaller islands are marine parks. Excellent anchorages attract boaters with all sizes of vessels, from kayaks and small sailboats to large luxurious yachts.


The usual departure point for the San Juans is Anacortes. Here several companies charter sail and power boats and state ferries depart frequently from the terminal to cross Rosario Strait.

Lopez Island

The first ferry stop is Lopez Island. Like a Currier and Ives print, it is a quiet, pastoral island with small farms, woods, and fields of grain and hay that glow in the golden light of afternoon sun. The island is known for its friendly drivers who wave at passing motorists. The island's flatness and minimal traffic on surfaced roads make Lopez a favorite of bicyclists.

Not far from the ferry dock, Spencer Spit is a state park with 50 campsites of wooded and waterfront campsites. On one side of the spit is a long sandy beach and a saltwater marsh where birders watch a variety of sandpipers and long legged waders. Several mooring buoys are available to boaters on both sides of the spit.

Orcas Island

The largest of the San Juan Islands with the most dramatic scenery is Orcas. The narrow fjord East Sound cuts through the center of the island dividing it into two parts giving the island an unusual saddlebag shape. It is a hilly island that rises to 2,409 foot Mt. Constitution. Several trails of varying lengths for hikers and bicyclists, as well as a road for motorists, lead to the summit. The trip to the top for a 360 degree view of the archipelago is well worth the effort.

Mt. Constitution is situated in Moran State Park. It is an expansive park, covering 5200 acres, with three freshwater lakes, 31 miles of trails, and 136 camp sites. During the peak of the summer, visitors call for reservations at 1-800-452-5687.

Well-known Rosario Resort occupies a point of land on East Sound. A mansion that was built on the site in1906 by shipbuilder Robert Moran still is the centerpiece of this destination resort. The grounds are beautifully landscaped with rhododendrons, azaleas, and brightly colored perennials. Overlooking the water, the lawn is a romantic setting for the many summer weddings held here.

San Juan Island

Busiest of the islands, San Juan is the commercial center for the U.S. islands. When the state ferry docks at Friday Harbor, streams of vacationers disembark onto the main street of this small town during July and August. Others arrive by seaplane or on the Victoria Clipper, a hydrofoil with daily service from Seattle to Victoria.

Front Street, lined with shops and restaurants, is crowded with tourists, many of whom are day-trippers from Seattle. The Orca whale watching boats that depart from Friday Harbor and the whale museum are attractions.

Of historical interest are two national parks--American Camp and English Camp--sites of the infamous 19th century Pig War. At the time, both the U.S. and England claimed the San Juan Islands. A war began when an American settler shot and killed a trespassing pig belonging to an Englishman from the Hudson Bay Co. The incident resulted in the U.S. sending in the 9th Infantry and the British dispatching three warships. No other shots were fired but the international boundary was debated for the next 12 years until it was resolved by a neutral party.

The American Camp is located on the windswept western shore of the island. Its stunning views overlook the turbulent waters of Cattle Pass and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It also has a long sandy beach ideal for walking and picnicking. The English Camp is a wooded, less dramatic setting; however it has an excellent historical exhibit that documents the dispute.

On a cliff on the west side is Lime Kiln Point State Park where people gather to catch sight of two resident pods of Orca that surface on the strait below. It's also an ideal spot to see the sunset and the twinkling lights of Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Another point of interest is Roche Harbor. Once the site of the island's lime industry, a town of workers flourished here in the late 1890's. In the 1950's the old Hotel de Haro was restored for the boating community. Today the site features this quaint hotel, colorful English gardens, restaurants, art booths, and a large marina. Near the resort is the Westcott Bay Reserve, a nineteen-acre microcosm of the San Juan ecology. Trails throughout the reserve highlight rotating exhibits with more than 100 sculptures in bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass and ceramic by noted artists from the Pacific Northwest. Especially notable are the bird and animal sculptures.

Sucia Island

Sucia Island is a marine park near the international boundary. The word "sucia" means "dirty" in Spanish and suggests troubled waters. Perhaps wary sailors gave the island its name because of a long reef that extends below the surface of the water on the northwest side of the island.

For natural beauty and wonders, it is the best of the marine parks in U.S. waters. The sea's continual washing over sandstone has produced sculptured rocks in small bays and coves. Fossilized sea animals can be found in the rocks. Tide pools on a tiny island called Little Sucia are alive with hermit crabs, colorful starfish, limpets, and other creatures. Little Sucia also is a protected bird habitat which is closed part of the year.

With several comfortable anchorages the island is a boater's paradise. Boaters can stretch their legs on nine miles of trails and old logging roads. The cliff on the west side of Shallow Bay has an expansive view up Georgia Strait, a perfect place to glimpse the green flash at sunset.


British Columbia operates large seaworthy car ferries that cross the Strait of Georgia. Departures to Salt Spring, Mayne, Pender and Galiano islands are from the small mainland port Tsawwassen. On Vancouver Island, ferries leave Swartz Bay to serve these islands.

For pleasure craft, the port of entry typically is Bedwell Harbor at the Pender Islands. All boats must secure a registration number as soon as possible upon entering Canadian waters and all travelers to Canada are advised to carry passports.

Salt Spring Island

Salt Spring, with its 10,000 residents, is the most populated of the Gulf Islands. It has frequent ferry service to Long Harbor in the center of the island and to Fulford Habour on the west side. Seaplanes from Victoria and Vancouver land at the government dock at Ganges.

Encompassing 70 square miles, Salt Spring is the big island that dominates seascapes of the Gulf Islands. Geographically diverse, it has rolling meadows, heavy forests, rocky beaches, points of land reaching into the sea, and high vistas. Hiking and bicycling trails lead to its high points--Mt. Maxwell and Bruce Peak. For the less hearty, an old logging road also allows vehicular access to the top of Mt. Maxwell for majestic mountain and sea views.

The logo for Salt Spring is the black-faced sheep raised by islanders for wool products as well as gourmet lamb. The islanders also sell other farm products--cheese and produce, wine made from its recently established vineyards, and fish caught in local waters. The village of Ganges is a thriving business center. It bustles with residents and tourists on Saturdays from April to October when the "Market in the Park" opens for vendors to display their wares. Enterprising islanders and off-islanders sell organic fruits and vegetables, fresh bread and pastries, homemade jams and jellies, locally made goat and sheep cheese, antiques and an array of arts and crafts. The Saturday morning atmosphere is festive as people crowd around stalls to make purchases amid a cacophony of sounds from the instruments of local musicians and the laughter and conversation of shoppers.

Salt Spring has a thriving arts and craft culture. At Ganges, a cooperative ArtCraft exhibits the work of local artists in a church converted to a gallery. A few years ago the community built ArtSpring, a center that features the performing and visual arts.

Ganges has several restaurants A popular gathering spot throughout the summer is the outdoor Treehouse Café which has good food and nightly live music.

For visitors who seek seclusion and comfort, Hastings House is a small charming country hotel located on 25 acres. Overlooking Ganges Harbor, the Manor House has a dining room, snug (Canadian for bar), and two of many suites located on the property. Other accommodations are in quaint cottages and a reconstructed barn. The grounds are spacious with colorful English perennial gardens and fenced grazing land for the Salt Spring sheep. Mainlanders make the journey to Hastings House just for its excellent cuisine.

Private and government boat moorage is available at Ganges. A favorite camping spot for kayakers is Ruckle Provincial Park on an open promontory on the east side of the island.

Galiano Island

To the east, Galiano is a long narrow island, about 18 miles long and only two miles wide. The ferry docks at Sturdies Bay after passing through the turbulent currents of Active Pass, a narrow passage from the Strait of Georgia. Because of its geography, Galiano shelters islands to the west from the winds off the strait.

The island has evidence of ancient Indian villages inhabited by members of the Coast Salish nation. The center of aboriginal life was located at what is now Montague Harbor Provincial Marine Park. A white shell beach at the north end of the park is what remains from one of several middens, small fishing villages that were occupied here more than 3000 years ago.

The sheltered harbor's 35 mooring buoys and the park's 40 camping sites attract summer visitors but there are other enticements. Within walking distance of the park is La Berengerie, a French restaurant owned and operated by Huguette Benger. Her menu, which varies daily, consists of locally grown fruits and vegetables, Salt Spring lamb, seafood caught in the surrounding waters, and gourmet meats from Victoria. Favorite dishes are her bouillabaisse, roasted duck breast and grilled salmon. Although Benger grew up France, she says that she learned to cook when she opened the restaurant in 1982. Besides the dining room, the house has an outdoor café and three guest rooms on the upper level. During July and August, the restaurant features live music, poetry reading, and art shows.

Wallace Island

Next to Galiano is a quiet little island with an intriguing history. The island was privately owned up until 1990 when the province bought land here for a marine park. For several years, it was owned by David Conover, who claimed to have discovered Marilyn Monroe. In an effort to turn the island into a resort, he built cabins; however it was never a successful enterprise. He wrote of his frustrating experiences in Once Upon an Island, a book available in paperback In later years, Conover built a lovely fieldstone home still visible on Princess Cove.

The cove is a perfect place for solitude. It is well protected but very narrow and rocky which requires skillful navigation to enter this anchorage. There is a network of trails on the island and camping is permitted.

Portland Island

Another island with an interesting history is Portland. Known as Princess Margaret Marine Park, this island was given to Princess Margaret in 1958 when she visited British Columbia. Nine years later, after she belatedly returned it to the province, it was turned into a marine park. A small boat takes passengers to Portland from the pier at Sidney, B.C, during the summer.

The island has two good harbors: Royal Cove at the north end and Princess Bay on the south. A hiking trail goes around the island and a more developed one down the center. On the west side of the island, a beautiful white beach tempts swimmers to plunge into chilly Northwest waters.

Middens, fruit trees, open clearings, an old water pump and even a race track are evidence of early inhabitants of the island. The Hudson Bay Company gave the island to a small group of Hawaiians who were involved in fur trading. Then in the 1920's a British army officer bought the island to raise and train racehorses, a plan never realized.

The island abounds with bird life, particularly the bald eagle. Princess Bay is a good vantage point for sighting the bald eagles perched in towering firs and swooping low over the water to snatch their prey.

The ideal time to visit these and the other islands in the chain is summer when outdoor activities can be pursued in good weather. Yet other seasons should not be discounted. Winters are mild, dryer than the mainland, and hold the rewards of deserted beaches, trails and anchorages. The islands change in color and mood from season to season but always awes travelers with its vast marine and mountain scenery.

For Additional Information:

Additional information about the San Juan Islands can be found at www.guidetosanjuans.com and on the Gulf Islands at www.gulfislands.net . Both sites list accommodations, transportation options, and activities.

Photo Credits: Gail and Rhys Wilkie; Peter Thomas (Orca Pod); contributed sources; and very special thanks to Mark B. Gardner (www.rainshadow-arts.com )