Wednesday, June 16, 2010

San Juan Islands - Roche Harbor

A couple of years ago, our family spent Labor Day weekend at Roche Harbor in the San Juan Islands in the state of Washington.  My MIL lives in Seattle, so we were looking for a place to gather that would accommodate our family plus the in-laws.  Roche Harbor was perfect!  Friday Harbor is the largest city on the island of San Juan and is an easy <3.5 hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle.  The ferry leaves early in the morning, but there's a snack bar on board and we brought along books and a deck of cards for entertainment.

Once we arrived in Friday Harbor, it was an easy shuttle ride on the island bus to Roche Harbor.  Be sure to look out for Mona the Camel along the way!  There's also a lavender farm on the island and an alpaca farm both reachable via the island shuttle.

Roche Harbor Resort is located on the site of a former mine.  Lime was discovered at Roche Harbor in 1884 and at it's height, there were 800 people living there working for the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company. The De Haro Hotel was built in 1886 to house visitors to the mine.  That's where the in-laws stayed.  The husband, kids and I stayed in a "company cottage," a small, 2 bedroom cottage a short walk from the marina.

What is there to do in Roche Harbor?  Hiking, kayaking, whale watching and more!  We spent the first afternoon on sea kayaks, making our way through the harbor and along the shore, finding lots of sea life and beautiful scenery.  The two person kayaks are easy to maneuver and great for first time kayakers.  We paired kids with adults and had no trouble at all.  That night, we had dinner at the Madrona Bar & Grill on the dock overlooking the marina.  It was the perfect viewing platform for the daily Ceremony of Colors.

Sunday of Labor Day, we went whale watching.  The San Juan Islands are host to both transitory and resident orca (killer whale) pods.  There are rules about how close boats can get to the whales, but you will still see lots of orcas.  I was amazed that the tour operators could identify the individual whales by the shape and size of their dorsal fins!  The day we were on the water, there was a "poop patrol" following a pod of whales trying to collect samples for research.  How's that for a job?

After our whale watching expedition, the in-laws stayed back at the hotel to nap and the family and I headed over to English Camp in San Juan National Historical Park*.  You've heard of the Pig War, right?  Me, neither.  The Pig War was a confrontation in 1859 between the U.S. and Great Britain over the exact division of their territories.  An agreement between the countries had been negotiated in 1846 specifying the division as "the channel at the 49th parallel."  Unfortunately, the U.S. thought that meant the western channel between Vancouver and the San Juan Islands and the British thought it meant the eastern channel between the San Juan Islands and mainland Washington.  

British and American settlers occupied the island and a confrontation occurred when an American farmer shot and killed a free roaming pig owned by an Irishman.  Tensions between the countries escalated and as a result, each party built up military camps on either end of San Juan Island (hence American Camp and English Camp.)  Twelve years later, the matter went to international arbitration and Kaiser Wilhelm I ruled in favor of the U.S.  The pig, by the way, was the only casualty.

*Don't forget to stamp your National Park Service Passport!  We hear San Juan National Historical Park is one of the most difficult to collect since it's so remotely located.
Our final day on San Juan Island, we packed up and headed back to Friday Harbor.  There, we visited the Whale Museum and did a little window shopping.  We hit a slight glitch when the Clipper ferry broke down, as we had to travel to Anacortes via the Washington State Ferry.  From there, they bussed us to Seattle.  It was a shorter ferry trip, but a longer return overall.  

All in all, a very fun trip!


  1. Look how much Bryan and Katie have grown since then. OK, so I can note another National Park! And I would love to see an Orca whale. Thanks Melissa.

  2. Hi there,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Roche Harbor to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!