When you're half dozing after a long bike ride and you hear someone say, “I saw whales!” there are only a few places you could be.
One of them is San Juan Island (see map below), the main island of a cluster that sits in Washington State's Puget Sound hard by the Canadian border.
The small islands — San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas — are popular with bicyclists and many bicycle touring companies cater to bike riders on vacation. They make a good business running cyclists out to the islands, feeding them, bedding them down at bed & breakfast inns, and sagging a few up some of the steeper hills.
Touring San Juan
But the islands are easy to get to, there are adequate accommodations, and you can tour them at your own pace. I recently bicycled on San Juan and Lopez islands with the Stanley Stamm Children's Hospital summer camp charity ride. Here are some observations about San Juan; neighboring Lopez Island tomorrow.
The charity bike ride did a 30-mile counter-clockwise loop around the island. The roads are good and lightly traveled; the moderately trafficked roads have shoulders. Motorists seemed to co-exist well with bicyclists, showing patience and passing safely.
The terrain is hilly, with about 4,200 feet of gain over the loop. A couple of climbs are steep and my granny got lots of use. The temperatures are milder than inland, and the area gets about half the rain as Seattle.
We arrived at San Juan by ferry from Anacortes and immediately set to cycling uphill from Friday Harbor, the biggest town on the island and center for most services. These rocky islands in the Puget Sound were all left behind by glaciers, so there is generally a steep climb after disgourging from the ferry.
We immediately set off for Roche Harbor, which is a rolling 10-mile ride through sweeping pastoral vistas. Look for San Juan Vineyards on the right, and “Mona,” a camel who appears starved for attention peering over the fence along the left.
Just before arriving at Roche Harbor at mile-10, we found signs to the Mausoleum built by the local industrialist who mined and shipped out lime from the area. The Westcott Bay Sculpture Park also is right there. Visitors can walk through the 19-area park that features those unique sculptures that move with the wind.
Roche Harbor is a good place to grab some food and rub elbows with local sailors at the old grocery store and sit outside and check out the goings on at the marina. There's also fancier dining at the waterfront McMillin's, or the in between Madrona Grill or Lime Kiln Cafe.
Check your gearing when you ride out of town past some old lime quarry facilities as you'll immediately begin the first of five climbs over the next 20 miles.
The west side of the island is hillier than the rest of the island. After passing an alpaca ranch, we rode into shaded forests and continued our up and down journey. We saw deer and a couple of small black foxes at the side of the road in this area.
Emerging from the woods at Lime Kiln Point in the southwest at about mile-23, we're greeted by a wide expanse of Puget Sound with views of Canada off to the west and the snow-capped Olympic Mountains to the south.
The overlook is a good place to relax and look for the orca whales that inhabit these waters, in fact, it's considered one of the top places in the world to view whales from land. The arrival of whale-watcher boats is usually a good indication that orcas are in the area.
The loop heads east with spectacular views of Mt. Baker off in the distance and wide open farmland flanking the road. A sidetrip down Cattle Point Road takes cyclists to American Camp, one of the island's landmarks of the Pig War, a bizarre chapter in US history.
From there, the loop passes the airport and continues into town. The charity ride camped at the fairgrounds, although there are plenty of other more comfortable places to stay. There are lots of shops and places to poke into in Friday Harbor; just be warned that most close by 5 or 6 o'clock.
If you're planning a trip, here are some helpful links:
Island Bicycles — Friday Harbor