San Juan County is currently the fastest growing county in the state, per capita. There are approximately 12,400 people who reside full time in the islands and most of the population lives on the four larger islands served by the Washington State Ferry system, out of the 172 islands in total
San Juan Island is approximately 20 miles long and 6 miles wide, encompassing 55.4 square miles including 70 miles of waterfront, and is reportedly the second largest island. San Juan Island is the most populated, with about 6,000 year-round residents, and is considered the economic, cultural and social center of the county.
Friday Harbor, with a population just over 2,000 people, is located on San Juan Island and is the only incorporated town in San Juan County and serves as the primary business and shopping district as well as the county seat. On the north end of San Juan Island you will find Roche Harbor Resort & Marina, a quaint seaside village on the National Register of Historical Sites. In 1881, two brothers bought Roche Harbor and started the islands' lime industry. The famous Hotel de Haro was built in 1886 by John S. McMillan.
Sculpted by glaciers that formed the character of all the islands, San Juan is perhaps the most diversified in terrain and feeling. There is ranch and pasture land in three interior valleys, most featuring beautiful territorial views of wooded hills or lakes. San Juan's West Side is famous for stunning views of Victoria, Vancouver Island, the Olympic Peninsula, marine traffic moving towards Seattle, Vancouver or Alaska, and incredible sunsets.
A great deal of history involves the San Juan Islands. Most notably on San Juan was the dispute between the British and the Americans over who owned the San Juan Islands. The neat sweep of the 49th Parallel, accepted by Great Britain and the United States in 1846 as the U.S./Canadian border, did not fit the maze of the San Juan Archipelago.
American settlers, ignoring British claims, began to homestead the San Juan's. When an American shot a boar belonging to the British that was rooting in his potato garden, tempers flared and sides were drawn. The British set up camp on the north end of San Juan Island, the Americans set up camp on the south end, and the Pig War began. Both camps are still there as National Historic Parks.
Orcas Island From the top of 2,400 foot Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands, Orcas and almost all of the islands of San Juan County can be seen. With the deep cleft of East Sound, nearly dividing Orcas Island in half, it is easy to see how there can be over 375 miles of waterfront encompassing only 175 square miles of land. East Sound, carved by glaciers in the last major Ice Age, is the biggest fjord in the lower 48 states and would not look out of place in Norway or Alaska.
Orcas Island is home to more than 4,500 islanders who celebrate the rural character of the largest island in the chain. The friendly village of Eastsound is located in the center of the island, with schools, stores and a senior center.
Before irrigation was introduced east of the Cascade Mountains, Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez Islands made up the prime apple and pear-growing region in the state of Washington. Many properties still have remnants of the old orchards, but today most fruit is consumed locally or sold at island farmer's markets.
5,252 acre Moran State Park was established in 1921 by shipbuilder, Robert Moran. Mt. Constitution is within this park and at the top is a 52-foot stone observation tower patterned after 12th century watchtowers of Russia's Caucasus Mountains. Rosario Resort was the private mansion for Robert Moran and his family.
Lopez Island The many centuries of glacier activity that sculpted the San Juans flattened Lopez Island into what early settlers recognized as perfect pasture and farmland. Lacking the high hills to trap rain clouds, Lopez is the driest of the San Juans. If San Juan and Orcas Islands are the realm of the pleasure boater, Lopez is more attractive to bicyclists and local horse-back riders. Miles of relatively flat country roads, populated by some of the most considerate drivers in the world, make this a biker's paradise.
There are 2,200 people living in about 1,800 dwellings on the nearly 30 square miles of Lopez Island. Fewer than 200 people live in Lopez Village. Many islanders make their living on small farms, with most practicing organic principles. In summer, a well-attended farmer's market offers this bounty for sale. Like San Juan and Orcas Islands, Lopez Island has excellent schools, a great library and a well-developed sense of community. It has a quiet pace that reminds one of days gone by and is a wonderful place to live.
Shaw Island Around 5,000 acres, Shaw is the smallest island served by the Washington State ferries.
Only about 170 people live in 96 dwellings in this most private and close-knit of ferry-served communities. Shaw Island is more known for its order of Catholic nuns than for public facilities. Benedictines at Our Lady of the Rock operate a large farm, selling many handmade and homegrown products.
Most of the island roads are inland, with few views of the water and surrounding islands. There are few public services and only one park, the South Beach County Park. In addition to the small general store at the ferry landing, Shaw has a lovely little schoolhouse in a lush setting and a small post office. There are no medical facilities, restaurants or hotels. It's very private and quiet, in a natural way, just how Shaw Islanders like it.
Most of the information in this Island section was derived from three books: The San Juan Islands, Afoot & Afloat by Marge & Ted Mueller, San Juan Islands by Don Pitcher and Pig War Islands by David Richardson. At Home Magazine contributed material about San Juan, Lopez, Orcas and Shaw Islands.
Photos courtesy of Washington State Dept. of Ecology