Last Updated on December 21, 2023
After a mile of steady uphill climbing-my glutes burning with each step-I spotted a break in the dense tree line, a beacon of light guiding me to my destination. I had been hiking a forested path in San Juan Island National Historical Park for 45 minutes, stopping a few times to admire the whimsical Pacific madrone trees and catch my breath.
As I emerged from the shelter of the towering pines into the warm brilliance of the sun, my HOKA Shoes found their footing on the cobbled ledge. A sultry breeze, smelling of pine and the slightest hint of seawater, welcomed me to the summit of Young Hill.
“Now, this was worth it,” I thought.
Miniature boats motored towards the invisible Canadian border in the viridian waters of Haro Strait. A painted backdrop of crisp blue skies illuminated the mossy green hillsides of the distant Vancouver and gulf islands below.
I took a long sip of water to quench my thirst and lowered myself onto the rocky ledge to savor the moment. The sweeping views were more than I expected and well worth my aching calves and buttocks. I gathered my hiking companions — my husband, Mark, and my son, Max — and Max snapped a selfie of us to commemorate our adventure.
Hiking San Juan Island
Not just any trails; ones that reward my efforts with stunning scenery along the journey — vistas, waterfalls, and natural wonders. When planning my trip to the Evergreen State, I envisioned myself traipsing Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park at sunset or venturing to Mount Rainier to relish in the sweet scent of wildflowers as I plodded along the Skyline Trail.
There were a few glitches in this plan.
One, my husband and son were coming along on this three-day respite from the graduation festivities, and my husband would much rather trudge through gnarled forests in search of deer rubs and turkey scratchings than hike for the mere sake of hiking.
Secondly, several trails in Olympic National Park, where we had decided to book a hotel, were closed due to flooding and a fire at their lodge on Hurricane Ridge. Alternative routes added nearly eight miles onto my planned hikes, a little too ambitious for us relative newbies.
Lastly, if I’m being honest, I’m what one might call a “wimpy trailblazer.” Tackling unknown trails in the expanse of any national park with my beginner hiking knowledge and novice trail legs gives me anxiety.
So, the three of us pivoted, which is how we found ourselves 650-feet above San Juan Island on the final day of our mini-vacation. It was our second hike in three days, and the island, part of the Pacific Northwest archipelago of the same name, had gifted us all of the geographical diversity of Washington State packaged into its 55-square-miles.
“Hiking is one of our most popular pastimes,” Amy Nesler of the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau told me. “Whether you crave a quiet walk on a secluded beach or a challenging hill climb, you’ll find some of the best hiking in Washington State in the San Juan Islands.”
San Juan Island Historical Sites and Natural Wonders
The lengthiest trail on San Juan Island covers about three miles. Despite that, these pathways were ideal for me, as they would be for families with small children or those who just wanting to experience the region’s varied topography — mountains, beaches, forests, meadows — with minimal exertion.
The trails are steeped in the region’s history. All the paths we hiked are located within the San Juan Island Historical Park, renowned as the site of the Pig War conflict, during which both the U.S. and Great Britain claimed sovereignty over the island in the mid-1800s.
The two nations resolved the dispute peacefully, but their dual occupation of the island continued until the Treaty of Washington was signed in 1872, giving the United States possession of the entire San Juan archipelago. Remnants of the former English and American camps remain in the park and visitors can explore these sites along some of its trails.
We did make a brief detour on our way to the summit of Young Hill to view the English Camp cemetery. A memorial on a plaque there read: “Seven Members of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and One Civilian who died here during boundary negotiations.”
San Juan Island Scenery
On our first day hiking San Juan Island, I entered the trailhead of Jakle’s Lagoon and Mt. Finlayson. The humidity of the parking lot released its hold as we entered the canopy of fir trees.
I was initially trepidatious, but my tension began to subside the deeper into the woods we traveled. Maybe nature was doing its trick, or perhaps the heavily marked trails eased my fear of getting lost. Either way, I could feel my comfort level increase with each step and any pre-hike jitters melt away.
Max, Mark, and I meandered along the trail before veering off a side path to walk along bluffs with views of Griffin Bay leading to Third Lagoon. Following the thin stretch of pebble-lined beach separating the lagoon from the sea waters, we marveled at the layers of driftwood creating a natural display of sculptured artwork along the shore.
Wending our way through a thinly laid deer trail through a meadow of brittle grass, we started our incline to Mt. Finlayson’s summit. Celebrating our climb with a hydrating swig, we peered out at another of the island’s spectacular vistas, hoping to glimpse wildlife in the fields or the Salish Sea below. Harbor seals, bald eagles, and deer can often be seen on these hikes. If you’re lucky, you may even catch the blow of a breaching Orca, humpback, or minke whale. Unfortunately, luck was not on our side that day.
After our descent, we wrapped up our hike with a stop at Jakle’s Lagoon and its adjacent driftwood beach. We rested. The memory of Max basking in the sun like a sea lion, his legs outstretched and a piece of sun-bleached driftwood serving as his pillow will stay with me for years to come.
Meanwhile, I played hide and seek along the shoreline with an elusive sea creature. He’d steadily bob in the waters while I walked along the smooth stones, trying to catch up. Just as I’d get close enough for my aging eyesight to bring him into focus, he’d dip back under the surf, leaving me searching until he’d resurface a minute or two later further down. We played this game for a while until it became apparent he wasn’t going to introduce himself; I gave up, returning to my slumbering fellas sprawled in the sand.
Our hike had soothed our souls and we seemed to hold a newfound peace that hadn’t been present when we started the day. I’ll take these laid-back adventure vibes over a strenuous trek 10,000-plus feet up an incline any day.
Emerging from the clearing into the parking lot, not even the smoldering heat and sweat beads could ruin my mood. I looked forward to another scenic hike in the coming days, another shared experience on the island’s trails with my family.
San Juan Island left an indelible mark on this novice hiker’s heart. Though one day I believe I’ll tackle a trek or two in Washington’s national parks, I think I’ll stick to the San Juan archipelago’s picturesque and geographically diverse islands on my next visit.
Nearby Orcas and Lopez Islands offer similarly stellar hiking opportunities. Orcas Island boasts the highest elevation of the San Juans, with the summit of Mount Constitution standing a moderate 2399-feet, plenty tall enough for my next Washington adventure.
My husband and son better not retire their hiking shoes anytime soon.