San Juan Island (Washington)

I found a $112 roundtrip flight to Seattle over the Cinco de Mayo weekend. After confirming on Hopper that this was indeed the cheapest roundtrip flight in the next 6 month span, I immediately booked it.

Having been to Seattle, I decided to instead go on a road trip to one of the many National Park Service sites nearby. I had narrowed it down to the Olympic Peninsula or the San Juan Islands, a 100-island archipelago located in the extreme north-west corner of the continental United States. I had been to both before, but did not get the coveted NPS Passport stamps.

I decided to invite some friends on the trip: Andrew my best friend from college, Arielle who lives in Seattle and Arielle’s boyfriend Mark. Because Arielle was going through physical therapy for her leg, I picked the San Juan Islands, because it did not require a lot of hiking or walking around.

I booked the ferry and campsite reservations about a month in advance, but unfortunately, Arielle had work commitments on Sunday and had to stay in Seattle, so it ended up being just Andrew and me. However, since we were getting in late on Friday night, I decided that we would stay with Arielle so we would get to hang for at least a little bit.

My flight arrived around 10:30 pm. Unfortunately, Andrew’s flight was delayed until 1:30 am. Luckily, he had booked the rental car, so instead I took the light rail into Seattle and met Arielle for drinks at a southern church themed bar called Witness in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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Cool station art in Capitol Hill

We headed back to her place where I crashed on the couch.

I woke up at 6:15 and discovered that Andrew had made it around 2:30 am and was sleeping on the air mattress. Unfortunately for him, we had to catch a ferry, so I woke him up and we headed to the rental car which turned out to be a pickup truck. Then we drove 90 minutes north to the town of Anacortes. The weather was beautiful- sunny and in the high 50’s.

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Truck Yeah!

We got cinnamon roll French toast at the cute Calico Cupboard Old Town Café, a local chain and then drove west to the ferry dock. The dock was busy with cars lining up. Having pre-paid for the ferry, we breezed through the toll gate and were placed in a row of cars. We then killed the next 30 minutes on the nearby beach admiring the landscape.

About 15 minutes before departure time, the ferry arrived. All the cars unloaded and we loaded on. The ferry left exactly on time. The ride was so smooth, Andrew and I didn’t even realize that we were moving. Andrew noted that it felt strange to be moving in a car when you are not driving.

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Boarding the ferry!

Upstairs above the cars, the ferry had a beautiful passenger lobby that felt just like an airport lobby. They had tables with board games and puzzles to help pass the time.

Halfway through the hour-long journey, the captain stopped the boat and announced that a memorial service was about to occur. I walked to the back of the boat, looked down to the auto deck and saw a family: two parents and a child about 8 years old standing behind them clutching flowers. Silently, the parents opened an urn and dumped its contents into the sea. They then dumped the urn into the sea along with the flowers. When they were done, the dad waved his hands and the captain blew the ship’s horn 3 times. While this was most certainly a sad occasion, I cannot imagine a more beautiful place for a memorial service.

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This is near where the memorial service occurred. So pretty!

20 minutes later, we reached Friday Harbor, the largest town on San Juan Island, the westernmost and most populous island on the archipelago. It had a cute tourist-friendly downtown.

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Friday Harbor, WA

Our first stop on the island was the San Juan Island National Historic Park, located 6 miles southwest of Friday Harbor. Here we got our NPS passports stamped, a learned about the incredible history that occurred on this island.

In the early 1800’s, the San Juan Islands were sparely inhabited and were part of the Oregon Territory, which was jointly occupied by both the United States and the United Kingdom (which controlled Canada). In 1846, the border between the two nations was formalized by the Oregon Treaty giving the UK everything north of the 49th Parallel plus Vancouver Island, a very large island just west of the San Juans. The border was “the channel between Vancouver Island and the continent”. However, there were actually two channels: the Haro Strait to the west of the San Juans and the Rosario Strait to the east. The Haro Strait was much deeper and wider than the Rosario Strait, however the issue was unresolved.

13 years later in 1859, an American farmer saw a large black pig eating the crops in his garden, so he shot it. It turns out that the pig belonged to an employee of the British-owned Hudson Bay Company. The farmer offered to pay the pig’s owner $10 as compensation, but the owner refused saying the pig was a special breed that was actually worth $100.

The employee then sued the man in a British court in Victoria, BC. The British then dispatched the army to arrest the farmer. The Americans then called in the Army to protect themselves from the British soldiers. The Americans hastily built a military encampment and eventually brought in 70 cannons and over 2,000 men.

Upon hearing word of the escalation, President Buchanan dispatched his top general who negotiated a temporary peace settlement. Each side would be allowed to have 100 men on the island while the Germans arbitrated the dispute.

For 12 years- which included the entirety of the Civil War- the British and American soldiers chilled in their respective camps and apparently became really good friends. In 1872, it was decided that the Americans would get control of the islands and the British left.

Both the British and American camps are maintained by the National Park Service. The British Camp, located on a beautiful bay on the northern part of the island is universally agreed to be the nicer camp. It even has a garden! The American camp-originally built for battle- is on a windswept hill on the southern part of the island. The American Camp has the main park visitor center.

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American Camp

We went for another quick hike in the southern part of the island before driving back to Friday Harbor for lunch. It turns out that my college friend Brendan’s parents own the cheese shop which happens to have the best Yelp reviews of anywhere on the island. Andrew and I walked in and immediately recognized Brendan’s father- the resemblance was uncanny. We told the man that we knew his son and were immediately welcomed in as family. There we met Brendan’s family: both parents and sister who all work in the shop.

I ordered a beet grilled cheese that was, biases aside, amazingly delicious. We were then given one of their famous cheesecakes which was also amazing! As we were leaving, Brendan’s dad old us to come over to his house in the evening for wine and dinner. Of course, we accepted.

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Made new friends at San Juan Island Cheese!

Before dinner, we had the entire afternoon to explore! We first checked out the Whale Museum and learned about the orcas who live in the nearby waters!

We then headed north to Roche Harbor, apparently the busiest private harbor in all of the US. This private resort has an old lime kiln and is an official US Port of Entry- meaning you can legally enter the US here on a private yacht. The Customs station is a small shack on the wharf and must be the chilliest international border crossing in the entire world.

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Roche Harbor

Near Roche Harbor, we went to the Wescott Bay Cidery, which for 3 hours on Saturday afternoons has free tastings. Not only did we get to taste the ciders, but we also got to sample gins from their new distiller. The apples were grown 300 yards away and most of the ingredients for their gins were grown on the island.

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Wescott Bay Cidery

On a map of Roche Harbor, we saw a sign for a mausoleum deep in the woods and decided to hike to it. The walk took about 10 minutes each way. On the way we were reminded multiple times that drinking was not allowed at the mausoleum. When we got there, we learned that it belonged to the family of John McMillin, one of the first leaders of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Presumably, a lot of the members throughout the decades wanted to drink one here.  After becoming a leader in Sigma Chi, McMillin became the owner of a successful lime kiln and was part of the Masons.

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Mc Millin Mausoleum

The mausoleum reflects his and his family’s membership in various societies and is laden with symbolism. The structure has seven columns, however one is broken symbolizing that man’s work is never complete. There are three staircases, one with three steps representing the three stages of man, one with five steps that each represent five orders of classical architecture, and one with seven stairs representing the seven liberal arts and studies. In the middle of the mausoleum, there is a stone table with six limestone chairs. The back of each chair has the name of the family member whose ashes are lying underneath the seat as well as the fraternities and societies that family member was a part of. The rumor goes that when the sun goes down, the members of the family emerge and have a ghostly dinner at the table together. All and all, this was an extremely creepy place to be that was made even more creepy by the goth couple picnicking on the steps of the mausoleum.

It was now around 5pm and still very bright outside. We cruised down the western side of the island and stopped at the English Camp. It was located on a protected bay and was indeed much nicer than the American Camp.

Now moving south down the rugged western side of the island, we reached Lime Kiln State Park, a famous whale watching spot with a lighthouse and great views of Vancouver Island. We couldn’t see any whales today so we kept moving.

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Lime Kiln State Park

Finally around 6pm, we reached Brendan’s parent’s house. It was by far the most beautiful house in the area and had a large deck with a view of the ocean and Vancouver Island. We moved chairs onto the deck and drank rosé.

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Beautiful view!!

Then we went out front and watch Brendan’s dad feed his new bees.

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Didn’t expect to go beekeeping today!

Then we got pizza, which had the best cheese because they run a cheese shop.

It was now 9pm and still light out when they offered for us to stay with them instead of camp. At this point we couldn’t turn them down, so we went to their guest house above the garage and crashed after an incredible day on San Juan Island.

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