Getaway to San Juan Island

We recently took a (brief, pandemic-style) trip to one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been: San Juan Island! Though I had traveled to Orcas and Lopez islands before, I had never gone to the most populous of these islands off the coast of Washington State. We had such a lovely time, and I took a zillion photos of the gorgeous natural settings.

Our journey started at the Anacortes ferry dock, where we explored the beach while waiting for our boat to arrive.

Usually, we’d spend the ferry ride on the upper decks looking out the windows… but this time we stayed in our car. Lucky for us, we were parked on an outer row, and enjoyed taking in the scenery as we glided through the Salish Sea.

dark islands rising from the flat grey waters
Islands rising from the sea, as spotted on the long ferry ride

We stopped briefly on Lopez Island (one of the main settings in my latest novel), so I couldn’t resist taking a pic of the dock!

pulling up to the Lopez Island ferry dock
Lopez Island ferry dock

After we disembarked the ferry, we meandered around Friday Harbor. First stop: the Whale Museum! The museum itself was closed due to the pandemic, but we bought a few orca-centric souvenirs in the gift shop.

outside of the Whale Museum, painted with orca whales, kelp "trees", and schools of fish
The Whale Museum

By then, our stomachs were growling, so we grabbed some takeout for lunch. The vegan tacos and tamales at Hermosa were AMAZING. The kids gobbled them up despite their long-standing dislike of summer squash.

delicious tacos from Hermosas. Fried tofu, summer squash, and red peppers, topped with fresh onions and cilantro.
Drool-worthy tacos from Hermosa

We strolled around the downtown area, and ended up buying a comprehensive assortment of (dairy-free) truffles at Friday Harbor Chocolates. The kids found the quaint chocolate shop especially inspiring, and now dream of opening their own someday. (And yes, I am definitely on board with helping to make their chocolatiering dreams come true!)

a window in a grey wall framed by red shutters with a flower box underneath and next to an iron gate
Picturesque window in Friday Harbor
line of shops with the ferry dock in the distance. Sign reads, "Crows Nest coffee"
How could I not snap a pic of the Crow’s Nest?

Then it was time to head to the beach. We ended up at a place that seemed strangely named to us at the time: American Camp (at San Juan Island National Historical Park). But, WOW, what an incredible place! The beach was so lovely despite the cold weather.

a large pile of bull kelp on the beach with a wave coming in
silhouette of a girl looking out at the ocean, the sun low in the cloudy sky
In difficult times, it helps to gaze out at the sea
beach with rocky sand and lots of driftwood
Endless beaches
wave lapping the shore near a large smooth driftwood log
Beautiful waves lap at beautiful logs
Poster aout barnacles. Intro text reads, "Head over heels for barnacles! Barnacles are crustaceans related to shrimp and crabs. However they have an unusual form. The 19th century naturalist Louis Agassiz described a barnacle as "an animal living in a little limestone house waving its feet in the air and kicking food into its mouth."
In praise of barnacles

I loved this poster so much, because it could have been authored by one of my characters. It might not have made the final cut in the novel, but Auntie Leila’s oceanography research is on barnacles! Or maybe it was plankton? Well, thanks to this info I have a newfound respect for these little creatures, so I’ll just go ahead and declare this as the official canon.

green grass in the foreground, with a large round rock in the middle ground with two silhouettes standing at the top. Beneath them, the sea, and above a cloudy grey sky.
Gazing at the sea never gets old
ocean cove at sunset, with trees silhouetted against the cloudy sky
So much beauty
rocky cove with tumultuous waves tossing into a small inlet
Moody cove

We stayed in such an awesome Airbnb on False Bay. I loved these little beds nestled beneath big skylights! If only it had been less cloudy at night, it would’ve been the optimal setup for stargazing.

a little bed beneath a sloping skylight
Best bed ever
rocky beach at low tide. background illuminated by sunlight.
Low tide in False Bay

We spent quite a bit of time out kayaking on the calm bay. There’s nothing more peaceful than gliding through the still water, accompanied only by the sounds of sea birds and the dipping of our paddles.

The water was clear and shallow. Once, I looked down and was startled to see a sea lion floating beneath the surface, staring back at me with curious eyes. It quickly swam away, but that moment will always stick with me!

a rainbow pierces the background across a small bay; a rocky beach and several logs and trees in the foreground
Oh, and we saw a rainbow!!!
a lonely madrona tree on a coastal bluff with a thin green walking trail winding along the yellow grasses
A lonely madrona tree

We also explored the northwest side of the island, where we ended up at the “English Camp” and found a sign that explained everything.

Sign reads, "English Camp. In 1859 the killing of a pig on San Juan Island brough England and the United States to the brink of war over the issue of territorial rights here. By agreement, both nations' troops were permitted to occupy this area while the problem was studied. British soldiers established camp at Garrison Bay, just west of here, while American troops camped at the southern end of the island. Peaceful arbitration of the dispute in 1872 placed the San Juan Islands within the territorial United States. In October of that year the British garrison was abandoned."
It must have been a real VIP (very important pig)

Now, this was an aspect of history that I’d never learned before! Who knew that an argument over a pig led to this near-conflict between the US and England? (Maybe a lot of people do? There is so much about history that I still have yet to learn.)

But, it’s also important to put this territorial skirmish into its broader context: this land was never the rightful property of the US or England. We must not forget that it was stolen from its original inhabitants, who had cared for it for thousands of years before European settlers arrived.

totem pole and Indian carvings of salmon overlook the bay... reminding us of who was really here first.
Totem pole by the bay

After a wonderful weekend away, our excursion came to an end much too soon. We all fell in love with San Juan Island after this brief adventure. I can’t wait to go back someday when things are a little more normal (and travel is less fraught)!

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Paul Gauche

    Hey Alanna,
    Thank you for your great article on San Juan Island and your experience there! I grew up on nearby Whidbey Island, and though I now live in Minnesota, my family has made numerous trips to the Pacific Northwest. Most recently, my wife and I spent a month on Orcas Island in January 2018. An absolutely spectacular part of the world! Thanks for illuminating more of the islands for more people! Carry-on!

    1. Alanna Peterson

      Thank you, Paul! The San Juans are a very special place – we’ve had some very memorable trips to Orcas as well. And Whidbey must have been a great place to grow up. We keep meaning to take a trek over there to visit the island and Deception Pass… maybe we’ll finally get around to it in 2021!

  2. Cathy Reiner Godwin

    Lovely report, I’m sharing it with guests invited for our daughters wedding next fall, we hoe, at Lakedale Campground atop the island. We are neighbors, we live at the east end of Othello. One day we will meet.

    1. Alanna Peterson

      How wonderful! I can’t imagine a more beautiful spot for a wedding. And how fortuitous that we are neighbors also! Perhaps our paths will cross someday. Appreciate you stopping by, and sharing this post!

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