Biking the Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands – Part 1

June 2022

Both my wife and I had visited Seattle for work numerous occasions in the past, but neither of us ever had the chance to really explore the San Juan Islands located northwest of Seattle in historically disputed territory. These islands are geologic mountain tops with deep ancient glacier canyons carved in between them, making a perfect home for humpback whales, pods of orcas, harbor seals, and nesting bald eagles. Our attention was directed this way when our facilitated bicycling trip planned for late Fall 2021 to Guatemala & Belize was disrupted by covid border crossing issues, and we chose instead to divert our invested resources within the United States. 

We found the San Juan Islands interesting because they have been historically explored, exploited, and claimed by many countries. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S. west to the middle of the Strait of Georgia, and then by the main channel south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from there westwards to the open ocean, preserving Vancouver as belonging to Britain. However, the US and Britain had differing opinions on identifying “the main channel”, which the U.S. claimed was the Haro Strait, and Britain claimed was the Rosario Strait. This led to both countries claiming the San Juan Islands, which led to an international dispute, (the Pig Wars), that was finally resolved through arbitration by Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany in 1871. The border was set through Haro Strait in 1872 and the San Juan Islands became part of  the U.S. Washington Territories. The San Juan Islands consist of over 100 islands and exposed rocks that serve as homes for people and wildlife, but only four islands are accessible to vehicular and foot traffic via the Washington State Ferries system.

Map of travels from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to Mt. Rainier and to La Conner

Our journey began in Washington Reagan airport with a layover in Chicago O’Hara until flying into Seattle airport. This was complicated by a ~2-hour delay in Chicago where the fueling crew spilled jet fuel on the tarmac requiring a thorough clean-up and aircraft safety inspection. Once in Seattle airport, we rented a car and traveled through typical rain to our hotel in downtown Seattle where we met up with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law who traveled from Ohio. Since it was now already evening, we took umbrellas, strolled through the shadow of the Space Needle, and settled into Zeke’s Pizzeria for dinner. We discussed our immediate plans as we decided to spend Friday and Saturday exploring the Seattle area before heading north to begin our adventure in the San Juan Islands.

The Seattle Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair
The Seattle Skyline from the Puget Sound Ferry

Friday morning, we checked out of the hotel and took the car ferry to nearby Bainbridge Island, a quaint and historic island set in Puget Sound. Apparently, the ferries are now escorted through the Sound with Coast Guard gunships that followed along beside us most of the way. The ferry arrived at the Eagle Harbor Terminal near the historic town of Winslow, where we parked our car and hiked the waterfront trails until the shops opened at 10am. After exploring the main street shops, we took lunch at the village grocery before heading by car north on the island to the famous Bloedel Reserve, a 150 acre beautifully manicured home, forest, and garden created by Virginia and Prentice Bloedel and preserved and operated today as a foundation. Despite the rain, we strolled the 2-miles of trails and enjoyed the spectacular colors of the flowers and botanicals. Then, we set out to another part of the island for the Grand Forest, to hike among the giant Lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and Red Cedar trees. After the hike, we stopped at Eleven Winery for some tasting and a few snacks before heading to the northern coast at Fay Bainbridge Park for a view across Puget Sound of the city of Seattle. This beach is renowned for its driftwood, and it did not disappoint. Having explored Bainbridge Island all day, we now drove north off the island via Agate Pass Bridge before turning south and heading to the town of Puyallup, south of Seattle, where we would stay for the next two nights. After checking into the hotel, we enjoyed dinner at Applebee’s before calling it a night.

Julie welcomed to Bainbridge Island
Sisters hugging a large Douglas Fir Tree

Puyallup is a small farming town located on the Puyallup River that flows as runoff from Mt. Rainier. We chose to stay here because it allows for easy first access to Mt. Rainier through the Nisqually Gate – the only open access to Mt. Rainier Park this early in the season. In addition, the extensive snow and rains of the past winter has destroyed numerous bridges and roads, and this was our only access up to the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Along the winding road, following much of the Puyallup River, there are numerous viewpoints and trails to explore. We stopped along the way in the park at Longmire where we are informed that there is still 12ft of snow at Paradise and that many trails are still closed. However, we continue along the road until we reach Paradise just in time to explore the old lodge, check out the opening gift shop, and stretch our legs. We then begin the automobile descent back down to Longmire, stopping along the way to visit Narmada Falls, (whose lower-level trail was washed out), and taking a short hike to Christine Falls, (where we saw a couple of deer enjoying lunch at the Cougar Rock riverbank). At Longmire, we parked and hiked the 3.5-mile Wonderland Trail back to Cougar Rock campsites before returning to the car and finally exiting the park at Nisqually Gate. From here, we turned south and drove a local winding road through the beautiful, moss-covered Gifford Pinchot Forest. We stopped at Cruiser’s Pizza in the town of Packwood for fuel and a late lunch before returning to Puyallup for the evening.

The Puyallup River valley to Mt. Rainier
A view of Mt. Rainier from the town of Puyallup

Sunday morning, we checked out of the hotel and made the drive back to Seattle where we visited the Seattle Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery – the company’s flagship establishment. This downtown location was bustling with patrons and visitors and provided us with shopping, souvenirs, and fresh coffee. From here, we drove north up the coast to the small, historic town of La Conner to meet up with our Backroads’ Trip Leaders and group. We arrived a bit early, and so we explored the waterfront wharf that was populated with crabbing boats and fishing vessels, and toured the town’s Quilt Museum, before checking-in at the Channel Lodge hotel. Here, we had lunch and settled into our room – a suite with a fireplace, kitchen, living room and bedroom. 

The Channel Lodge Hotel in LaConner WA