Follow the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway to discover Washington's glittering archipelago.
The map looks cartoonish with puffy green islands and fancy blue seas. A dotted line—the route of the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway, crossing both land and water—wends past Skull Island Ship Peak, Deadman Bay. The wind purls over the rails of the superferry carrying cars, people, and packages across Washington’s Salish Sea. Just being on the ferry is magical, with its endless vistas from the viewing decks, the perfect vantage point to spy bald eagles feathering the breeze. But its destination is even more enchanting.
When the first of the 172 islands appears from the mist at the ferry’s prow, it seems to be floating weightless and free. The San Juan Islands sit 70 miles northwest of Seattle, accessible only by air and sea. They are, thinly populated—just 15,875 people on 179 square miles of land—but they abound in history, wilderness, and a self-contained loveliness framed by 400 miles of coast.
To get a sample of their treasures, follow the byway as its roads wind around and across the archipelago’s two largest islands—San Juan and Orcas—linked by the marine highway of the Washington State Ferries system.
“Arriving Friday Harbor!” the ferry speakers boom at my first stop. This, the biggest town on San Juan Island, is home to about 2,000 people.
I leave the ferry, park the car, and stroll to the Doctor’s Office, a café that offers sticky cinnamon rolls so tasty they might just cure what ails you. If they don’t, you can always go down to the Brickworks, a community space that hosts a farmers’ market on Saturdays, to search for healthier fare. Swing by the Whale Museum to stand beneath an orca skeleton before heading to the Cask & Schooner for tangy doubloons of scallops, mussels, and clams in a gilded saffron stew.
Your meal offers a connection to the islands’ maritime history. “At one time you could walk thigh-deep in fish through the canneries here,” says Kevin Loftus of the San Juan Historical Museum. In the 1800s, gold rush drifters settled on the islands to farm, fish, and run quicklime kilns. “Now people come to see the whales,” Loftus observes. Head to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the Haro Strait in summer to see three pods of resident orcas. All 80 of them have names: Cookie, Yoda, Surprise.
Sleep comes easy at the Island Inn, a boutique hotel with nautical flair. The next day, follow the byway clockwise through Crow Valley and past the Pelindaba Lavender Farm, which holds a fragrant festival every July. At Roche Harbor, you can find Teddy Roosevelt’s signature in the Hotel de Haro guest book, a souvenir of his 1907 visit.
The islands had not belonged to the United States for long when the 26th president visited them. For decades, British and American settlers shared the islands. Then in 1859 war nearly broke out after an American shot a British pig. Tempers flared—Yanks sent soldiers, Brits sent warships—but cooler heads prevailed and the armies settled into a 12-year détente, retreating to camps on opposite ends of San Juan Island. The islands became American for good in 1872, and these days people celebrate with pulled pork sandwiches at the Fourth of July Pig War Picnic. Today you can walk the grassy knolls at American Camp and ponder the weathered graves at English Camp.
Circle back to Friday Harbor, where the ferry leaves for Orcas Island, easing into the Wasp Passage, rounding Shaw Island, and threading the rocks to a dock at Orcas Village 50 minutes away. When you land, there’s little more than a hotel, an ice cream place, and a souvenir shop to greet you; other gems await farther down the byway.
Even Orcas’s largest settlements are mere hamlets, and the byway between them appeals to dawdling shunpikers. The route drifts toward Turtleback Mountain and along roads that rise and fall like the sea. It climbs up Moran State Park’s 2,409-foot Mount Constitution, the highest peak in the archipelago, where a stone observation tower affords panoramic views stretching as far as Vancouver, B.C., and Washington’s Mount Baker on clear days.
Elsewhere along the byway, you can launch a kayak from Crescent Beach and glide above moon jellyfish that sparkle like coins in a well. Or you might visit the late shipbuilding mogul Robert Moran’s retirement estate at Rosario Resort & Spa to hear musicians play a 1913 Aeolian organ, a room-size instrument with nearly 2,000 pipes. In Eastsound, the island’s village, you’ll find a replica of a 14,000-year-old bison skull at the Orcas Island Historical Museum, and hot-and-sour soup to slurp at the Kitchen. The outdoor soaking tubs near the cabins at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat make it easy to relax. Everything seems cozy and intimate, a world away from the pace of life back home.
It isn’t until my time in the San Juans is nearly over that I discover where the treasure map truly leads—to the confidence to cast it aside and seek out my own prizes. Near a tiny town called Olga, a road turns off the byway into the woods and a faint, unmarked trail begins. It is steep, overgrown, and quiet. Soon I’m panting as I rest on the cool, memory-foam moss of a clearing, treasure all around. The water shimmers with a blue too fragile to last. Somewhere, a boat is coming to get me.
Photography courtesy Christopher Michel/Wikimedia (orcas); Michael Feist/Wikimedia (Roche Harbor); Draugen/Wikimedia (Lime Kiln Lighthouse); courtesy Pelindaba Lavender Farm (lavender)
This article was first published in June 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.