8 Ways to Create Your Own San Juan Island Tour

September 8, 2017Travel Ideas
— National Park Service

The killing of a British-owned pig by an American led to an intense standoff between the United States and Great Britain. In fact, this skirmish in 1859 nearly began a war between the two countries, as both nations claimed San Juan Island as its own. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and the issue diffused.

The 1871 Treaty of Washington gave the Kaiser of Germany the responsibility of settling the boundary dispute over the island, ultimately siding with the United States. It has been under National Park Service protection since 1966. Today, San Juan Island National Historical Park is one of the great hidden gems on the Washington coast, and there are many ways to explore this wild, beautiful place. 

Take the Ferry

White ferries at dock at San Juan Islands National Historical Park
National Park Service

The easiest way to get to San Juan Island National Historical Park is to take the ferry from the mainland. Ferries depart from the Washington State Ferries terminal located 85 miles north of Seattle. The ride is an adventure in itself, taking you across the beautiful waters of Puget Sound to the island's rugged shore. 

Bike around the Island

With miles of remote country roads, San Juan Island is a perfect place to explore on a bicycle. Use caution, however, and remember that you're sharing the road with automobiles. Private companies like Island Bicycles offer bike rentals, with one-hour, one-day, multi-day, or week-long rentals available.

See the English and American Camps

white picket fence with 2 white buildings in the background at American Camp at San Juan Islands National Historical Park

American Camp

National Park Service

Known as the Pig War, the international crisis that began in 1859 never escalated to the point of actual shots being fired, but it was a tense situation all the same. The island was divided into English and American camps for more than ten years, with soldiers at the ready on either side.

Today, the camps are home to San Juan Island National Historical Park’s two visitor centers, where you can learn more about the park, participate in ranger programs, and explore the barracks that were built and occupied during the 1860s. 

Ranger Talks San Juan Island

People dressed in colonial ball attire dancing in a building with Union Jack flag hanging from the ceiling at San Juan Island National Historical Park

Candlelight Ball

National Park Service

Ranger talks and programs are offered throughout the summer season from June to September, and you can take a self-guided tour of the island anytime (though many services are not available in winter). Programs range from nature walks and archaeology programs to living history events. Be sure to check the National Park Service calendar for upcoming activities. 

Explore the Beaches

Logs on a sandy beach with the blue ocean at San Juan Islands National Historical Park

Grandma's Cove

National Park Service

San Juan Island National Historical Park offers three distinct beaches with 6 miles of saltwater shores that range from sandy beach fronts to craggy bluffs. Swimming is not advised due to strong rip currents, but the shore is perfect for tidepooling. You may even spot orca whales offshore in spring and summer. 

Take a Hike

Bluff trail amongst yellow and green grass along the coast at San Juan Islands National Historical Park

Bluff Trail

National Park Service

For those who like to set out on foot, miles of scenic hiking trails are ready to be explored. Trails vary in length, but most are fairly easy and cover a wide variety of habitats, from peaceful woodlands and rocky shores to one of the last remaining native prairies in the region. 

Watch for Wildlife

brown and white island marble butterfly resting on yellow flowers at San Juan Island National Historical Park

Island Marble Butterfly

National Park Service

San Juan Island National Historical Park harbors a wonderful variety of wildlife. Columbia blacktail deer graze on the island's prairie, Pacific chorus frogs hide within the grass and shrubs, and more than 200 species of birds call the park home. Have your camera ready, but remember to keep wildlife wild by maintaining a respectful distance and never feeding the animals.

Go Boating and Kayaking

Kayaker resting on the water with a snow-capped mountain in the background at San Juan Islands National Historical Park

Griffin Bay

National Park Service

Some of the best views of San Juan Island can be seen from the water. Puget Sound is perfect for boating and kayaking, with launch sites available in both the American and English camps. 

A beautiful place with a unique history, San Juan Island National Historical Park spans more than 2,000 acres and offers a wide range of opportunities to explore. Over a hundred years ago, the Kaiser’s ruling provided the U.S. with a piece of land that continues to provide visitors with a beautiful natural setting along the northwestern coast. Visit yourself to see this small piece of land that almost launched a war. 


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