SAN JUAN ISLAND HIKING
Many visitors travel to the San Juan Islands to experience whale watching, kayaking, and the numerous other water-related activities the island offers. Hiking is often overlooked as an island adventure, but since we’re huge fans of getting outside and exploring the world on foot, we’d love to share our best hikes on San Juan Island.
American Camp Trails
American Camp, the southern half of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, consists of 1225 gorgeous acres of prairie, forests, saltwater shoreline, and historical buildings from the 1860s when British and American forces jointly occupied the site in a border dispute. Settled peacefully, except for a pig’s unfortunate death in the Pig War, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany ultimately decided the outcome and the current border between the U.S. and Canada.
Mount Finlayson and Jakle’s Lagoon Our favorite hike on San Juan Island, the trailhead for this gem is a five-minute drive beyond the Visitor Center on Cattle Point Road, at the left turn sign for Jakle’s Lagoon. Take the path to the left for a one-mile-long self-guided Nature Walk or follow the sign on the right through the old roadbed down into the Mount Finlayson Trail woods. This hike will give you the best of San Juan Island in half a day. Forests of fragrant Douglas-fir, cedar, and hemlock make way to Jakle’s Lagoon (add Third Lagoon if you want more mileage). The salty lagoons are adjacent to a rocky beach strewn with driftwood and views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker dominating the horizon. Continue up the hill to Mount Finlayson (named after a founder of Victoria, BC). From here, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent panorama from Mt. Rainier past picturesque Cattle Point Lighthouse and across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and Vancouver Island. Your route back will wind through prairie grass, woods, and down a series of switchbacks to the parking lot. You can try this hike in reverse for a completely different experience. Stay on the lookout for the island’s abundant wildlife on your walk. We’ve seen bald eagles, red fox, waterfowl in the lagoons, and a river otter once crossed our path on the uphill trail to Mount Finlayson. Distance: 3.5 to 5.1 miles (depending on how many side trips you take) Elevation: 350 feet
South Beach Trail Because the American Camp Visitor area is currently under construction for a new Visitor’s Center, you’ll have to access the trails here via Redoubt Road. Follow the History Walk through white picket fences and you’ll encounter the historic Officer’s Quarters and the Laundress house, the only remaining buildings from the 1860s. Climb up Robert’s Redoubt, a well-maintained earthwork fortification designed by Second Lt. Henry Roberts, later the author of Robert’s Rules of Order, for an expansive view from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island. From here, you can meander south to South Beach, the longest stretch of beach on San Juan Island. Be prepared for pebbles instead of sand and driftwood scattered as far as the eye can see, flung ashore by wild winter storms. On the way to South Beach, the natural prairie is well-known for red foxes lying in wait for a rabbit dinner, and we’ve also observed Northern Harriers and eagles aloft. Orca whales are sometimes spotted from the shore. If you decide to veer north, you’ll come to a small sandy patch of beach at Grandma’s Cove and an easy hike back to the parking lot. Distance: 2.8 miles Elevation: 180 feet
English Camp Trails
On the west side of San Juan Island and a 15-minute drive from Friday Harbor, English Camp was where the British decamped for the twelve years of the joint British/U.S. occupation of San Juan Island. The 530 acres of parklands are perfectly situated on Garrison Bay, and it’s easy to see why the Royal Marines chose this site for a sheltered anchorage. At the height of the occupation, there were 27 structures in the camp, though only a few remain today. Our favorite structure to spot on this San Juan hiking trail is the white-washed blockhouse at the edge of the bay, where a flagpole sporting the Union Jack flies in the summertime.
Bell Point Trail A flat, easy trail, this hike is reached by crossing the parade grounds toward the dock to a wooded area where the walk begins. Much of the trail meanders through lovely old-growth madrones, and there are views of Garrison Bay and later, from a spur to Bell Point, to the sailboats and yachts in Roche Harbor. The loop trail continues through wetlands, alder forests, and back to the Parade Grounds. There is an optional loop of .7 miles towards Westcott Bay near the end of the loop. Birdwatchers with a keen eye may spot barred owls, hairy woodpeckers, eagles, and kingfishers along the way. Distance: 1.7 miles Elevation: Fairly level
Young Hill Trail From the English Camp parking lot, follow the signs to Young Hill, prepare for a steep trek up 650 feet and a magnificent view. Winding through a forest of twisted Garry Oaks, the only native oak in Washington and British Columbia, you’ll pass the English Camp Cemetery about a quarter of the way up the hill. Four original stone headstones and one wood replica memorialize the Royal Marines and a civilian buried here during the joint occupation. This San Juan hike’s apex is a perfect place to picnic and revel in the eye-popping views stretching from the Olympic Peninsula across Haro Strait to the Canadian Gulf Islands. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trail. Distance: 2.2 miles Elevation gain: 650 ft
Afterglow Vista Trail More than a trail, this walk is an experience. The trailhead is located near Roche Harbor Resort, and maps are available at the Hotel de Haro. However, if you want to wing it, just walk to the grassy airstrip near the resort entrance and follow Tangney Memorial Drive for a few hundred yards. There is a trail sign on the right which you’ll follow for 10 minutes, walking through a heavily wooded cemetery with grave clusters surrounded by white picket fences. Continue to the gravel road, which leads to an iron arch reading “Afterglow Vista.” John McMillin, owner of the lime quarries at Roche Harbor, built the McMillin Family Mausoleum, a stunning orange stone structure of Doric columns, in the 1930s as the final resting place for his family. The limestone table and chairs at the center provide a seat for each dead member of the family and hold their cremated remains. Creepy but cool. Distance: ½ mile Elevation: level
Lime Kiln Point State Park While heralded as the best place to watch whales from the shore, Lime Kiln is also a 41-acre day-use park with over 1.6 miles of delightful hiking trails on San Juan Island. From the parking area, follow signs to the vintage 1919 lighthouse, and then north to visit the historic lime kiln, enjoying towering firs and dramatic vistas along the way. Follow the scenic cliffside trail south of the lighthouse, and you’ll reach Deadman Bay, a beautiful crescent beach. It’s somewhat shady past, involving smugglers throwing illegal Chinese workers overboard in burlap sacks to wash up on the beach aside; it’s our favorite place on the island to go tide pooling, observe wildlife and enjoy a leisurely picnic. And possibly spy a whale or three! Distance: 1.6 miles Elevation: rolling
Many thanks for the great photos to Gregg Sellentin/Meat Machine Bicycles and Backroads!
MORE ISLAND ACTIVITIES
Take to the seas with info on marinas, boat rentals, tours, and where to cruise and sail in the San Juan Islands – a world-class boating destination!
Make the most of your bicycling vacation to the San Juan Islands! Discover the best biking on the islands with links to maps, rentals, and guided tours.
Where to go on San Juan Island for some serious imbibing! An insider’s guide to sampling our best craft breweries, cider-makers, distilleries, and wineries.
Everything you need to know about orcas and whale watching in the San Juan Islands: take a tour, paddle a kayak, watch from shore – prepare to be amazed!
Paddle a kayak in the San Juan Islands and experience our remarkable wildlife and ecology from the water! Plus where to rent kayaks and go-to tour guides.
A primer on San Juan Island’s scenic 9-hole links-style course. Two sets of tee boxes that play like a true 18-hole course. Challenging and fun!
The San Juan Islands are well-known for scenic beauty and whale watching, but talk to any Pacific Northwest angler, and odds are, the San Juans will be top of their list for excellent fishing.