Ferry reservations make driving to the islands easier than ever. Here are treks to make the trip worthwhile.
Visiting the San Juan Islands got a whole lot easier in January. Washington State Ferries now lets you make a reservation for the ferry you want to catch.
I tested that recently with a hassle-free weekend getaway to Friday Harbor.
It was beautiful and sunny, and I hit the hiking trails. My prediction: more island visits by more people. With that in mind, here are five good hikes to keep you busy on San Juan Island:
1. South Beach Trail
U.S. soldiers who occupied American Camp during the Pig War of the 1860s got the best view property on the island, looking south across the broad, sparkling Strait of Juan de Fuca to the snow-capped Olympic Mountains. Of course, they also got the coldest winter winds.
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Start at the San Juan Island National Historical Park visitor center (nps.gov/sajh), where you can pick up a trail map. Don’t miss the eagle nest atop a nearby Douglas fir; rangers set up a spotting scope on weekends. A new experience for me and friends: watching eagles mate in a tree right over our heads. (It involved a lot of squawking and flapping, and someone suggested they saw a cigarette being smoked afterward.)
Follow a gravel lane east past old fruit trees, officers’ quarters and a picket-fenced parade ground to Robert’s Redoubt, a well-preserved earthwork fortification designed by Second Lt. Henry Robert (who later in his career wrote “Robert’s Rules of Order”). Situated at the hill’s high point, it offered defenders sweeping views in every direction.
Find a path angling downhill in the direction of distant Cattle Point Lighthouse. You’ll pass numerous glacial erratics — the point was the snout of an ice-age glacier — as you cross one of the region’s last remaining natural prairies, garlanded in spring with buttercups and blue camas lilies. Eye-popping views include Mount Rainier on a clear day.
Continue down to a distant parking area to access the island’s longest public beach, South Beach, where the steamer Julia unloaded naval guns from the U.S.S. Massachusetts back in the day.
Or follow a more direct shoreward path and intercept the loop trail for a shorter walk that skirts rocky beaches piled high with drift logs, testimony to the wicked winter storm surge that can wallop this shore.
As you return west, take a side trip down to little Grandma’s Cove — one of the island’s best patches of sandy beach — and then climb through the 1850s site of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Belle Vue Sheep Farm, back to the visitor center.
Distance: 2.8 miles for full loop. Easy to moderate.
2. Mount Finlayson Trail
Here’s a good sequel for a subsequent visit. It offers a top-of-the-world overlook of the American Camp prairie, a closer look at the picturesque lighthouse, and a side loop through forest to a salty lagoon.
The trailhead is a 5-minute drive beyond the visitor center along Cattle Point Road, at a left turnoff signed for “Jakle’s Lagoon.”
One sign points to a nature trail, leading into woods; instead, follow the trail signed for Mount Finlayson, which was named for a founder of Victoria, B.C. (glimpsed from the ridge).
The path rises gradually, at first paralleling the road. Salty air with hints of fir sap fills your head. Wind-twisted firs are on your left, and to the right, the full Olympic range, the broad Strait and that sea of prairie grass.
On a series of seven gentle switchbacks bordered by split-rail fences you accomplish much of your uphilling to the ridge’s 290-foot summit. Look down to the east to see where the road almost meets the bank’s eroding edge; plans are to relocate the road to a higher bench of land to escape the forces of wind and tide for another century.
The trail runs flat and easy along the ridge. Look up for soaring eagles and listen for croaking ravens. At 1.3 miles, a path leads left and downward, the Lagoon Loop. Take this for a total loop of 2.9 miles. Or, as I did, retrace your steps to an intersection with the aforementioned nature trail, .3-mile from the trailhead, and follow that through the woods to Jakle’s Lagoon, a lonely spot except for gaggles of waterfowl.
Follow the nature trail back to the trailhead.
Distance: 2.9 miles for full loop. Moderate.
3. Bell Point Trail
The other half of the historical park is English Camp, 15 miles to the northwest, where British troops occupied peaceful Garrison Bay.
The two places could hardly be more different. While Americans shivered in the wind, the Brits found one of the most protected, tree-lined anchorages on the island.
From the parking lot, wander past a few restored military buildings, including a whitewashed blockhouse at water’s edge, beneath a flagpole from which the Union Jack flies in summer.
Cross meadows and old orchard to the Bell Point trail, known as the easiest hike on the island.
The flat trail runs through pretty madronas, cedars and junipers with lots of glimpses of sailboats anchored in the bay and hobbit-sized Guss Island in the middle. The only sound is of squawking sea birds.
Distance: 1.7-mile loop. Easy.
4. Young Hill Trail
If you’re up for a climb from the English Camp parking lot, you won’t regret the 1.1 miles to the grand view from atop 650-foot Young Hill.
The high, rocky balds among Garry oaks make a great place for a picnic as you look down on Haro Strait, separating San Juan and Vancouver islands.
Of historical interest is a short side trail to English Camp’s tiny cemetery, where weathered headstones memorialize the Pig War’s few casualties (none from shots fired in anger), including a young man “accidentally shot by his brother.”
Distance: 2.2 miles round-trip. Moderate to difficult.
5. Afterglow Vista Trail
Another heart-tugging clearing in the woods is Afterglow Vista, site of the family mausoleum for the McMillin family, original builders of the village of Roche Harbor, now a resort at the island’s north end (rocheharbor.com).
Park at the resort and pick up a trail map at the Hotel de Haro, or just walk up to the air strip and follow Tangney Memorial Drive as it curves away from the resort. Within a few hundred feet watch for a trail sign on the right.
A 10-minute walk threads through an old wooded cemetery, then emerges on a gravel road that continues through woods to a set of iron gates topped by the words “Afterglow Vista.”
Ahead is a circle of Doric columns ringing a stone table whose stone chairs contain the cremated remains of various McMillins. One of the columns is broken as a reminder that “death breaks the column of any man’s life.” It’s an eerie and peaceful place.
Distance: About a half-mile round-trip. Easy.