San Juan Rising

With no bridge to the mainland, America's newest national monument promises a secluded island adventure - plus a lifetime of memories.

story by Randall Rishe & Jeff Clark
photo by Jeff Clark

Isolated islands? Check.
No bridge to the mainland? Check.
Pristine natural lands and wildlife? Check.

No, this isn't your checklist for the zombie apocalypse. This is America's newest national monument, the San Juan Islands.

We'll tell you the truth. It ain't easy getting to the San Juan Islands.

There's no bridge. No major airport. And unless you're Michael Phelps, it's a bit too far to swim.

But those who have reached the shores of the San Juans will tell you it's a unique landscape of incomparable contrasts. Forests spring from rock. Distant, snow-capped peaks provide a stunning backdrop. And some of the world's most beautiful sandy beaches sing a siren song that turn many welcome visitors into aspiring long-term residents.

The Best Islands in America

Thanks to their natural and diverse beauty, these small islands at the northwest tip of Washington state are receiving international acclaim. Travel guide Lonely Planet has proclaimed the San Juans third on their Top Ten U.S. Destinations for 2013. And popular online resource TripAdvisor named San Juan Island "the best island in America" before being crowned with their Traveler's Choice Award as the fourth-best island destination in the world.

San Juan Rising
photo by Jeff Clark

So what is it about this area that attracts some 80,000 visitors a year? Many come from around the world for exciting wildlife watching in a landscape that provides refuge for countless species. Others are drawn by the world-class recreation that includes boating, camping, and cycling as well as fishing, hunting, and hiking. And all travelers enjoy the solitude of being in a remote and peaceful destination whose idyllic nature keeps traffic, stress, and cell phones at bay.

A Rich History

The islands have a rich history as well which is part of the traditional territories of the Coast Salish people who first used the area near the end of the last glacial period, about 12,000 years ago. Europeans explorers came here in the late 18th century, helping to open the way for American expansion.

In more recent years, the local community and a Congressional delegation have been leading efforts to preserve the splendor of the San Juan Islands. U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and Congressman Rick Larsen, with the support of U.S. Senator Patty Murray, former Congressman Jay Inslee, and current Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, introduced legislation in the 112th and 113th Congresses to establish the San Juan Islands as a national monument.

San Juan Rising

Their efforts were rewarded May 25, 2013, when President Barrack Obama established the San Juan Islands National Monument. The move, as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar put it at the dedication ceremony, "culminates years of locally driven conservation efforts to ensure this treasured landscape will be conserved for future generations to enjoy." As one of five new national monuments designated by President Obama under the 1906 Antiquities Act, the San Juan Islands include nearly 1,000 acres of lands currently administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). "We are honored that the President has entrusted the BLM with managing San Juan Islands National Monument as part of our multiple-use mission," said BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze. "These lands are some of America's most breathtaking, and they'll now be permanently protected as National Conservation Lands."

"San Juan Islands National Monument will always be a proud reminder of what communities can do when they come together to protect the places they treasure," said Salazar. "This community-driven designation shows how local citizens can leave a deep and positive imprint on America's public lands."

Lots more photos + links to the San Juan Islands National Monument available online.

SIDEBAR: "So, You've Decided to Visit the San Juans?"

San Juan Rising
photo by Jeff Clark

Awesome! Excellent choice.

If it's your first time, you may be wondering where to start. Well, we've got some must-see recommendations from the people who live and work on the islands.

First, you'll definitely want to check out Iceberg Point on the southwest tip of Lopez Island. Majestic views of rugged bluffs and rocky shorelines are connected by an extensive network of hiking trails. You'll witness amazing wildlife and flowers so make sure you bring a camera. (Camera? Who has a camera any more?) Well, you know what we mean. Bring your phone. Then upload your pics directly to Facebook so you can make all your friends jealous. Parking and outhouses are available at the San Juan County Park day-use area at Agate Beach.

Next, you're going north. Far, far north. Accessible only by water, Patos Island is the northwestern-most point in the lower 48 states. The Patos Island Lighthouse built in 1893 is so close to Canada, you'll feel like you can practically reach out and touch it. And with the Canadian and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges providing the scenic backdrop for your photos, if your Facebook pals were jealous of Iceberg Point, this is where they may consider unfriending you. Please note that Patos Island is primitive - no fresh water available on-site, and mooring buoys and campsites in Active Cove are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

San Juan Rising
photo by Matt Christenson

With its commanding view of Haro Strait and the Canadian Gulf Islands, Turn Point is next on our trip. Want to see orca whales? (Pro tip: Yes, you do.) Well, just park yourself by the historic Turn Point Light Station built in 1893 that has long provided light to the seafaring mariners of the Salish Sea. A wonderful vantage point and a seasonal museum make for a great escape. And as you plan your excursion to Turn Point, note that most visitors arrive by sea kayak or private boat into Reid Harbor.

Now we head back to our start on Lopez Island. Point Colville features one of the most amazing and secluded beaches in the world. And should you get tired of perfect relaxation, you can hike and explore local forests, grasslands, and wetlands.

Like Point Colville, Watmough Bay is protected by the sea and offers unparalleled beauty and solitude. Go snorkeling to see the eel grass and seaweed sea floor that serves as excellent habitat for juvenile Chinook salmon and other species which call this home. There's a great trail from the parking area to the beach which allows easy access for all visitors. But the truly adventurous will arrive by dinghy, sea kayak, and other non-motorized smaller skiff to float directly onto the sands.

For more info, please visit the San Juan Islands homepage.