The islands are part of a tectonic plate system that collided with the west coast of the American continent about 90 million years ago. During the process the islands were lifted, exposing a
combination of sedimentary rocks and basalt from underwater volcanic activity. The sedimentary rocks created the limestone that became quarries near Roche Harbor and the unusual sandstone shapes in the northernmost islands, like Sucia. The basalt is found throughout the islands as pillow lava on southwest San Juan Island or in the formation of Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island.
The islands and reefs were also shaped by the last glacial period about 10,000 years ago which scraped certain areas clear while depositing glacial till on the larger islands. At low tide the number of islands or reefs grows to as large as 750, depending on how an “island” is defined.
San Juan County includes virtually all of the islands west of Anacortes, excepting Lummi, Guemes, Sinclair and Cypress islands — which lie in Whatcom or Skagit county. Each of the islands carries a distinct personality based on geography, local businesses and island residents. A good local guide is recommended, such as the Muellers’ “Afoot and Afloat: The San Juan Islands,” which has detailed maps of local features and, importantly, delineates public and private lands.
The Pig War
The Oregon Treaty of 1846 between England and the United States established the 49th parallel as the border between Canada and the U.S. But language exempting Vancouver Island from American possession set up conflicting claims over the islands between the mainland and Vancouver Island..
With increasing American immigration, tensions on San Juan Island in particular started to rise between Hudson Bay Co. officials, who believed that the British had sovereignty, and American settlers. It culminated when American settler Lyman Cutlar shot a black boar belonging to Hudson Bay Co. A standoff between the two countries would begin, with soldiers being placed at opposite corners of the island in what are now parks for American Camp and English Camp.
The military standoff would put Captain George Pickett in charge of American troops and there would be no other casualties than the boar in what’s today called the “Pig War”. Pickett would leave the U.S. Army two years later in 1861 to join the Army of Virginia and would lead the infamous charge at Gettysburg. The dispute over the northwest border would not be resolved until 1871, when Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was asked to arbitrate border claims.
Places to visit
Festivals and Fairs
Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival (August)
San Juan County Fair (August)
Bikers at the Anacortes ferry terminal going to the
April Tour de Lopez ride.
Tour de Lopez (April)
How to get there
San Juan Islands
The Washington state ferry system is the public highway for the islands, leaving Anacortes for Shaw, Lopez, Orcas and San Juan islands and carrying most of the freight, cars and passengers. In addition, one ferry a day makes the trip to Vancouver Island. Occasionally the voyage itself is the experience and that’s the case with the ferries through the San Juans. They stop at the largest islands, often cross paths with whales or dolphins, and pass through a variety of ship traffic. Once we even saw a deer swimming between islands.
Passengers (and vehicles) pay only for the west-bound trip, with no tolls on the return eastbound.
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 Stationairs 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 from companies like Anacortes Yacht Charter or ABC Yacht Charter. 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.
The islands’ airports are also a popular destination for Seattle-area pilots because they are less than 30 minutes away by air.
Afoot & Afloat: The San Juan Islands
Marge & Ted Mueller, Mountaineers Books, 2008
National Park Service
“Historic Resource Study: The Pig War,” Erwin Thompson, September, 1972
University of Washington
“Geology of the San Juan Islands” Roy Davidson McLellan, 1927
Washington State Ferry Cameras
Last modified: 3/29/2010