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San Juan Islands: 9 Amazing Things To Know

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by mypubliclands

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San Juan Islands are one of the hundreds of islands that lie in the stretch between the USA’s capital state of Washington and Canada’s Vancouver Island, in the province of British Columbia. Among the other prominent islands found in the Salish Sea are Orcas Island, Shaw Island, and Lopez Island. 

Most of the islands found in this region are uninhabited by man. The cluster of islands of which the San Juan Islands are a part is commonly referred to as an archipelago. In this post, we take a detailed look at one of the most famous islands of the lot, the San Juan Islands!


by BLM Oregon & Washington

San Juan Islands: 9 Amazing Things To Know

Towards the end of the article, you will come to know its History, Wildlife, Transportation, and Tourism. To find out more about these Islands, keep reading this article.


In Archaeological terms, the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands are known as the “Gulf of Georgia Culture area” as they culturally share many similarities. Traditionally, these Islands were inhabited by various coastal Salish ethnolinguistic groups. Linguistically, coastal Salish groups consist of native American groups known as Nook Sack and Northern straits, including other dialects such as Lummi, Klallam, Saanich, Songhees, and Samish.

During the colonial era, the European powers started exploring the world in search of new colonies. As Spain was one of Europe’s powerful countries, it too started expeditions in search of new worlds. In one of these expeditions, the Spanish came across these islands in the 1790s when Manuel Quimper went on a voyage by a ship named Princesa Real. In English, this ship is called Princess Royal. However, they could not figure out that these were islands.

In 1791, A Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza came across these islands; he named them Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan. The expedition officially took place under the sovereignty of Mexico’s viceroy, known as Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.

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Gonzalo López de Haro, one of Eliza’s officers, was the first man to discover the islands. It was after him Haro strait got its name. In 1791, José María Narváez, a pilot of Eliza’s Crew, explored The San Juans. It was he who explored the Strait of Georgia.

In 1792, George Vancouver, under the British Vancouver expedition, explored the San Juan Islands. Around the same time, Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores were inspecting the San Juan islands under the Spanish expedition. Later, British and Spanish explorers explored The San Juan Islands; with cooperation.

In 1841, Charles Wilkes further explored The San Juan Islands under the United States Exploring Expedition. He had British charts and maps which did not contain any names given by the Spanish explorers. Wilkes did not know about the Spanish Names given by Eliza’s crew. So, he gave names to every coastal feature that was not given a name on the map that he possessed. One can notice that Wilkes gave the Names that were patriotically American.

by BLM Oregon & Washington

These names primarily included the members of his crew or the US war heroes of 1812. Vancouver started his expedition of the San Juan islands within a year of Eliza’s. It was then he came to know about the names given by Eliza and recognized them. However, he renamed certain places, such as the Strait of Georgia.

As there were different names on the Offical charts, this led to confusion. In 1847, the British diplomats reorganized the official maps to resolve this issue. Henry Kellett led the project that applied only to the territories of Britain. At that time, the San Juan Islands were among Britain’s lands. Kellett retained all the names of British and Spanish. He, however, did not consider the names given by Wilkes. Wilkes named the San Juan islands as Navy Archipelago.

The San Juan Islands are popularly known for adventure sports such as sea kayaking and orca whale watching. San Juan Island’s Lime Kiln Point State Park is popularly known for Whale watching.

 Wild Life

The San Juan Islands mostly consists of hilly terrains with valleys in between that are fertile. Located on Orcas Island, Mount Constitution is the tallest peak that has an elevation of 2,407 feet. The coastlines are a mixture of sandy and rocky beaches. Most of the islands have fir and pine trees.


by BLM Oregon & Washington

These Islands became a shelter to a variety of plant, bird, and animal species. Plants include coast Douglas fir, Pacific Madrone, Red Alder, and Big Leaf Maple. Highlands of the Island became suitable for Grand fir and Western Hemlock.

The San Juan Islands are home to Bald Eagles, Blue Herons, Oystercatchers. In winter’s migratory birds such as Trumpeter Swans, Canada Geese flock to these islands. Birds of prey such as Falcons, Harriers, Owls are common; across these islands. Coastal diving birds such as Auklet, Guillemots, and Marbled Murrelet are also common. Thanks to wildlife conservation organizations and their volunteers for restoring Western Bluebirds on these islands.

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The water surrounding the islands is home to many aquatic animals such as Orcas, Seals, Otters, Sea lions, Minke Whales, and Dall’s Porpoise, among other minor species. 

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Columbia Deer is the largest mammal found on these Islands. There are also sightings of Rabbits and Red Foxes across these Islands.


There are no bridges from the mainland to reach these islands. One can get to these islands by ferry or by airplane.

Water Services

There are ferry systems that offer services to some of the islands. Washington State Ferries operate services from and to Shaw Island, Lopez Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island.

by Rose Braverman


Clipper Navigation’s Victoria Clipper operates ferry services from Vancouver Island and Seattle to Friday harbor. San Juan Cruises offer charter services to Sinclair Island, Blakely Island, Lopez Island, Eliza Island, Orcas Island. North Shore Charters operate a water taxi service to all of the major destinations of the San Juan Islands.

Air Services

With the advancement of technology and innovations in the aviation industry, air travel became quite affordable.

by BLM Oregon & Washington

Kenmore Air operates services to and from Orcas Island, Seattle/Boeing Field, Seattle/Lake Union, Roche Harbor. San Juan Airlines operate services to and from Anacortes to the other San Juan Islands.

Friday Harbor Seaplanes operate services to and from Friday Harbor and Roche harbor.
Major shipping channels surround the San Juan Islands, such as Rosario Strait. Haro strait is one that connects both the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. It also connects the port of Vancouver and other ports with the pacific ocean.


Things You Must Do When You Visit San Juan Island

If you visit these Islands, Friday Harbor is a must; It is a small little town in San Juan County, Washington, that spans about two square miles in size. It is a colorful town with small restaurants, book stores, museums, and art galleries.


Limekiln state park is a Washington state park that spans around 42 acres. Located on the Western shore of San Juan Island, it has a functional lighthouse known as LimeKiln Light, which guides ships through the Haro strait. Tourists come to this park to enjoy whale watching, picnicking, and hiking.

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If you are not satisfied with watching whales from the Limekiln state park, or if you did not see the whales from the Limekiln state park, you can book a ferry and have a whale-watching boat tour.

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The whale museum is in Friday harbor. They have a lot of information about southern resident Orcas. If you are planning to adopt an Orca, you are in the right place. The money that you spend on this goes to Orca related education and research. In return, they give an Orca adoption certificate, a discount on the merchandise, and a year-long membership.

Lavender farms on these Islands are free to visit. You can experience different strains of Lavender. There is a shop on the farm that you can visit to buy products made of Lavender, such as soaps, perfumes, lotions, oils, and many other products. You also get a chance to know how they create these products using Lavender.

The south beach is famous for its driftwood. If you are interested in camping and bonfires, it is a great place.

by Ed Suominen

The sculpture park is in Roche Harbor, located on the northern part of the Island. It covers about twenty acres of land, there are many trails, and it has a pond too. There is a sandpit for kids to play in.

If you are interested in adventure sports, you can go kayaking and hiking.

Sea Kayaking

Many businesses on the Island offer kayaking tours. Kayaking will give you a good experience of the islands. While kayaking, you might see an Orca. However, you will come across jellyfish, eagles, sea lions, and other wildlife on the Island.

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The numerous hiking trails in San Juan Island make it a perfect place for going on a hiking trip. Each trail has its unique and different wildlife. Jakle’s Lagoon is a very well known place for hiking.

by BLM Oregon & Washington

Visting these Islands might give a different perspective about life. If you consider visiting the San Juan islands, Click here.



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