Season: Year Round
Distance: 72 km
Access: See section intro Getting to The San Juan Islands.
San Juan Island is the last of the four big islands in the San Juan Group that draw thousands of cyclists every year. The terrain and length of the cycling circuit, 72 km, is similar to that of Orcas though the scenery is far more diverse.
The island is unique in that rudimentary public transit exists, reaching most points of interest as it loops around the island on a 40 minute schedule. As a consequence, those not willing or able to explore the island on two wheels can do so on foot.
Campgrounds abound on San Juan Island but still arriving without reservations during high season is not recommended. The ideal place to set up a tent is San Juan County Park. Situated midway along the west coast of the island, cyclists can set up a base camp from which to explore the 41 km southern half of the island one day and the shorter, 31 km opposite end the next. Though San Juan County Park officially has only 11 individual campsites and no water, dozens more can pre-empt a piece of turf in the group campground. Bottled water and a few other essentials can be purchased in the park store. The real reason San Juan County Park is so popular has little to do with its amenities or lack thereof. Rather, orcas plying the waters of Haro Strait can often be seen from the foreshore and the bluffs overlooking Smallpox Bay. From the ferry slip Beaverton Valley Road provides the most direct access to the campground.
San Juan Island is the island of choice for cetacean watching. The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor is a must-see. Many commercial whale watching packages include a stop at the public education facility as part of the tour. As part of its ongoing research, the museum maintains a toll-free hotline (1-800-562-8832) for reporting whale sightings. Confirmed recent sightings are then noted on the museum's website at the Whale Museum.
From May through September each year more than 80 individual orcas in 3 pods take up residence in the waters of the San Juan Islands. Attracted by Canadian salmon returning to the Fraser River via American waters the orcas and their smaller cousins, Dall's and Harbor porpoises, are a delight to thousands of vacationers. Though the population of the Southern Resident Community has remained stable for several decades the Canadian government declared the orcas "threatened" in 1999 due to concerns about pollution, growing maritime traffic and, particularly, over-fishing by American commercial interests.
Whale watching excursions come in many flavours from 60 foot motor cruisers, zippy, little zodiacs and kayak-based paddle tours. And while joining a tour may offer a certain amount of certainty doing so is certainly not necessary. The favourite location for land-based whale watching is just 4 km south of San Juan County Park at Lime Kiln Point State Park. The site of Lime Kiln Lighthouse since 1919, the rocky bluffs here provide the best vantage anywhere for viewing orcas, minke whales and porpoises. If statistics are anything to go by, in past mid-summers orcas passed by at least once a day 77% of the time. On a typical summer day foraging cetaceans may pass by several times. Plan on a picnic and several hours spent lounging in the sunshine to catch a glimpse. The decrepit kilns at the park attest to a once thriving lime industry on the island.
Continue exploring southward on scenic West Side Road. If you reach False Bay, 8½ km further on, at low tide plan on getting muddy while exploring the extensive tidal flats. Sandals or a pair of neoprene beach booties will save your costly cycling shoes from the ravages of salt water.
Near the southern entrance to False Bay the Pedal Inn campground caters exclusively to the cycling set. This is a full-service, private campground that features 25 walk-in sites, pay showers, laundry facilities and even a limited supply of groceries.
Unlike other destinations in the San Juan Islands, the archipelago's namesake offers generous access to the waterfront for landlubbers. The peddling public can thank a potato pilfering porker for this happy state of affairs. The slaughter of a Hudson's Bay Company pig in 1859 by an American settler sparked a controversy that became known as the "Pig War." As tensions heightened British and American forces set up encampments at opposite ends of the island. More about boundaries than bacon, the border war fortunately was never fought. Instead the dispute was eventually arbitrated by Wilhelm I of Germany. The Kaiser ruled in favour of the American claim to the pork and the British finally cleared out in 1872. Both garrisons are now national historic parks. Nearly the whole southern end of the island is devoted to the San Juan Island National Historical Park's American Camp. Interpretive history displays with staff dressed in period costumes, extensive beaches and easy hiking trails are the legacy of one time bilateral belligerence. A succession of low rocky headlands and crescents of sand comprise the shore south of the interpretive displays. These finally give way to 3 km long South Beach. The whole public foreshore extends nearly 6 km. Flanking the American Camp, Eagle Cove to the west and Cattle Beach picnic area to the east provide additional points of access. The former is a popular swimming hole while the latter features a lighthouse overlooking San Juan Channel.
On the opposite side of the peninsula a 5 km trail follows the shore of Griffin Bay as far as an inaptly-named cove called Fish Creek before looping back through grassy pastures and over the knoll called Mount Finlayson. En route look for feral rabbits grazing at the edge of forest cover. The bunnies, which once reached a population of over a quarter of a million, are thought to be descendants of livestock brought to the island by 19th-century settlers.
Stay with Cattle Point then Argyle Road to return directly to the commercial heart of the island. Friday Harbour is 10 km up island. For a less direct approach take a 5 km detour looping first along Pear Point Road and then back via Turn Point Road to experience more of the island's charming waterfront. On the way expect to encounter popular Jackson Beach, a small spit of sand adjacent to a cannery. Further along a small beachfront picnic site will be found opposite Turn Island Marine State Park.
Friday Harbour, the largest community in the San Juans, bustles with gift and craft shops, cappuccino bars and restaurants of every variety. Yet in spite of the trend towards commercialization in recent years Friday Harbour still retains much of its rural ambiance. In addition to the aforementioned Whale Museum, Friday Harbor boasts a historical museum as well. The San Juan Island Historical Museum is housed in a 19th-century farmhouse furnished and refurbished to the standards of the day.
To continue exploring the highways and by ways of the northern end of the island leave the Friday Harbor on the Roche Harbor Road. Within 7 km you'll reach marshy Sportsman Lake, a favourite haunting ground of birders.
Lakedale Campground, just a click and a half further down the road, will strike terror into the very heart of every solitude-seeking cyclist. The commercial campground boasts 120 sites, 10 of which are dedicated to cyclists. Visitors can enjoy the full range of services including pay showers, a well-supplied grocery store, canoe and rowboat rentals and even,of all things, pay fishing.
Seclusion of sorts can be found way off the beaten track at the Reuben Tarte Picnic Area at the northwest corner of the island. Birders and scuba divers in particular are drawn to the quiet beachfront here. Historic Roche Harbour Resort boasts bed and board fit for the heads of state, or fit, at least, for American Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft who both stayed at the venerable waterfront lodge. The opulent resort was once home to a bustling community of lime makers. Even if ostentation is not your thing the historic buildings and the lime kilns and quarry operations should not be overlooked. Roche Harbour was once the west coast's largest lime producing operation with an output of 15,000 barrels of lime daily.
To reach the second half of the San Juan Island National Historical Park follow West Valley Road south for 6 km from Roche Harbor. Many of the original buildings still exist at English Camp. In addition to historical displays visitors can enjoy two pleasant hikes at English Camp. One excursion winds for just a click and a half around Bell Point, following the shoreline of Garrison Bay and Westcott Bay through an landscape dominated by arbutus and fir. The second trail, somewhat longer and steeper, climbs past the British Cemetery to the summit of Mount Young. For good reason the British kept a lookout posted on the 180 metre peak. As now, observers then could enjoy a panorama encompassing the whole San Juan-Gulf Islands archipelago, extending as far as the Olympic Mountains to the southwest and Mt. Baker to the east while watching for the approach of menacing ships. Round trip to the top is 3 km.
The final stop on our circle tour of San Juan Island is Snug Harbor Resort on Mitchell Bay. Though catering to the yachting set, camping, groceries and water may be of interest to cyclists as well. San Juan County Park is just 3 km further along.
From San Juan Island hop on board the ferry once more, this time headed back for Sidney, B.C. on Vancouver Island. If intending to continue exploring this archipelago by bicycle you will no doubt find the name, the country and even the atmosphere has changed. Now called the Gulf Islands, the pace of life seems to slow considerably. As actively as tourism has been pursued in the San Juans, it has been shunned by many who have come to the Gulf Islands seeking peace and an escape from the hurley burly of the complex modern world.