Back in June, I had one of my best weekends of the summer—a two day cycling trip on Washington’s San Juan Island. Just days before our departure I was perusing John Crouch’s Cycling the Islands. I was looking for an island within reasonable distance of Vancouver, with great cycling and scenery that wasn’t too large, too small, too mountainous, too flat, too busy, too quiet, too beholden to too many ferries…Bingo! With its stunning coastal vistas, pleasantly rolling terrain, good roads and courteous easy-going drivers, San Juan is a total pleasure for cyclists. Damn! To think that this island could have been ours (Canada’s).
From Vancouver, we drive to Anacortes where we park the car at the Washington State Ferry Terminal. It feels great to leave the car behind, unencumbered, with only our bikes and small panniers. The hour long ferry ride is pretty and by the time we arrive at San Juan’s Friday Harbor we are already feeling the laid-back island vibe.
Friday Harbor is a scenic, bustling little town with plenty of pubs, cafés and ice cream places. It has some very cute small hotels and B&Bs. We don’t stay in any of them. The thing is, San Juan is dreadfully expensive, especially when you factor in the exchange rate for Canadians. I’m blaming Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I for our financial woes (read on). As luck would have it, we stumble upon the Orca Inn. It looks like army barracks, the walls are thin and the rooms are small, but the price is right and the friendly owners and surprisingly comfy beds more than make up for the no frills infrastructure.
On Saturday morning, Friday Harbor’s market is in full swing. My friend Eva and I are lured by the lovely crafts and colourful flower arrangements. Mike and Mats, Eva’s husband, are impatient to get cycling but at least there is food to keep them happy. They load up on cheese, bread and pastries.
Our route today is a loop of about 33.3 miles (50.7 km) in the north and central portions of the island. We head out on Roche Harbor Road, a designated Scenic Byway that passes along fields, meadows and small lakes. There’s a good shoulder and traffic is light.
Roche Harbor is a swanky resort area and marina. Rumour has it that Oprah has bought a house here. It’s a gorgeous place. Mike is drooling over the fancy yachts. I’m impressed with the nicely preserved and restored architecture, particularly the historic Hotel de Haro. The hotel was originally built in 1886 around a log cabin structure left by the Hudson’s Bay Company (one of Canada’s oldest and best known retailers that got its start in the fur trade).
Not far from Roche Harbor’s village centre we stop for a wander through the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park. It covers a huge area with trails through meadows dotted with over a hundred sculpture pieces. They’re made of everything from driftwood to scrap metal and range from wonderful to whimsical to weird.
We make our way south along the west side of the island. The road is narrower and hillier here and we’ve lost our shoulder. Shout-out to the drivers on San Juan Island: thank you for being so accommodating and courteous to cyclists. There are idyllic coastal views along the entire stretch. We stop at a couple of nice parks to take a rest and try our luck at orca spotting (sadly no whales today).
At Wold Road we turn inland to complete the loop back to Friday Harbour. The countryside just oozes bucolic charm. There’s a lavender farm along the way, but we’re just a few weeks early. I try to imagine what it would be like to see these fields in full purple bloom.
Our ride the next day is an out-and-back route of 25.5 miles (41 km) to the southern tip of the island—American Camp and Cattle Point. Orange poppies carpet the grassy headlands that fall down to crescents of driftwood-strewn beaches. The area, part of San Juan Island National Historic Park, is spectacular and has a colourful history.
Back in 1859, both Americans and British were pursuing their territorial claims on the San Juan Islands. Things came to a head when an American killed a stray British-owned pig, sparking the international dispute known as the Pig War. Both sides set up military-backed camps, American Camp on the southern end of the island, and English Camp on the northwest. The camps were occupied for 12 years in a peaceful coexistence (the pig’s was the only blood ever shed). In 1871, the two countries negotiated the Treaty of Washington, and selected Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany as arbitrator. He awarded the islands to the United States. Thanks Willy!
There’s more crazy history at pretty Cattle Point Lighthouse. Why the name, you ask? Well, the British introduced cattle to the island and used the southern point to off-load their livestock. In 1857, one of their vessels became stranded near the point and cattle were forced to swim ashore. Soon after, Cattle Point showed up on British charts and the name has stuck.
Although the water is frigid, the beaches on this part of the island are glorious. We picnic on South Beach, and soon after, all four of us nod off, heads propped up against the driftwood and bodies caressed by the warm sand. An impromptu snooze in the sun ranks right up there for me on life’s little pleasures.
We’re back in Friday Harbor in plenty of time to catch our ferry to the mainland. In fact, the ferry is late (a not uncommon occurrence). Fine by us; we hang out at San Juan Island Brewing Company for a toast to a wonderful weekend. You Americans are lucky to have nabbed this beautiful island.
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That sounds like a perfect cycling weekend 😎
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