SAN JUAN ISLAND NATIONAL HISTORIC PARK — A mere 40 miles away is an entirely different world from the North Olympic Peninsula.
It’s an entirely different world from just about anywhere else I’ve ever been.
On a clear day, you can see the west side of San Juan Island from the Olympic Peninsula. It’s 40 miles away as the crow flies, but it takes a minimum of 4½ hours to get there from Port Angeles. Unless a person owns a boat, one has to take two ferries and drive two hours to get there.
On San Juan Island is a little-known national park. It’s called San Juan Island National Historic Park and it has two units — British Camp and American Camp. British Camp on the northern tip of the island is very small and heavily wooded and has its own charm, but I always much preferred American Camp, which takes up most of a peninsula on the southern tip of San Juan Island.
The park celebrates the history of the Pig War of 1859, essentially a rattling of sabres between American and British military as both nations held a claim to the island. Not much really came of it. A pig got killed.
Honestly, the historic aspect of the national park never interested me that much, but if you’re into history, there’s dozens of interpretive signs. It’s the vistas, hiking trails and wildlife that make it one of my favorite places on the planet.
It’s not a big park like Olympic, it’s only about a half-mile wide and about 2 miles long. Packed into that little park are some amazing trails and hikes and plenty fantastic views of the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island and the junction of Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. On a clear day, you can see both Mount Rainier and Mount Baker from American Camp. There’s a 2-mile-long beach, prairies, lagoons and even a small mountain you can climb.
I lived on San Juan Island for eight years and would spend at least one day every weekend from May to about October or so exploring American Camp. There’s an absolute maze of trails from an old rebuilt fort to the cliffs of the peninsula. You can hike down to a small, isolated beach called Grandma’s Cove or hike along the cliffs with little side spur trails heading out to various points jutting out into the strait.
If you like wildlife, this is one of the most amazing places you’ll ever find. I watched a pod of orcas herd a school of salmon into Grandma’s Cove and go to town eating fish for half an hour one day. I’ve watched bald eagles dive off the cliffs and pluck salmon out of the water. I’ve watched a river otter and a raven get into an epic battle on a rock for 20 minutes over a fish.
There’s also a very famous video with millions of hits on YouTube of a fox and a bald eagle fighting over a rabbit. That video was shot at American Camp.
Yes, American Camp has foxes. Lots of foxes. And rabbits. The rabbits were introduced to the island over 100 years ago and got out of control, so then foxes were introduced onto the island to control the rabbits. One cool thing about San Juan Island foxes is they’re inbred in a closed population, so a lot of the foxes on the island end up with jet black fur.
On this particular trip I took last week, I saw a pair of bald eagles, tons of ravens (and also heard them croaking in the trees) and watched an otter walking along South Beach.
I always compartmentalized American Camp into about five separate parts. My favorite area is the cliffs south of the fort. You hike about a half-mile through a broad prairie with high grass and blackberry bushes and glacial erratics (giant boulders dropped by an ancient glacier) to get to the cliffs. You pretty much have to stick to the trail or else you’ll end up in brambles of thorny blackberries.
From the cliffs at Grandma’s Cove, you can hike 2 full miles all the way down to a long rocky beach called South Beach. Or you can take a trail back across the prairie to Robert’s Redoubt, a fortification built 150 years ago by American soldiers.
On the northern edge of the park is a web of trails that go through woods and a lagoon facing Griffin Bay and Lopez Island. That was never my personal favorite part of the park because there aren’t as many views and the lagoon can smell. But some people prefer that side of American Camp.
There’s also South Beach that you can hike for 2 miles if you want.
There’s also a trailhead to Mount Finlayson, another one of my favorite parts of the park. You can hike about a mile and a half along the upper ridge of this 290-foot-high hill overlooking South Beach, getting spectacular views of the Olympics and beyond. There’s lots of eagles and hawks that nest up on the ridge.
Past Mount Finlayson to the east of the park is a parcel called the Cattle Point Interpretive Area. This isn’t officially part of the national park, but it’s open to the public, and trails from American Camp intersect with another half-mile-long trail all the way to the end of the peninsula, where there sits an old decommissioned lighthouse at Cattle Pass.
Literally, for such a tiny park, you can spend an entire weekend exploring every inch of it, and it’s a perfect getaway in the offseason. Summer is exceptionally busy on San Juan Island and I would recommend going after Labor Day or before Memorial Day to avoid the crowds.
Lodging tends to be kind of pricey on the island, even in the offseason, but you can reserve a small campsite at a county park or find an affordable hostel if you need to.
I’m sure there are parts of the little park I still haven’t seen after all these years. And every time you go there, you never know what wildlife you’re going to catch a glimpse of.