San Juan S24O

Westside Preserve

Out of the saddle, grinding the pedals slowly…my bike inched up the impossibly steep wall of road in front of me. Common knowledge says the San Juan Islands are hilly, but this was insane. As I crested the hill, my husband was about 50 feet ahead of me. “Nick!” I wheezed. “I think [gasp] we may be going the [gasp] wrong way!”

The cycle map of San Juan Island that we brought didn’t have much detail for how to get out of Friday Harbor, so we pulled out the phone to check the Oracle of Google. Sure enough. Wrong way. Thankfully, what goes up, must come down, so we sped back into town to look for the correct road that would take us to our night’s camping destination.

The main road was actually easy to find, and we wouldn’t have had any trouble had we spent a nano-second paying attention to our surroundings when we got off the ferry. By now we were behind all the cars that had disembarked on the island, which was nice. We wouldn’t be riding side-by-side with them as we headed out of town.

We pedaled up and down quiet, rolling inland roads for a short distance, then took a left and headed out to the west side of the island. We went up hills and took in the views of Haro Straight, the Olympic Mountains, and Vancouver Island. Then we whizzed down the other side, hoping to conserve momentum for the next uphill. 

We passed Lime Kiln State Park, a common orca whale watching spot, and continued on to San Juan County Park. This park has two “hiker-biker” sites for anyone that arrives under human power. We weren’t sure how busy it would be, since we rode the ferry with about 20 other loaded bike tourists, and the park website says bikers aren’t guaranteed a spot. (Turns out we would be sharing with about four other tents, with plenty of room to spare.)

After unloading our bikes and setting up camp, we set out for lunch in Roche Harbor – a former company town turned resort on the north end of the island. Last time we were there (many, many years ago), we arrived via sailboat and only stayed long enough to clear customs. This time, we lounged on the grass with veggie burgers/sandwiches from the Lime Kiln Cafe. We took a stroll on the docks to admire the million dollar yachts. And we took some time to learn about the lime kilns built into the cliff-sides surrounding the town. 

With our spirits and energy stores renewed we set off for the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, just outside of town. It’s relatively new (founded in 1998) and serves as a nature preserve / gallery. All of the art is for sale and is rotated out after two years or when the art sells. It was really hot, so I sat on a bench in the shade and enjoyed taking in the park from a distance. Nick wandered closer to some of the sculptures that intrigued him.

On the way back to camp, we stopped at English Camp – one of two historical military outposts on the island. If I remember my history correctly, a farmer shot a pig in 1859, which started a near war between Britain and the US over control of the islands and surrounding waters. Each country built a military outpost on the island and basically hung out for 12 years until Kaiser Wilhelm I decided matters. (Fact check this; I’m sure I got some details wrong.) It was neat to see just how civilized the camp was – kind of like an idyllic summer camp for British soldiers.

Back at San Juan County Park, we got down to the serious business of having dinner (noodles with homemade peanut sauce), lounging on the beach, reading books, and watching the sunset. 

In the morning we woke early, because we were headed out onto the water! We had arranged before departing to meet up with San Juan Kayak Expeditions at the park for a morning paddle to look for whales. Our guide – Jury – was fantastic. He gave us a quick intro to paddling a double kayak and the logistics of launching, escaping an overturned boat, and landing. Then we were off. Sadly, we didn’t see any whales, but we did enjoy a couple hours on the water. We worked our upper body muscles and gave our cycling legs a rest. 

After the boat tour ended, we saddled up and rode back to Friday Harbor to catch an afternoon ferry back to Anacortes, where we left our car the day before. We arrived in enough time to stroll through town and have a beer at a pub overlooking the ferry dock. 

S24O tours are short by definition, but can be packed full of adventure. It may seem like we “saw it all” on this tour, but there is definitely more to see on San Juan Island. We will be back again!

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