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Location of the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are a part of the San Juan Archipelago in the northwest corner of the continental United Statesmarker. The archipelago is split into two groups of islands based on national sovereignty. San Juan Islands are part of the U.S. state of Washingtonmarker, while the Gulf Islandsmarker are part of the Canadianmarker province of British Columbiamarker. There are over 450 islands in the entire archipelago at high tide, but fewer than one-sixth are permanently inhabited.

In the archipelago, fifteen islands are accessible by public ferry. Public ferries serve nine Gulf Islandsmarker and six San Juan Islands.


The islands were part of the traditional area of the Central Coast Salish.Linguistically, the Central Coast Salish consisted of five groups: Squamishmarker, Halkomelem, Nooksack, Northern Straits (which includes the Lummi dialect), and Klallam. Exploration and settlement by Europeans brought smallpox to the area by the 1770s. In 1843, the Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Camosunmarker at nearby Vancouver Islandmarker.

The 1846 Oregon Treaty forced by President Polk established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S., except in the San Juan archipelago. While both sides agreed that all of Vancouver Island would remain British, the treaty wording was left vague enough as to put the boundary between modern-day Gulf Islands and San Juan Islands in dispute. Conflicts over this border led to the Pig Warmarker in 1859. Skirmishes continued until the boundary issue was eventually placed in the hands of Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany for arbitration. The border was finally established in 1872.

The name "San Juan" was given to the San Juan Islands by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza, who charted the islands in 1791, naming them Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan. The expedition sailed under the authority of the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo and Eliza named several places for him, including the San Juan Islands and Orcas Islandmarker (short for "Horcasitas"). San Juan Islandmarker itself was first discovered (by a European) by one of the officers under Eliza's command, Gonzalo López de Haro (for whom Haro Straitmarker is named). The Spanish had found the islands a year earlier during the exploring voyage of Manuel Quimper on the Princesa Real, but it was not clear that they were islands.

Subsequent explorations of the region by the British, under George Vancouver, and the Americans, under Charles Wilkes, resulted in many of the Spanish names being replaced with English ones.

Vancouver's expedition occurred within a year of Eliza's, and Vancouver encountered other Spanish ships and traded information. Thus Vancouver knew of the names given by Eliza's expedition and tended to keep them, although he renamed some things, like the Strait of Georgiamarker. Wilkes, sailing in 1841, had some British charts, but may not have been aware of the Spanish names and charts. He liberally gave new names to nearly every coastal feature not already named on the charts he had. The names Wilkes gave tended to be patriotically American (heroes of the War of 1812 for example), or to honor members of his crew.

In 1847, due to the confusion of multiple names on different charts, the British Admiralty reorganized the official charts of the region. The project, led by Henry Kellett, applied only to British territory, which at the time included the San Juan Islands but not Puget Soundmarker. Kellett systematically kept the British and Spanish names and removed nearly all of Wilkes' names. In some cases Kellett moved Spanish names around to replace names given by Wilkes. Thus in Puget Sound itself, the names given by Wilkes are common and Spanish names rare, while the reverse is true for the San Juan and Gulf Islands (although the Spanish did not explore Puget Sound as thoroughly as the British and Americans, resulting in fewer Spanish names to start with).

Wilkes had given the name Navy Archipelago to the San Juan Islands, and named individual islands for distinguished officers of the US Navy, such as Rodgers Island for San Juan Island, and Hull Island for Orcas Island. Some of his names survived the editing of Kellett, such as Chauncey, Shaw, Decatur, Jones, Blakely, Perry, Sinclair, Lawrence, Gordon, and Percival, all named after American naval officers.

San Juan Islands today

One of the San Juan Islands at Night
Today, theSan Juan Islands are an important tourist destination, with sea kayaking and orca whale-watching by boat or air tours, two of the primary attractions. Part of the charm that attracts tourists and residents to the San Juan Islands is that each island seems to have a character of its own, both in terms of geography and of the lifestyle of the people who live there.

Politically, the bulk of the San Juan Islands make up San Juan County, Washingtonmarker, though some of the furthest east of the islands are in the mainland counties of Whatcommarker and Skagitmarker, including Lummimarker, Guemesmarker, and Cypressmarker Islands.

The majority of the San Juan Islands are quite hilly, the tallest mountain being Mount Constitution at almost exactly a half-mile (800 m) elevation (see Orcas Islandmarker), with some flat areas and valleys, often quite fertile, in between. The coastlines are a mixed bag of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, ochre-colored madrona trees (Arbutus) grace much of the shorelines while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.

The San Juan Islands get less rainfall than Seattlemarker, about to the south, due to the rain shadow of Olympic Mountainsmarker to the southwest. Summertime high temperatures are around while average wintertime lows are in the high thirties and low forties. Snow is infrequent in winter except for the higher elevations, but the islands are subject to high winds at times—those from the northeast sometimes bring brief periods of freezing and Arctic-like windchills.

Beginning in about 1900 the San Juan Islands became infested with European rabbit, an exotic invasive species, as the result of the release of domestic rabbits on Smith Islandmarker. Rabbits from the San Juan Islands were used later for several introductions of European rabbits into other, usually midwestern, states.


Three ferry systems serve some of the San Juan Islands.

Passenger-only ferries serve more islands. Passenger-only ferry service is usually seasonal and offered by private business.

San Juan Airlines and Destinations

  • Kenmore Air (To & From: Roche Harbor, Seattle/Boeing Field, Seattle/Lake Union)
  • San Juan Airlines (To & From: Anacortes, Bellingham, Eastsound (Orcas Island), Lopez Island, Blakely, Decatur)

The San Juan Islands


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