San Juan Island & Friday Harbor Tour

The island at the center of the Pig War that killed no one.



San Juan Island and the town of Friday Harbor are abuzz with tourists during the summer, with backpackers and visitors swarming the downtown with every ferry arrival. Many come to see the two parks that were encampments for British and American soldiers in the 1860s during the “Pig War”. But Friday Harbor also has a lively nightlife, with a brew-pub, several restaurants and a harbor area that is lively with socializing boaters. And during the day it’s a center for cyclists, kayakers, divers and whale watchers.


The San Juan Islands received their name from the first European explorers, the Spaniards, who named some of the key features.  English and American settlement started after the Treaty of Oregon in 1846, which did an excellent job of defining the boundaries elsewhere along the 49th parallel.
The treaty gave all of Vancouver Island to England and all islands “westward along the said forty-ninth parallel of north latitude to the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.”  By the 1850s a dispute would arise over where “middle of the channel” was located, with the British saying it was Rosario Strait (east of Orcas Island) and Americans saying the boundary shoud be Haro Strait (west of San Juan Island). 

The Pig War

In December 1853, Hudson’s Bay Company would move a group of settlers and sheep to San Juan Island to help support its claim that the island was British territory.  Americans would respond immediately, sending tax collectors to the island but failing to collect anything.   One of the settlers was a Hawaiian native, Joseph Poalie, nicknamed Joe Friday, who raised sheep in the “New Station” settlement that would become Friday Harbor.  

View of Friday Harbor from an arriving ferry 


Officials of both countries would calm tensions over taxation and ownership until June, 1859, when one of the 29 American settlers then on the island would shoot a black boar that had trespassed into his garden.  Lyman Cutlar, who shot the pig, would go to the Hudson’s Bay Co. (HBC) manager and apologize, offering to pay for the pig.  Charles Griffin, the HBC manager, would demand more than Cutler felt was fair and would complain to officials in Victoria about American “intruders”. 

Colonial officials would threaten to arrest Cutlar and American settlers appealed to military officers for support.  By July 27, Capt. George E. Pickett would land with 66 men and within two weeks he would have an additional 100 reinforcements.  While British naval commanders would balk at starting a war over a pig, three warships were brought into the area.

The Americans located 14 cannon among earthen structures at what is now American Camp.  The earth redoubt was built by Lt. Henry Martyn Roberts, an Army engineer who would later become famous for writing “Roberts Rules of Order” for parliamentary meetings.  

 President Buchanan would send Gen. Winfield Scott to contain the conflict and by November, 1859 Scott would negotiate a temporary agreement with James Douglas, governor of the Crown Colony of British Columbia.  Both sides would withdraw reinforcements and the British could keep a warship in Griffin Bay under a joint military occupation.  The English would not put soldiers ashore at what is now English Camp in Westcott Bay on the northwest corner of the island until March, 1860.

The dispute would take a back burner to the American Civil War and not be settled until 1871, when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany arbitrated the border as Haro Strait, between San Juan Island and Vancouver Island.

George Pickett would go on the fame leading the fatal charge at Gettysburg during the third day of that battle.  HBC would leave behind the main north-south road across the island that is now Military Road.  Its Belle Vue Farm was adjacent to American Camp at the south end of the island and Charles Griffin’s name stays attached to the bay just east of American Camp.


Roche Harbor development

Limestone deposits on the northwest corner of San Juan Island were once part of the ocean floor but were gradually lifted above sea level as the islands’ tectonic plate crashed into the west coast of the American continent.  The first residents to use the limestone to create concrete were English soldiers stationed at English Camp during the 1860s.  Other settlers, including Lyman Cutlar, would also attempt to exploit the deposits around Lime Kiln Point.

Industrial development of the lime would come after John S. McMillin purchased the land around Roche Harbor and started the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Co. in 1886.  McMillin would become one of the richest Americans of his time, building a fleet of ships to carry the lime to ports as far away as San Francisco and building the Hotel de Haro on the site of the old Hudson Bay Co. trading post.  At its peak McMillin’s company would employ 800 people.

The hotel remains, as does McMillin, whose remains are buried in a nearby mausoleum a short hike from the docks.


Places to visit


Friday Harbor

Most people come ashore at the ferry landing, so Friday Harbor is a good place to start visiting the island.  The town bustles before and after a ferry landing, slowing foot and car traffic.  The ferry landing itself houses a number of businesses, including moped, three-wheeled minicars and bicycle rentals.  The town’s marina also serves as a landing area for Kenmore Air flights and the Victoria Clipper high-speed catamaran.  Kayaking and diving outfitters are located in the marina area.
Walking along the marina docks, you’ll see a wide array of boats, from local crabbing and fishing boats to large private yachts along the face pier.  Under the docks you’ll see large white anemones growing on the dock and salmon swimming through the marina.   The town of Friday Harbor also often has a band playing on weekends near the marina offices.   Make sure that you explore all of the docks, as sometimes the most interesting activity is on the transient dock where passing boaters are moored.

Band at the marina 

Walking into town, the movie theater, grocery store and most galleries are along Spring Street, which runs uphill from the harbor.  Most restaurants are on the streets crossing Spring St.  The Whale Museum at 62 N. First Street is near one of the highest points in town and a small park nearby on West Street (next to the Friday Harbor House Hotel) provides a good vista of the harbor.


The San Juan Historical Museum is at 405 Price Street, not too far from the airport.  And you won’t have much trouble spotting the airport, as prevailing winds have airplanes landing over the town most of the time.  Friday Harbor was the home of aviation author Ernest Gann (“The High and the Mighty” and “Fate is the Hunter”) until his death in 1991.  The café at the airport is “Ernie’s Café” and it has mementos of his career.


American Camp

The site of Capt. George Pickett’s camp is reached by going following signs to Cattle Point, going south on Mullis Road (later Cattle Point Road) out of Friday Harbor.  American Camp is a little more than 6 miles from the ferry landing.  On the way, the views on the east side are spectacular:
  • You can stop on the east side of the airport and watch planes land from a viewpoint above the runway.
  • You will see Griffin Bay and the San Juan Channel the way the Hudson Bay Co. settlers did from Belle Vue Farm.
  • Turtleback Mountain on Orcas Island takes on its turtle shape from viewpoints near American Camp.
  • Arriving at American Camp you’ll see the Straits of San Juan de Fuca before you, Victoria to the west, and on a clear day Port Angeles to the south (at the base of the Olympic Mountains).
  •  American Camp itself overlooks the kelp beds at the south end of the island.  The kelp attracts salmon and the salmon attract Orca whales but you’ll need binoculars to see any marine mammals.
  • You may see golden fox patrolling the hillsides hunting for rabbits or deer grazing on the grass prairies.


American Camp has an interpretive center near the site of what were once the base barracks.  The National Park Service’s “American Camp: A Historic Guided Walk” is an excellent overview. 

American Camp 

Hiking uphill, you arrive at the redoubt built to house the cannon, which overlook the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.  Military experts may wonder about the efficacy of the position, as British vessels would have been more likely to land marines behind the position in Griffin Bay.

This portion of the island is sunny and dry, getting less than half the annual rainfall of British camp, only 10 miles away.  Southeastern San Juan Island and Cattle Point lie in the Olympic Mountain rain shadow.  It makes it an excellent place to picnic.

The area on both sides of Cattle Point Road are part of the park.  Trails run down to Jakles Lagoon on Griffin Bay but make sure that you take water, as the hikes can be hot and dry.  A road also runs down to the beach from an access road about ½ mile past the interpretive center.


Cattle Point

Continuing on from American Camp, Cattle Point Road follows a ridge about 200’ above sea level along the south side of the island.  Vistas are spectacular with the Olympic Mountains and the Straits of San Juan de Fuca to the south and Victoria, BC to the west.  There are several interpretive signs along the way that explain how a unique reef netting technique was used by the Salish tribe along South Beach.

Cattle Pass and Cattle Point Lighthouse, built in  1935

Coming around the curve you’ll see Cattle Point Lighthouse and often see deer grazing in the grasslands.  Just past Cattle Point’s lighthouse is a park and picnic tables around an old Navy radio compass station.  The radio compass was used much like aeronautic VOR stations, to allow boats in the fog to determine their location. 
The Navy radio station sits above an accessible beach and just west of Goose Island, a nature preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy.   The bird sanctuary’s a haven of gulls (and noise) in the springtime.
Cattle Pass drains the entire San Juan Channel, so tidal currents run to 8 knots through this pass.  If you’re there when a sailboat’s trying to make its way against the current, the boat may be sailing backwards, even with sails full of wind.  Kelp is plentiful along these shores because of the constant stream of nutrients brought by the tide.  Again, binoculars are helpful at this location.


False Bay

Not to be missed during a minus tide (low tide below 0.0 feet) is False Bay, just west of American Camp.  This 200-acre bay empties out entirely in a minus tide, providing a chance to walk through sand and tidepools.  The area is a research laboratory for the University of Washington but is open to visitors.

False Bay, looking south into the Straits of San Juan de Fuca

Access off Cattle Point Road is on False Bay Drive, which runs west.  A short portion of the road is a gravel road that is maintained enough to be useable by cyclists.


English Camp

On the northwest corner of the island, just south of Roche Harbor, this location couldn’t be more different from the grass prairies of American Camp.  Because of its location along the Olympic Mountain rain shadow, it receives about twice the annual rainfall.  The British soldiers stationed here planted lush English gardens in a site surrounded by tall Douglas fir trees.

English Camp, 1870.  The blockhouse remains today (under the flag), as does the commissary building behind it

English Camp is about 10 miles from the ferry.  The quickest way to get there is past Friday Harbor High School along Roche Harbor Road.  After eight miles you’ll come to West Valley Road, then go south about 1.5 miles.

But don’t do the trip too quickly or you’ll miss the farm with a camel on the south side of Roche Harbor Road.  Or the San Juan Vineyards on the north side.

The barracks, gardens and wharf at English Camp are all along Westcott Bay in an area that’s easy enough to reach that there is wheelchair access.  Less visited is the portion of the park that is just east of the West Valley Road, where trails lead up to Young Hill, 650’ above sea level.  The small cemetery for the British encampment (population: 7) is located along the trail.

Most of San Juan Island is a good place to bike, including all of the way to English Camp (and north to Roche Harbor).  However, the West Valley and Mitchell Bay roads south of English camp are narrow, shaded, hilly and curvy, making caution necessary.


Roche Harbor

More than any other location in the San Juans, Roche Harbor is likely to remind visitors from the northeast of the coast of Maine.  It has beautiful old wooden buildings surrounding a well-enclosed harbor; tall trees on the hills nearby; and scarcely a yacht under 40’ long.

Lime kilns adjacent to new developments at Roche Harbor 


The last kiln was shut down here in the 1950s after limestone deposits were used up.  But the kilns and storage silos are still present in what’s becoming a modern resort village.  The center of the village is the Hotel de Haro, which has its guest book with Teddy Roosevelt’s signature in it from a 1907 visit.  In front of the hotel sits an English garden created by the wife of John C. McMillin, who developed the limestone processing company on the site. 
Roche Harbor’s a site of varied delights and signs everywhere point the directions to a place to visit.  If your traveling companions want to browse the shops or art displays, you can hike up to McMillin’s mausoleum and the cemetery.  McMillin was a Mason and the mausoleum, with six complete — and one broken column — is intended as a symbol of Masonic beliefs.  
Above the village there are trails through the old quarry, which still has railroad tracks and abandoned machinery.  The chapel in Roche Harbor, built by the McMillans, was originally a Methodist Church.  In 1960 it became the only privately-owned Catholic chapel in the U.S.  

In the marina there’s a café for casual dining as well as McMillin’s Dining Room for fine dining.

Also, coming into Roche Harbor you’ll also pass through the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park opposite the Roche Harbor Airport.

If you’re flying into the Roche Harbor airport and it looks like you’re landing on the road, it is because a portion of the runway once was the road to Roche Harbor.

As with the trip to English Camp, you get to the village along the Roche Harbor Road, but the resort is north on at the West Valley intersection for another 1.4 miles.

Finally, if you’d like to visit an oyster farm, you can stop on the way into Roche Harbor at Westcott Bay Sea Farms.  Their oysters are served at restaurants through western Washington.


Lime Kiln Point State Park

On the west side of the island is Lime Kiln Point, which looks out onto Victoria, BC across the Haro Strait.  During the day it is popular with whale watchers, as salmon tend to run through kelp beds along the south and west sides of the island, bringing whales.   Orcas are the largest and most-visible (bring the binoculars here too) but you’re equally likely to see Minke whales, which are small and often confused with dolphins or porpoises.  At sunset this park is highly popular. 

Lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point at sunset 

The park includes a lighthouse, built in 1919, and remnants of two lime kilns that only operated for about two years until 1920.

On the way to Lime Kiln Park you may want to stop at Pelindaba Lavender Farm, also called the Pi Farm.  Pelindaba, which commercializes a variety of lavender products, has a large collection of stainless steel sculptures done by Micajah Bienvenue, including the large Greek letter Pi.  The farm is on Wold Road opposite a large lake, ½ mile north of Bailer Hill Road.  Pelindaba also has a retail store on 1st Street in Friday Harbor.


Festivals and fairs


Artstock, Friday Harbor (October)


Fourth of July Parade (10 a.m., July 4) 
The parade brings in participants from around the county, including students at the Canoe Island French Camp.


Friday Harbor Farmers Market (Saturdays, April-October)


Friday Harbor Laboratories (special events)
Once open to the public, these University of Washington labs are no longer available for tours.  The labs are the large facility on the north side of the harbor that arriving ferry passengers pass.  However, open houses are held at least once each year and in July the labs host a jazz festival:

Pig War Picnic – San Juan County Historical Museum (July 4)

San Juan County Fair (August)


How to get there


The Washington state ferry system is the public highway for the islands, leaving Anacortes for Shaw, Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands.  In addition, one ferry a day makes the trip to Vancouver Island.  Passengers (and vehicles) pay only for the west-bound trip.

Schedules change for each season.  Reservations are taken ONLY for the international ferry to Vancouver Island.  During non-peak hours, passengers often arrive 30 minutes before sailing but it is wise to check the Anacortes terminal website or one of the ferrycams operated by the state to see if lines are longer, which they often are on weekends.   Parking is also available at Anacortes for walk-on and bike passengers.

The Victoria Clipper, a high-speed catamaran, also serves the islands with passenger only service from downtown Seattle.  Kenmore Air is a float plane service that provides air transportation between Seattle and three of the largest islands.  San Juan Airlines also operates Cessna Stationair planes to the airports at Friday Harbor, Lopez Island, Eastsound (on Orcas Island) and Roche Harbor.

For access to the smaller islands, boats can be chartered in Anacortes.  Those interested in chartering should inquire in detail about reef areas, which are abundant around the islands.  Captains should also be equipped with tide charts, as at their peak some areas like Cattle Point (between Lopez and San Juan Island) have a tidal current of 8 knots or more. 
Anacortes Yacht Charter 
ABC Yacht Charter

There are taxis on San Juan Island as well as a private bus system that services the major resorts.


Dining and Accommodations



There is no shortage of state, county and national parks on this island but public camping is in short supply.  San Juan County manages the public camping slots at the county park on the west side (at Smallpox Bay) through a reservation system.

Private camping is available at Lakedale Resort at the north side, halfway between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor.  The resort has cabins, tent cabins and plain old camping spots, along with full facilities and trout fishing in the lake.

On the west side, Snug Harbor Resort (just south of English Camp) offers camping and a variety of other outdoor activities.

As with all of the San Juan chain, bed & breakfast options are plentiful.  One that is unique to Friday Harbor is the Wharfside B&B aboard the 60’ wooden ship, Slow Season.  The host and hostess are a retired Austrian couple.

Finally there’s no shortage of hotels in Friday Harbor – and let us not forget Roche Harbor either.

Friday Harbor Suites

We found the suites at the Best Western Friday Harbor excellent for a group of four cyclists riding in the islands because they provide a kitchen, separate bedrooms and a hallway that could have been designed by M.C. Escher.
(800) 752-5752


Roche Harbor Resort

The resort offers a variety of accommodations, from the Hotel de Haro to brand new condominiums.
(800) 451-8910


Friday Harbor House

This hotel sits atop downtown Friday Harbor, so it has excellent views.  It also has built a reputation for fine dining at its Bluff Restaurant.  Note to cooking buffs: they also offer cooking classes.
(866) 722-7356





Downrigger’s is located directly across the street from San Juan Brewing on Front Street.  In warm weather this sea food restaurant doubles its capacity with an open deck over the harbor.

10 Front Street
(360) 378-2700

The Bluff Restaurant in Friday Harbor House is one of the fine dining locations on the island and Roche Harbor’s McMillin’s Dining Room is the other.  McMillin’s is about a century older than the Bluff.
McMillin’s Dining Room at Roche Harbor 


Bluff Restaurant
130 West Street
(360) 378-8455
McMillin’s Dining Room
Roche Harbor, WA
(800) 451-8910


Nearby attractions


The state ferry runs to three other large islands in the San Juan chain:
Orcas Island
Shaw Island


The international ferry also connects Friday Harbor to Victoria, BC once each day.  Note that reservations are recommended for vehicle traffic and passports or other secured IDs are required for all passengers.  Oh, and don’t mistakenly get on the international ferry on the way back to Anacortes (like I once did with a French visitor that I’d told not to bother bringing a passport) because you’ll still have to clear customs, even if you’re coming from one of the U.S. islands.




“Afoot & Afloat: The San Juan Islands”
Marge & Ted Mueller, Mountaineers Books, 2008
“San Juan County – Thumbnail History,” Kit Oldham, October 4, 2005


National Park Service
“Belle Vue Sheep Farm,” Boyd Pratt, undated


National Park Service
“The Pig War”


National Park Service
“Historic Resource Study: The Pig War,” Erwin Thompson, September, 1972


Roche Harbor Resort
“History,” undated







Last edited: 3/30/2011