Welcome to the San Juan Islands, a cluster of 743 large and small rocky islands sprawling in the lower end of Georgia Strait in northwest Washington just below the Canadian border, and on the crossroads of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.
Lying in the rain shadow of the Olympic mountains, these special islands enjoy a moderate and dry climate, receiving only about 29 inches of rain a year. As a result, a species of prickly pear cactus is indigenous to this area.
As with their Canadian neighbors further north – the Gulf Islands, the San Juans have been inhabited seasonally for about 2000 years. They were used as summer homes by people of the Lummi, Samish, and Songish tribes. Today, about 60 of these islands are still populated.
The islands were no strangers to early fishermen and smugglers either. British wool was one of the early products smuggled, after which ambitions ran to opium and Chinese laborers. Prohibition naturally fueled the next product of the smugglers – alcohol. It would be naive to think that smuggling has disappeared today: drugs, liquor, cigarettes and other contraband continue to be smuggled across the border today.
Named in 1791 by Spanish explorer, Francisco Eliza, in honor of his patron, the viceroy of Mexico, four (Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, and Shaw) of the larger maze of islands are accessible by convenient ferries that leave from Anacortes in Washington State and Sidney in British Columbia.
Up until the 1970’s the San Juans were a sleepy backwater, but in the last 40 years the population has more than doubled. Sleepy no longer, but diverse and beautiful, the San Juans are definitely worth a trip, especially off season.