kayak on lake
Last Month's Getaway:
Lake Clark National Park and Preserve

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English Camp
The Royal Marines were based at English Camp during the joint military occupation of San Juan Island from 1860-1872. (NPS photo)

blacksmith talks with two teenagers
Park volunteer and former ranger Ron Garner instructs island youth in the art of blacksmithing. (NPS photo)

prairie with mountain in background
The American Camp prairie shows Mount Baker on the horizon, nearly 90 miles away. (NPS/J. Mills)

view from Young HillHomepage photo: From Young Hill visitors can see from Gulf Islands of British Columbia to the Olympic Mountains. (NPS photo)

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San Juan Island National Historical Park

San Juan Island National Historical Park is a rare place, full of cultural meaning and revealing of nature’s many sides.

It was on San Juan Island—located between Vancouver Island, British Columbia and Washington State—where the British and American governments coolly refused to succumb to the pressures of war in a border dispute that was ignited over the shooting of a pig. Instead, they negotiated in peace and then maintained a 12-year joint military occupation until the question could be resolved diplomatically. The park was created in 1966 to celebrate the peaceful resolution of this conflict.

But that was recent history. Lying as it does at the crossroads of three great waterways, the San Juan Archipelago, with its sheltered harbors, open prairie, and secluded woodlands, has attracted visitors for thousands of years…and still does. Some stay and build lives. Others leave, but never forget and sometimes return. Here are a few reasons why:

Light: When you hike at American Camp with the sun low on the horizon, the prairie is a sea of blonde grass, cut by the dark treads of hiking trails and dappled by the long shadows of glacial erratics. Before the sun drops behind Vancouver Island, a flash of orange lights up the mustard and red bark of the madrones and flashes on the wings of dragon flies in their summer dance above the English Camp parade ground.

Vistas: On a clear day from a ridge overlooking the American Camp prairie, you can see Mount Baker and Mount Rainier (two lone-wolf stratovolcanoes nearly 200 miles apart), the castellated peaks of the North Cascades, and the battlements of Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics. Flanked by Griffin Bay to the north, the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the south, and Victoria, British Columbia to the west, it's like hovering above a massive relief map. Thirteen miles north, the bald summit of 650-foot Young Hill offers an entirely different perspective of the San Juan and Gulf islands, Vancouver, the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Olympic Mountains.

Storms: The combination of tidal surge, gale-force winds, and breakers along the Strait of Juan de Fuca in winter can heave 20-foot drift logs into the rocky bights, cracking like cannon fire, the earth shuddering from a hundred yards away. The rain lashes your bare cheeks and flattens clothing against your body, while rogue gusts drive you upland from the bluff-side trails to the safer track crossing the prairie.

Solitude: Hike to the rocky savannah on the east slope of Young Hill during a thick winter fog. Low-flying aircraft are grounded, and because the county road lies far below at the base of the hill’s west slope, you soon discover that the only sound is a raven's call and the rhythmic whisper of its beating wings as it passes overhead.

What will you experience? What will bring you back?

Come find out.

By Mike Vouri, chief of interpretation & historian, San Juan Island National Historical Park