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San Juan Islands

Island Hopping

Friday Harbor

The San Juan Islands, those mesmerizing jewels set in the Pacific Northwest, hold within them a tapestry richly woven with geological marvels and a compelling history that resonates deep within my being. Over millennia, these islands have been sculpted by geological forces, a narrative etched in stone spanning over 18,000 years.

We four travelers arrive and encounter Friday Harbor. It is nestled in the embrace of San Juan Island and is a picturesque town that we feel at home with. With a population of 2,162 as of the 2010 census, this historic seaport welcomes visitors with its quaint charm just a few steps away from the ferry landing.

Walking through its storied streets, I'm surrounded by small, welcoming shops and eateries that eschew the presence of ubiquitous fast-food chains. It's a place where we can explore the heart of the San Juan Islands, filled with whale-watching and kayaking tour offices, along with cultural gems like The Whale Museum, the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, and the San Juan Community Theatre, hosting captivating plays and musical events. The echoes of history resonate through the San Juan Historical Museum, adding depth to the town's rich tapestry.

The town owes its name to Joseph Poalie Friday, a native Hawaiian who once tended sheep around the harbor after moving from Fort Cowlitz in the mid-1800s. Friday Harbor holds the distinction of being the sole incorporated town within the San Juan Islands, officially gaining its status on February 10, 1909.

It is small but, for those seeking respite from the frenetic pace of life, Friday Harbor beckons with its slower rhythm and tranquil ambiance, casting an enchanting spell upon all who wander its streets.


As we four humble travelers stand amidst the landscape of the San Juan Islands, we are enveloped by the layers that cloak the islands. For example, American Camp and segments of English Camp are veiled by Quaternary alluvium and glacial deposits, remnants of ancient environmental shifts. Yet, there are pockets of mystery within English Camp, where layers of Middle to Upper Paleozoic sedimentary and volcanic rocks whisper tales of bygone eras. Elsewhere on San Juan Island, the embrace of Jurassic-Cretaceous sedimentary and volcanic formations adds further intrigue to this geological mosaic.

These islands lie atop a smaller geological plate, engaging in a subtle dance where the immense Pacific plate submits beneath the comparatively lighter North American plate. Washington State, in its entirety, emerges as a mosaic of smaller, less weighty plates pushed against the North American plate while the Pacific plate descends beneath it. This forceful convergence not only altered the landscape but also orchestrated a majestic metamorphosis, transmuting rocks from their initial forms into the timeless allure of metamorphic structures.

Lime Kiln Lighthouse

The Lime Kiln Lighthouse stands tall on the rocky shoreline of San Juan Island, serving as a beacon of light guiding ships through the Haro Straits. The lighthouse gets its name from the lime kilns that were built in the area in the 1860s. It was established in 1914, marking the last major light established in Washington.

In 1919, a 38-foot octagonal concrete tower was built, rising from the fog signal building. This design matched that of the Alki Point Light in Seattle. Two keeper's houses and other structures were also constructed during this period. The lighthouse first exhibited a fourth-order Fresnel lens from its new tower on June 30, 1919.

In 1984, the Coast Guard handed over the area to Washington State Parks, and the lighthouse became part of Lime Kiln Point State Park. Today, the Lime Kiln Lighthouse watches over the whales and waterways at the entrance to Haro Strait, standing as a silent sentinel of the sea.

Roche Harbor

Beyond the geological wonders of these Islands lies a captivating human history. For untold centuries, the Northern Straits region has been home to the Coast Salish peoples, their civilization thriving amidst a temperate climate, fertile soil, lush timber, and abundant marine life. The tribes' stewardship transformed the landscape into a haven of plenty, drawing the attention of outsiders seeking its treasures.

The late 1700s saw the arrival of European explorers, with Francisco de Eliza of Spain among the first to lay claim to these lands, christening them the San Juans. This marked the genesis (and genocide) of a tale marked by cultural clashes and conflicting interests.

The saga of Roche Harbor unfolds like a cherished narrative, steeped in history that spans over two centuries. Picture this: in 1787, Captain Lopez de Haro and his intrepid crew were the pioneering Europeans to navigate through the lush San Juan Islands. The namesake Haro Strait, delineating the United States from (and the now Canadian) Vancouver Island, pays homage to this imperial Spanish explorer, etching his legacy into the region's geography.

Long before the dawn of development, these lands were an integral part of the flourishing Coast Salish community, once known as the whelaalk. This vibrant community spanned from what is now Roche Harbor to Lonesome Cove, standing tall opposite Speiden Island.

It wasn't until John S. McMillin, a legal luminary from Tacoma, stumbled upon the region's vast lime deposits that Roche Harbor's transformation commenced. The Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company burgeoned into a thriving enterprise by 1886, culminating in the construction of the stately 20-room Hotel de Haro around the original Hudson Bay Post, its walls fashioned from logs a foot thick. By 1890, a bustling company town had sprung up around this majestic hotel, echoing with the fervor of “progress”.

In 1956, the vast expanse of Roche Harbor—its 4,000 acres and 12 miles of coastline—found new stewardship under Reuben J. Tarte, a visionary Seattle businessman. His family embarked on a mission to revive the hotel and warehouses, transforming the region into a prestigious world-class resort.

Presently, Roche Harbor thrives under the stewardship of a partnership between Rich Komen and Illihe from Seattle, Washington. Continually evolving, the resort stands as a testament to the amalgamation of history and modernity, a captivating narrative that unfolds anew with each passing day.

Lopez Island

Yet, it was the infamous Pig War that etched the San Juan Islands into the annals of geopolitical history—a dispute between the United States and Britain, simmering for over three centuries. This disagreement was the culmination of centuries-old claims and covetous desires over the bountiful land and resources of the Pacific Northwest.

Lopez Island, situated approximately 75 miles northwest of Seattle, holds the distinction of being the third largest among the revered San Juan Islands. Spanning 29.81 square miles in land area, the island becomes a bustling hub in the summer, swelling its population to accommodate second homes, rental houses, and campsites.

The island's rich tapestry of history unfurls like a treasured scroll, with origins dating back over 14,000 years—soon after the last Ice Age. It was the sacred home to Coast Salish tribes such as the Lummi, Samish, Saanich, and Songhee. Their existence was defined by the cycle of seasons, dwelling in cedar-plank longhouses during winter and utilizing the warmer months for sustenance through hunting, fishing, and the gathering of plants.

European exploration marked a new chapter in Lopez Island's saga. While Captain Vancouver's crew explored the area in 1792, it was the astute observations of Spanish Explorer Eliza in 1791 that first recognized the island. Eliza, envisioning the San Juan group as one expansive island, charted it as "Isla y Archipelago de San Juan."

The island's first stable European settlement commenced in 1873, following the resolution of a longstanding territorial dispute between the United States and Britain, integrating Lopez Island into Washington Territory. This marked the genesis of a community sustained by farming, ranching, and fishing, fostering economic growth and unity among islanders. Today, the island thrives with a blend of regular tourists and seasonal residents, adding vibrancy and diversity to its flourishing community life.

Cattle Point Lighthouse

The Cattle Point Lighthouse, nestled on the southeastern edge of San Juan Island, holds within its sturdy walls a storied past that resonates deeply with the island's history. As I stand at this iconic spot, the southern tip of the island whispers tales of its cattle-driven nomenclature—a legacy born in 1853 when the Hudson’s Bay Company introduced sheep and cattle to these lands, unloading them near the point to populate the region.

The evolution of navigational aids at Cattle Point unveils a timeline etched in maritime history. From the humble beginnings of a lens lantern in 1888 to the installation of a U.S. Navy radio compass station in 1921, the beacon guiding seafarers continued to evolve. The towering 34-foot concrete structure we see today took form in 1935, marking an architectural milestone in the lighthouse's journey. Yet, with the advent of automation in the late 1950s, the tower underwent modifications, its lantern replaced by a 250-mm drum lens atop a short mast.

In 1984, the lighthouse briefly donned a different mantle as it served as a backdrop for an Exxon television commercial, albeit with ahistorical additions later removed. Facing the peril of erosion-induced collapse, the Coast Guard announced reinforcement plans for the structure in the summer of 2010, safeguarding its legacy.

Today, as I gaze upon the Cattle Point Lighthouse, I'm reminded of its enduring presence, a sentinel managed by the dedicated custodians of the U.S. Coast Guard, safeguarding the shores and guiding sailors through the tumultuous seas of time.

Traversing these islands, I'm enraptured by the interplay of geological evolution and human narratives. From the silent whispers of ancient stone to the vibrant echoes of human civilizations, the San Juan Islands serve as a testament to the intertwined legacy of Earth's geological processes and human endeavors—a legacy forever intertwined, etching its mark upon my very being.


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