The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the northwest corner of the contiguous United States between the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. The San Juan Islands are part of the U.S. state of Washington.
Archaeologists use the term "Gulf of Georgia Culture Area" to refer to the San Juan and Gulf Islands, the whole of which shows many archaeological commonalities. The San Juan Islands were part of the traditional area of various peoples of the Coast Salish ethnolinguistic group. Linguistically, Coast Salish groups in the area consist of the Nooksack, Northern Straits (which includes the Lummi, Klallam, Saanich, Samish and Songhees dialects). Exploration and settlement by Europeans brought smallpox to the area by the 1770s.
The explorations of 1791 were carried out in partnership with the Royal Navy ships under the command of George Vancouver, while American explorations were led by Charles Wilkes. Despite having colonized the area entirely, the British and Americans retained many of the Spanish names which survive today.
The name "San Juan" was given to the islands by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, who charted the islands in 1791, naming them Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan. The expedition sailed under the authority of the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo and Eliza named several places for him, including the San Juan Islands, Orcas Island (short for "Horcasitas") and Guemes Island. San Juan Island's first European discoverer was one of the officers under Eliza's command, Gonzalo López de Haro, for whom Haro Strait is named. The Spanish had found the islands a year earlier during the exploring voyage of Manuel Quimper on the Princesa Real, but it was not clear to them that they were islands.
Vancouver's expedition occurred within a year of Eliza's, and Vancouver encountered other Spanish ships and traded information. Thus Vancouver knew of the names given by Eliza's expedition and tended to keep them, although he renamed some features, like the Strait of Georgia. Wilkes, sailing in 1841, had some British charts, but may not have been aware of the Spanish names and charts. He liberally gave new names to nearly every coastal feature not already named on the charts he had. The names that Wilkes gave tended to be patriotically American (heroes of the War of 1812 for example), or to honor members of his crew.
In 1847, due to the confusion of multiple names on different charts, the British Admiralty reorganized the official charts of the region. The project, led by Henry Kellett, applied only to British territory, which at the time included the San Juan Islands, but not Puget Sound. Kellett systematically kept the British and Spanish names and removed nearly all of Wilkes' names. In some cases Kellett moved Spanish names around to replace names given by Wilkes. Thus, in Puget Sound, the names given by Wilkes are common and Spanish names rare, while the reverse is true for the San Juan and Gulf Islands, although the Spanish did not explore Puget Sound as thoroughly as the British and Americans, resulting in fewer Spanish names at the outset. Wilkes had given the name Navy Archipelago to the San Juan Islands, and named individual islands for distinguished officers of the US Navy, such as Rodgers Island for San Juan Island, and Hull Island for Orcas Island. Some of his names survived the editing of Kellett, such as Chauncey, Shaw, Decatur, Jones, Blakely, Perry, Sinclair, Lawrence, Gordon, and Percival, all named after American naval officers.
In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Camosun at nearby Vancouver Island. The 1846 Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S. west to the middle of the Strait of Georgia, and then by the main channel south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from there westwards to the open ocean. While both sides agreed that all of Vancouver Island would remain British, the treaty did not specify which channel the boundary should follow between the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, resulting in a boundary dispute. This dispute, though simmering immediately in the wake of the treaty, escalated in the 1850s. In 1852 the Territory of Oregon created Island County, defined to include the San Juan Islands (or "Haro Archipelago"). In 1853 Island County became part of the newly created Washington Territory. Washington Territory's legislature created Whatcom County out of parts of Island County, including the San Juan Islands.
In 1855, Washington Territory levied a property tax on properties of the Hudson's Bay Company on San Juan Island, which the HBC refused to pay. Washington Territory then advertised and sold the properties to satisfy the unpaid taxes. This led to talks between the governors of Washington Territory and the Colony of Vancouver Island. It soon became clear that the US claimed Haro Strait as the international border, while Britain claimed Rosario Strait, with both sides laying claim to the San Juan Islands. The escalating dispute led to the Pig War in 1859 and the resulting San Juan Dispute, which was a protracted diplomatic confrontation. Effectively a stalemate, with no clear legal arguments, it continued until the boundary issue was eventually placed in the hands of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany for arbitration in 1871. The border, through Haro Strait, was finally established in 1872.
The islands were heavily logged in the nineteenth century, but now have an extensive second-growth coast Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii), Pacific madrone (Arbutus menziesii), red alder (Alnus rubra) and bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) forest. There are rare stands of old-growth Douglas fir and western redcedar (Thuja plicata). In the highlands one also finds grand fir (Abies grandis), western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and other subalpine trees.
The San Juan Islands host the greatest concentration of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) in the contiguous United States. Great blue herons (Ardea herodias), black oystercatchers (Haematopus bachman), and numerous shorebirds are found along the shore and in winter, the islands are home to trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator), Canada goose (Branta canadensis) and other waterfowl. Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus), northern harriers (Circus cyaneus), barred owls (Strix varia) and other birds of prey are found. In addition diving birds such as rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), pigeon guillemots (Cepphus columba) and endangered marbled murrelet (Brachyramphus marmoratus) frequent the surrounding seas. Western bluebirds (Sialia mexicana), which were eliminated from the islands 50 years ago because of competition for nesting sites by non-native European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), were recently restored to San Juan Island thanks to the efforts of volunteers and conservation organizations.
The islands are famous for their resident pods of orcas (Orcinus orca). There are three resident pods that eat salmon, but also some transient orcas that come to take harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). Other marine mammals include the river otter (Lontra canadensis), Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus), common minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata), Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) and other cetaceans.
Columbia black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) are the largest mammals on the San Juan Islands, which are unusual in their historic absence of large carnivores, except for wolves (Canis lupus) which were extirpated in the 1860s. Dr. Caleb B. R. Kennerly, surgeon and naturalist, collected a wolf specimen on Lopez Island, which is now in the National Museum of Natural History, probably during the Northwest Boundary Survey from 1857 to 1861. Also, there is a specimen of elk in the Slater Museum of Natural History at the University of Puget Sound that was collected on Orcas Island, and old-timers report finding elk antlers on both Lopez and Orcas Islands.
Before 1850, most of the freshwater on the islands was held in beaver (Castor canadensis) ponds, although the aquatic mammal was extirpated by Hudson's Bay Company fur stations at Fort Langley and San Juan Island. Remnants of beaver dams number in the hundreds across the archipelago. Gnawed stumps and beaver sign are now seen on Orcas and other islands, and recolonization by this keystone species is likely to lead to increased abundance and diversity of birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants. In spring, 2011 a pair of beaver appeared at Killebrew Lake on Orcas Island, but were killed to avoid flooding a phone company switch box buried under Dolphin Bay Road. These beaver likely swam from the mainland and could have recolonized the islands.
Northern sea otter (Enhydra lutis kenyoni) remains are documented on Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands archipelago. In 1790, Spanish explorer Manuel Quimper traded copper sheets for sea otter pelts at Discovery Bay, for live sea otters captured north of the bay in the "interior" of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Although historical records of sea otter in the San Juan Islands are sparse, there is a sea otter specimen collected in 1897 in the "Strait of Fuca" in the National Museum of Natural History. When the sea otter finally received federal protection in 1911, Washington's sea otter had been hunted to extinction, and although a small remnant population still existed in British Columbia, it soon died out. Fifty-nine sea otters were re-introduced to the Washington coast from Amchitka Island, Alaska in the summers of 1969 and 1970 and these have expanded by 8% per year, mainly along the outer west and northwest coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Professional marine mammal biologists verified a single sea otter observed near Cattle Point, San Juan Island in October 1996. Although the historical numbers of sea otter in the San Juan Islands is not known, the habitat for them may have once been ideal.
In the 1890s non-native European rabbits, an exotic invasive species, began to infest the islands as the result of the release of domestic rabbits on Smith Island. Rabbits from the San Juan Islands were used later for several introductions of European rabbits into other, usually Midwestern, states. The rabbits are pursued by Eurasian red fox (Vulpes vulpes), another non-native species introduced intermittently through the twentieth century.
The United States Geological Survey (USGS) defines the San Juan Islands as the archipelago north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west of Rosario Strait, east of Haro Strait, and south of Boundary Pass. To the north lie the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. All these waters are within the Salish Sea. The USGS definition of the San Juan archipelago coincides with San Juan County. Islands not in San Juan County are not part of the San Juan Islands, according to the USGS.
Politically, the San Juan Islands comprise, by definition, San Juan County, Washington.
At mean high tide, the archipelago comprises over 400 islands and rocks, 128 of which are named, and over 478 miles (769 km) of shoreline.
The majority of the San Juan Islands are quite hilly, with some flat areas and valleys in between, often quite fertile. The tallest peak is Mount Constitution, on Orcas Island, at an elevation of almost exactly a 1⁄2 mile (2,600 ft; 800 m). The coastlines are a mix of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, ochre-colored madrona trees (Arbutus) grace much of the shorelines, while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.
The San Juan Islands get less rainfall than Seattle, about 65 miles (105 km) to the south, due to their location in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains to the southwest. Summertime high temperatures are around 70 °F (21 °C), while average wintertime lows are in the high 30s and low 40s Fahrenheit (around 5 degrees Celsius). Snow is infrequent in winter, except for the higher elevations, but the islands are subject to high winds at times; those from the northeast sometimes bring brief periods of freezing and Arctic-like wind chills.
There are no bridges to the San Juan Islands; therefore, all travel from the mainland is either by water or by air.
Four ferry systems serve some of the San Juan Islands.
Passenger-only ferries serve more islands. Passenger-only ferry service is usually seasonal and offered by private business.
Air service to the San Juan Islands is provided by the following:
The San Juan Islands are surrounded by major shipping channels. Haro Strait, along with Boundary Pass, is the westernmost and most heavily used channel connecting the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia. It is the main route connecting the Port of Vancouver and other ports around the Strait of Georgia with the Pacific Ocean. Haro Strait joins Boundary Pass at Turn Point on Stuart Island, where a major navigation beacon, Turn Point Light, is located. Strong, dangerous rip tides occur near Turn Point, as well as near the northern end of Boundary Pass, between Patos Island Light on Patos Island and East Point on Saturna Island.
Rosario Strait is also a major shipping channel. More than 500 oil tankers pass through the strait each year, to and from the Cherry Point Refinery and refineries near Anacortes. The strait is in constant use by vessels bound for Cherry Point, Bellingham, Anacortes, and the San Juan Islands. Vessels bound for British Columbia or Alaska also frequently use it in preference to the passages farther west, when greater advantage can be taken of the tidal currents.
This list includes only those islands that are part of San Juan County as defined by the USGS, bounded by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Haro Strait, Rosario Strait, Boundary Pass, and the Strait of Georgia.
The Anacortes–San Juan Islands ferry routes are operated by Washington State Ferries. The routes serve Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island, San Juan Island, and Vancouver Island.The routes follow Coast Salish canoe routes from Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, across Rosario Strait, and through Thatcher Pass. In the fall and winter, the water becomes very rough on Rosario Strait, often resulting in canceled runs.
During summer months, the routes are served by five vessels, three for domestic travel to the islands, one for inter island travel between the islands, and one for international travel between Anacortes and Sidney BC (Vancouver Island).The main vessels on the Anacortes–San Juan Islands routes are:
M/V Chelan (serves Sidney, BC route in Summer)
M/V Tillikum (exclusively interisland vessel)
M/V Elwha (serves Sidney, BC route in Spring/Fall)Clark Island (Washington)
Clark Island is an island in the San Juan Islands of the U.S. state of Washington. It is located near Barnes Island off the northeast coast of Orcas Island. Clark Island Marine State Park, which encompasses the entire 55-acre (22 ha) island, has two picnicking sites, 15 primitive campsites, and nine mooring buoys.The name was given by Charles Wilkes during the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, in honor of John Clark, a midshipman who was killed during the Battle of Lake Erie of the War of 1812. The island, along with nearby Barnes Island, had been named Islas de Aquays in 1792, by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, in honor of Eliza's patron, the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.Washington State Parks acquired Clark Island from the Bureau of Land Management in 1964 for $137.63.Goose Island (San Juan Islands)
Goose Island is one of the San Juan Islands in San Juan County, Washington, United States.Hector (steamboat 1897)
Hector was a small steam vessel built in Roche Harbor, Washington in 1897. The vessel was worked as a cannery tender and a tug boat in the San Juan Islands and on Puget Sound from 1897 to 1913.James Island (San Juan Islands)
James Island is one of the San Juan Islands in San Juan County, Washington, United States. It lies in Rosario Strait just off the eastern shore of Decatur Island and west of the city of Anacortes. The entire island comprises James Island State Park of the Washington State Park System. It has a land area of 113 acres (46 ha) with 12,335 feet (3,760 m) of saltwater shoreline. The island has no potable water or residents. It has three different camping areas, each with at least one toilet. The camping areas combine for a total of 13 campsites and are connected by a loop trail. James Island was named by Charles Wilkes in 1841 to commemorate the naval hero Reuben James. The property was transferred from the federal government to the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission in 1964.Lopez Island
Lopez Island is the third largest of the San Juan Islands and an unincorporated town in San Juan County, Washington, United States. Lopez Island is 29.81 square miles (77.2 km2) in land area. The 2000 census population was 2,177, though the population swells in the summer, as second homes, rental houses and campsites fill up.Matia Island
Matia Island (MAY-shə) is an island in the San Juan Islands of the U.S. state of Washington. The island's entire 145 acres (59 ha) comes under the protection of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is cooperatively managed by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. Matia Island is a National Wildlife Refuge, part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. A 2-acre (0.81 ha) camping area around Rolfe Cove is managed as a State Marine Park by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission under an agreement dating back to 1959. Pets, wood collecting, and campfires (excluding liquid fuel campstoves) are not allowed on the island. Except for the Wilderness Loop Trail and the campground, all areas above the high tide line are closed to the public.Moran State Park
Moran State Park is a public recreation area on Orcas Island in Puget Sound's San Juan Islands in the state of Washington, United States. The state park encompasses over 5,000 acres of various terrain including forests, wetlands, bogs, hills, and lakes. It is the largest public recreation area in the San Juan Islands and the fourth largest state park in the state. A park focal point is the observation tower atop Mount Constitution.Orcas Island
Orcas Island () is the largest of the San Juan Islands, which are located in the northwestern corner of Washington state in San Juan County, Washington, United States.Patos Island
Patos Island is a small island in the San Juan Islands of the U.S. state of Washington. Since 1893, it has been home to the Patos Island Lighthouse, guiding vessels through Boundary Pass between Canada and the United States. The name comes from the Spanish pato, meaning "duck," which was given to the island in 1792 by Commander Dionisio Alcalá Galiano of the Sutil and Captain Cayetano Valdés y Flores of the Mexicana.The island and adjacent islets comprise Patos Island State Park, a 207-acre (0.84 km2) marine park with 20,000 feet (6,100 m) of saltwater shoreline. The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission began operating Patos Island as a state park under a lease agreement with the Bureau of Land Management in 1974. The entire island is owned by the federal government and is administered by the Bureau of Land Management's Wenatchee Office. The Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission operates a small campground facility at Active Cove near the west side of the island, maintains a 1.5-mile (2.4 km) loop trail, and has two offshore mooring buoys.The entire island, including the lighthouse, is part of the San Juan Islands National Monument, created in 2013.Pig War (1859)
The Pig War was a confrontation in 1859 between the United States and United Kingdom over the British–U.S. border in the San Juan Islands, between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The Pig War, so called because it was triggered by the shooting of a pig, is also called the Pig Episode, the Pig and Potato War, the San Juan Boundary Dispute and the Northwestern Boundary Dispute. With no shots exchanged and no human casualties, this dispute was a bloodless conflict.San Juan Island
San Juan Island is the second-largest and most populous of the San Juan Islands in northwestern Washington, United States. It has a land area of 142.59 km² (55.053 sq mi) and a population of 6,822 as of the 2000 census.
Washington State Ferries serves Friday Harbor, which is San Juan Island's major population center, the San Juan County seat, and the only incorporated town in the islands.San Juan Islands National Monument
San Juan Islands National Monument is a U.S. National Monument located in the Salish Sea in the state of Washington. The monument protects archaeological sites of the Coast Salish peoples, lighthouses and relics of early European American settlers in the Pacific Northwest, and biodiversity of the island life in the region. The monument was created from existing federal land by President Barack Obama on March 25, 2013 under the Antiquities Act.San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge
The San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge is in the San Juan Islands of the Salish Sea, north of Puget Sound, in the State of Washington. Created in 1976, it comprises 83 small, uninhabited islands, scattered throughout the San Juans, with a combined area of approximately 454 acres (1.84 km2). The Refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
All but two of the islands are designated Wilderness Areas. Visitors are prohibited, and boaters must keep at least 200 yards from the shore to avoid disturbing the wildlife. The other two islands in the refuge, Matia Island and Turn Island, are state parks, managed jointly with the Washington State Park System, and are accessible only by boat.
The habitats of the various islands range from small rocks to larger grassy or forested islands, some with high cliffs that provide nesting sites for a large variety of marine birds.Skull Island (Washington)
Skull Island is the name of two small islands in the San Juan Archipelago in the U.S. state of Washington. The northernmost Skull Island is located off the coast of Orcas Island in Massacre Bay, the most northern extension of the island's West Sound. It is identified as 3.7-acre (1.5 ha) Skull Island State Park Property by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. It was named for holding skulls and bones of a band of Lummi who were killed by raiding Haida in 1858. Since 2013, it has been part of the San Juan Islands National Monument.Another Skull Island in the same archipelago is located exactly fourteen miles south-southeast at 48°27′56″N 122°49′59″W in Mud Bay, part of Lopez Sound, between the Sperry Peninsula of Lopez Island and Fortress Island.Sucia Island
Sucia Island () is located 2.5 miles (4.0 km) north of Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands, San Juan County, Washington, United States. It is the largest of an archipelago of ten islands including Sucia Island, Little Sucia, Ewing, Justice, Herndon, the Cluster Islands islets, and several smaller, unnamed islands. The group of islands is about 2.5 miles (4.0 km) in length and just short of a half mile wide. Sucia island is roughly the shape of a hand. The total land area of all islands is 2.74 km² (1.058 sq mi, or 677 acres). The main island of Sucia Island by itself is 2.259 km² (0.8722 sq mi, or 558.1 ac). There was a permanent population of four persons as of the 2000 census, all on Sucia Island. Sucia Island State Park is a Washington State Marine Park.Turn Island
Turn Island is a 34-acre (14 ha) island in the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea in the U.S. state of Washington. The island sits in the San Juan Channel about 900 feet off the eastern edge of San Juan Island. It is preserved as Turn Island Marine State Park and is part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The island has 12 campsites and is only accessible by water.Washington State Ferries
Washington State Ferries (WSF) is a government agency that operates automobile and passenger ferry service in the U.S. state of Washington as part of the Washington State Department of Transportation. It runs ten routes serving 20 terminals located around Puget Sound and in the San Juan Islands, designated as part of the state highway system. The agency maintains the largest fleet of ferries in the United States at 23 vessels, carrying 24.2 million passengers in 2016. As of 2016, it was the largest ferry operator in the United States, and the fourth-largest ferry system in the world.Yellow Island
Yellow Island, one of the San Juan Islands, is an 11-acre (4.5 ha) island, located south-west of Orcas Island, and north of Shaw Island, near Jones Island State Park, in San Juan County, Washington, United States. The island is home to a wide array of flora and fauna, including over 50 species of wildflowers, bald eagles, harbor seals, black oystercatchers, and harlequin ducks. The island was purchased in 1979 by The Nature Conservancy, and is administered as a nature preserve.