With all the hubbub surrounding the new San Juan Island National Monument, those not intimately familiar with the islands might be asking: What’s there?
The short answer is that the monument encompasses about 1,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management land throughout the San Juan archipelago. The BLM will continue to oversee it, and the designation won’t lead to many visible changes. It does mean that this land will remain public forever — exactly the outcome its proponents had hoped for.
That doesn’t mean a contiguous chunk of land like the national monument at Hanford Reach or an educational visitor center such as the one at Mount St. Helens.
This monument is made up of parcels scattered throughout the islands. Many of them are mere rocks off the coast. Some are small islands accessible only by boat.
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But even if all you see are the lands accessible by car, bike or foot, you’ll get an idea of why a team of locals and government officials worked so hard for the designation.
Some of the monument’s largest sections are easily accessible and well worth exploring. On San Juan Island, the monument includes land at the base of Cattle Point Lighthouse, next to the American Camp section of San Juan Island National Historical Park. Park visitors mistakenly believe these bluffs are part of the national park. But like many other areas in the new monument, Cattle Point was BLM land because of its importance to maritime navigation or defense against potential invaders, said Mike Vouri, the park’s historian. (The Coast Guard owns the lighthouse itself.)
While he said the park staff is happy for the extra veil of protection the monument provides, things won’t change much for them: “The only thing we have to do is answer questions (about the monument). The public is confused,” he said, noting that some people believe the entire island chain is included in the new federal protection.
From Cattle Point, you can look across to Lopez, the island that will likely see the biggest impact of the designation. A chunk of hilly, forested land at the island’s south end constitutes almost half of the monument’s total acreage. Here, a mix of public and nonprofit groups, including the San Juan County Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust as well as the BLM, acquired land around Watmough Bay once slated for logging or other development and set it aside for preservation and recreation.
Of all the car-accessible areas in the monument, I found this one the most fun to explore. A level one-mile trail leads to a rectangular bay surrounded by steep hillsides. Sun yourself on the beach, stick your toe into waters warm enough for a bit of wading in summer, or relax on a pile of driftwood with a picnic. Work up an appetite and get a dramatically different view of the bay by finding the trailhead (just west of the Watmough Bay trailhead) for a steep but short hike up Chadwick Hill, at the top of a high cliff on the bay’s north side.
Just south of Watmough Bay, another trail leads up and over hilly terrain of Watmough Head past dense forest, a spruce bog and open areas with native grasses until it reaches the shoreline at Point Colville, looking out on the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Another sailor’s landmark
Like Cattle Point and Point Colville, Iceberg Point on Lopez is both a navigational aid for sailors and a home to rare plant and animal species. Curious about some of the designated lands, Seattle residents Doug Nellis and Susan Davis found their way to Iceberg Point on a recent visit. They took a short, flat, wide trail through trees and foliage that opened up to a wide-open rocky coastline. With only one small sign to guide them, they might not have found the trail if friendly locals hadn’t pointed the way from the parking lot at Agate Beach.
On the point, the couple found rewarding views, striated rocks, seals and a sea otter. “I’ve been to all the San Juan Islands accessible by ferry, and I think this is the prettiest spot I’ve been to,” Nellis said.
Other points of interest are harder to reach. All of Patos Island, and Turn Point Light Station on Stuart Island, are known mostly to those who explore the islands by boat. You can also fly into Stuart Island, said Barbara Marrett, the San Juan Islands tourism office communications director, but first “you have to buzz the runway so all the deer and turkeys scatter.”
While it ensures that accessible lands will always be so, the monument is more about preservation than tourism. Locals wouldn’t mind if it increased tourism in general, but they don’t necessarily want people flocking to these sites, many of which they consider almost sacred.
The good news is that even if you only get a taste of the monument, the San Juan Islands offer plenty of other places to enjoy. They’re just the ones everyone already knew about.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.