Field Guide: San Juan Islands
A few months ago, Rich and I were hoisting beers with Jonathan and Zach of Jamestown Revival (above), when on a whim we invited them to join us for a weekend up in the San Juan Islands. It was one of those less-than-sober ideas that usually never survives the cold light of day, but luckily they too shared the same whim. Then again, hey, you wanna ride motorcycles, shoot guns, and go fishing in one of the most picture-perfect places on earth isn’t exactly a tough sell, ya know?
Once Jonathan and Zach were on board, the ideas started flowing, as they often do when you’re belly up to the bar. So we called up Huckberry Ambassadors Charles Post, an ecologist, and Meg Haywood Sullivan, a photographer (both above left), to round out the group, and before we knew it, our seaplane was touching down on the south side of Lopez Island — the third largest of the 128 islands that make up the San Juans and our basecamp for the long weekend.
We documented the trip in our fall catalog – keep an eye out for one in the mail with your subscription to Outside Magazine – but since so many of our friends and family asked for our itinerary, we decided to create a mini field guide of the places we visited (and wished we'd had the time to visit).
We hope you enjoy the guide, and we'd love to hear in the comments section below what we missed.
See you out there.
Andy + Richard
World-class sea kayaking amongst orca pods. Bald eagles stealing salmon from peregrine falcons. Sunsets that hang on the horizon for so long that, as King Lear said, you see feelingly. A hidden gem of the Pacific Northwest, the San Juan Islands are a mecca for outdoor adventure, and only a 45-minute float plane trip from Seattle.
How To Get There
Fly into Seattle. Rent a car and drive two hours north to Anacortes, the “boating capital of the Northwest,” and home to the nation’s largest network of ferries (almost all of which bear Native American names). Take a 45-minute car ferry to one of the four ferry-served islands — Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan — not one of which has a stoplight. Make sure to book your reservation in advance, and keep in mind that you're only charged when you're headed westbound.
Fly into Seattle and take a 55 minute Kenmore Air flight from Lake Union to one of the San Juan Islands. Roundtrip is about $320 per person.
Good To Know
Located in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, the average rainfall in the San Juans is about half that of Seattle. Count on temperatures around 70°F in the summer and 40°F in the winter. The population in the San Juans triples during the summer, and from April to September there are 90 orcas in residence around the Islands.
The Four Main Islands
San Juan Island
Known as "where the action is," the eponymous San Juan is the liveliest of these four clustered islands. Some highlights include Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and is the only park in the world dedicated to whale watching; and Pelindaba Lavender Farm, an organic lavender farm that distills its own essential oils. Don't leave without spending a few days in and around Roche Harbor, where you can roam the docks and people-watch while summer visitors wander off their boats in search of fresh seafood.
Drink: Head to the Madrona Bar & Grill for a Fluffy Duck (vodka, orange juice, grenadine, and cream, topped with whipped cream and a cherry) and drink it on the deck.
Explore: Kayak with orcas with Discovery Sea Kayaks.
Lounge: At Duck Soup Inn, a cozy locals' favorite that serves seasonal Pacific Northwest-inspired fare.
Don't Miss: The fresh clams and oysters at Wescott Bay Shellfish Co. Go grab a bag in the morning – they sell out early and often.
Named after the 1792 Viceroy of Mexico and not the killer whale, Orcas is the largest, hilliest, and (some say) the most beautiful of the San Juan Islands. Head to Moran State Park to summit Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the islands, to get a birds-eye view over the water. Rub shoulders with wealthy Seattleites – who populate the island with summer homes – at Hogstone's Wood Oven over wood-fired pizzas.
Eat: Oysters from Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. At 75 cents each, you can – and should – order a dozen for yourself.
Drink: An Elwha Rock IPA at Island Hoppin' Brewery.
Do: Spot a pod of whales with Orcas Island Eclipse Charters.
Camp: In the yurts and domes with a view in Doe Bay.
Thanks to the generosity of the Currie family, Lopez was our home base for the long weekend. "Slopez," as the locals call it, has the friendliest vibes of the San Juans; you're sure to notice the casual two-finger wave from each driver you pass by. Also the flattest of the islands, Lopez is a biker's paradise, so bring your ride (gas-powered or otherwise) and get ready to ride by mile after mile of farmland – there are more than 50 working farms on this island. One of our favorite things to discover about Lopez was that the barter system is alive and well here. Need an egg or two for breakfast? Bring some grains or beef to trade and you're in luck.
Eat: The mouth-wateringly flaky croissants at Holly B's Bakery and wash 'em down with the Oaxaca French Roast coffee from Lopez Island Coffee Roasters.
Drink: A hot toddy at The Galley, a casual lounge with a pool table.
Do: Hike at Iceberg Point and bring a pair of binoculars for next-level birdwatching.
Stop In: At Blossom Grocery, which serves a wide variety of local goods and produce. It's the perfect place to stock up for a long ride.
With just over 200 full-time residents and at less than 10 square miles in size, Shaw is the smallest of the San Juan Islands. When you pull into the port, make sure to stock up at the Shaw General Store – there are no other markets, restaurants, or hotels on the island. There's no gas station either, so bring your bike and get around on two wheels – believe us, it's not hard. Shaw is undoubtedly the ideal island for spending a day then heading home.
Eat: Local, organic produce from the Shaw General Store.
Camp: At Shaw County Park, where sheltered campites sit nestled in the woods above sandy stretches of coastline.
Visit: Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine Monastery, a cloistered order of nuns who bless the ferry lines daily.
The Flora & Fauna of the San Juan Islands
It's no secret that Huckberry Ambassador Charles Post has a thing for plants and animals, so we felt confident asking him to list a few that we should keep an eye out for on the San Juan Islands. Just don't forget your binoculars.
"Often mistaken as whales, orcas are ranked as the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family. In their long migrations north to Arctic feeding grounds, these roaming hunters often travel 60-80 miles per day in search of salmon, seals, or young gray whales."
Salmon: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Pin and Sockeye
"If there were a keystone to the Pacific Northwest, the salmon would be it. They defined early peoples who called these shores and river valleys home and continue to shape the cultural and ecological fabric of the San Juan Islands. All five of the Pacific Salmon species call these waters home, and all five may end up in the talons of a bald eagle or in the smokehouse of a keen fisherman."
Red Alder Tree
"Anywhere where freshwater flows, red alder grow with feet often hugging the wetted edge of the San Juan’s aqueous arteries. This tree is a beloved one; it’s aromatic wood is used to smoke and cook salmon, and when set aflame, it burns at a high temperature which can power a pizza oven or wood stove in the dead of winter."
Pacific Madrone Tree
"With a keen eye, you’ll notice the smooth, red bark of these trees that punctuate the south-facing slopes and understory of these verdant islands. Each summer, their creamy flowers pepper a green canopy and their red bark peels offer the forest floor a yearround pulse of nutrients and source of medicine for native peoples and foragers who have found that the bark, if boiled, can be used to treat cuts, colds, sores, and upset stomachs. If you listen closely, you may notice that their cavity-prone crowns are busting with life by offering a nice home and place of foraging for many of the forest's most colorful birds, like warblers, chickadees, flickers and woodpeckers."
"According to storytellers in the Chinook First Nation, the coyote was 'instructed to place these berries in the mouth of each salmon he caught in order to ensure continued good fishing,' and for that reason this berry came to be known as the salmonberry. Like their fishy counterpart, the salmonberry is a quintessential pillar of the Pacific Northwest; its red berries, often compared to the color of salmon eggs, adorn giant bushes that span six feet in height and breadth, which in summer shine with the a coat of reddish purple flowers that attract floods of bees and hummingbirds. While their berries are an undisputed treat, it’s been found that they vary in taste from bush to bush, making a morning harvest all the sweeter."
Island Marble Butterfly
"Among the rarest butterflies on earth, the Island Marble Butterfly calls just a few patches of the San Juan Islands home. After a century of being declared as a species lost to extinction, a few individuals were discovered by a stroke of good fortune in 1998. Since then, federal and state agencies have begun work to save these rare and beautiful butterflies."
"The San Juan Islands host the greatest concentration of bald eagles in the continental US. Among the most notable birds in America, the bald eagle is often thought of as a master scavenger and not a steadfast hunter. They leave the leg work up to osprey and bears, from which they happily steal their next meal."
Black Tailed Deer
"Dawn on the San Juan Islands is a golden field dressed in morning dew with a few black tailed deer scattered with heads down, happily grazing. While they often fill the freezers of those who hunt and live on the land, their trails and presence among the forests and meadows remain a perennial hue of these windswept islands."
Key Terms for the San Juan Islands
The San Juans are more than just a group of islands – they're a way of life that comes with its own language. Here are a few key terms to get you in with the locals.
Jigging: A common salmon fishing method in which chunk bait (often herring) are placed on a weighted hook, which is then moved up or down, or jigged.
Pelagic: Living offshore, on the open ocean.
Banyan: An old maritime term for a day of rest or relaxation
Bitter end: The last part or loose end of a rope.
Booby: A sort of bird that has little fear and is thus particularly easy to catch (i.e., Darwin’s blue footed boobies of the Galapagos Islands).
Foulies: Foul weather clothing worn by fisherman and sailors.
Gam: The meeting of two whaling ships at sea.
Grog: Watered-down rum.
Growler: A small iceberg.
Jack: A sailor.
Illustrations © Joshua Minnich