San Juan Island’s rich with great scenery, both ashore and at sea. And with its temperate climate, it’s the perfect place to hike year-round.
Here the borders are oceans and the dress code is casual—think fleece, jeans and Birkenstocks—rests a constantly changing archipelago. Depending on the tide, as many as 743 islands and reefs dot the water throughout the San Juan Islands. The ebb and flow of the landscape adds to the mystic of this sunny destination.
Located in the Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow, the San Juans are graced with an average 250 days with sunshine. Hiking here is glorious, especially on San Juan Island. The terrain varies from lush forest and rolling prairie to rocky beaches and steep cliffs. The island’s coastline and peaks feature breathtaking views of the snowcapped Olympic Mountains, old growth forests, and the Strait of Juan de Fuca’s expansive waterway.
The habitats are untouched and home to a wide variety of wildlife. Bird watching here is a favorite. You might witness eagles mating, swallows feeding their young or an osprey perched on its nest. The star attraction is the killer whale. And while there are many options for whale watching tours, there’s at least one land-based hike that rivals many on-the-water experiences. So depending on what you want from your day hike experience—stunning views, unspoiled nature or up close wildlife— San Juan Island likely offers it. This is largely thanks to the death of a pig.
The large stretches of undeveloped coastline on San Juan Island can be attributed to an 1859 pig slaying. It nearly resulted in an American-British war. In response to the dispute, both the Americans and the English established encampments on the island’s prime lookouts. Today, the two locales are known as American Camp and English Camp. Each is home to historic remnants, such as garrisons and graveyards, of their former inhabitants. In 2013, the United States recognized the expansive stretch of both camps (and several other locations throughout the San Juan Islands) as a national monument, thus further preserving the coastline for future generations. Encompassing a total of 955 acres, the monument spans as far north as Patos Island and is known as the San Juan Islands National Monument. It is here that many of the island’s best hikes are found.
5 San Juan Island Hikes to Enjoy Year-Round
Cattle Point Lighthouse
At San Juan Island’s southernmost tip, Cattle Point Lighthouse offers sweeping views of the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This iconic structure was completed in 1935, but a navigational beacon has stood on the glacier-scraped rock since 1888.
It’s named after the cattle that roamed the point’s rocky grassland in 1853. They were brought by when the Hudson’s Bay Company which established a ranch on the south end of the island to feed its employees. The trail winds through windswept grassy dunes and culminates at the lighthouse. Look for blacktail deer, eagles, seals, and sea lions.
Open from dawn to dusk, trail maps are available at the San Juan Island National Historical Park visitor center.
Roughly half a mile roundtrip, the Afterglow Vista trail winds through an old cemetery. Its gentle ascent culminates in a massive mausoleum, the final resting place of the McMillin family. (The mausoleum was designed by the family’s patriarch, John S. McMillin, who founded Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company in 1886.)
After walking through the cemetery you’ll eventually reach the McMillin mausoleum, now referred to as Roche Harbor Mausoleum. The mausoleum is marked by a high arching gate labeled, “Afterglow Vista.” Just beyond its border is the McMillin family tomb encircled by massive pillars. At its center, limestone chairs surround a large limestone table. Each seat holds the cremated ashes of a McMillin family member. The location is rumored to be haunted. Don’t worry.
The trail is only open dawn to dusk. Trail maps are available at the resort’s Hotel de Haro.
Mount Finlayson Trail
As a sequel to your Cattle Point Lighthouse jaunt, the 3½-mile Mount Finlayson trail offers an overlooking view of the lighthouse and its sweeping grasslands. The 285-foot elevation gain begins gently with a forest of wind-defying twisted firs on your left. On your right, the majestic Olympic Mountain Range takes center stage.
It was here an American shot and killed a Hudson’s Bay pig, which was rooting in his garden. This event triggered the infamous Pig War between the British and United States that never did take place. Keep an eye out while you hike.
This is one of the island’s best bird watching locations. Frequent visitors include eagles, plovers, sandpipers, and hawks. The trail is open from dawn to dusk.
Lime Kiln State Park
If you find yourself on San Juan Island with a desire to spot an Orca, the short hike on Lime Kiln State Park is a must stop. This is generally recognized as one of the best land-based whale watching locations in the world. While most folks visit for the whales, the park’s namesake—a wood-fired kiln located at its northern edge—shouldn’t be overlooked.
The trail, totaling 1¼ miles, begins at the park’s lower parking lot. Follow the signs to the lighthouse for a chance to see orcas at play. The trail leads you through large grassy meadows interspersed with evergreens and madrona trees. It takes you over rocky bluffs, offering glimpses of the sandy shoreline below. Ultimately, it brings you to the lighthouse, which sits atop Lime Kiln Point, a rocky outcropping overlooking Dead Man’s Bay on San Juan Island. Established in 1919, the lighthouse is still in operation guiding ships through Haro Strait. Spend some time with a good pair of binoculars looking for whales. And, don’t be surprised when the whales pass close to shore. Eventually, you’ll want to follow the trail north to the kiln. A set of steep stairs leads to the kiln’s base, offering you a closer look.
The park is open from 8 am to dusk. For additional information, visit the park’s interpretive center located by the parking lot.
Young Hill’s 650-foot crest is English Camp’s crown jewel. It offers a grand view of Haro Straight and the placid waters surrounding Bell Point.
The two-mile roundtrip hike begins at the large English Camp parking area. Take the gentle climb east through a Doug-fir and madrona forest. After the switchback, you’ll emerge at the edge of a grassy ledge. There, Victoria and the Gulf Islands will spill out before you. It is recommended you explore English Camp to learn about its history, why it was created, and its historical role in the relationship between England and the United States. Here, you’ll also be treated to some of the island’s most incredible views.
The trail is open from dawn to 11 pm. For additional information and a trail map, visit the English Camp Visitor Center during the summer months.
More Fun Things to do on San Juan Island
On the northern side of San Juan Island, nestled on a dock in the sheltered Roche Harbor waters, you’ll find North Sound Seafood. June through September, husband-wife duo, Keith and Corinne Porter, supply Roche Harbor visitors with seafood so fresh it’s been described as “boat-to-plate” cuisine.
What’s life like for San Juan Safaris Lead Naturalist, Vessel Coordinator, and Captain Sarah McCullagh? Find out and learn why she’s passionate about these Friday Harbor-based tours on San Juan Island.
Like every small town, Roche Harbor has its own unique traditions that keep the locals stepping in time and the tourists relishing their vacation. The mornings at this water-side village begin with carillons from Our Lady of Good Voyage and hot donuts, freshly made at the Lime Kiln Café.