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San Juan Island
Cross back into the U.S. for a breath of fresh air and
a small-town escape.
From the moment you leave U.S. customs and turn right onto evergreen-lined Tyee Drive, you know you’re not here for big city life. You’re not even here for small village life. With a scattering of restaurants, cafes, gift stores and food markets, Point Roberts is an oasis in a sea of commercialism. Slightly less than four square miles, Point Roberts packs an awful lot into a small space.
Its name hasn’t always been Point Roberts. A summer fishing settlement for thousands of years, Native Americans called it Chelhtenem, “hang salmon for drying.” Some people believe the first Europeans to set eyes on the Point (as it’s called by residents) were Sir Francis Drake and the crew of the Golden Hind, on a secret mission for Queen Elizabeth I searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. Perhaps so – all records of his journey were considered state secrets and sealed on the orders of the queen. What we do know is that Point Roberts acquired its current name from Captain George Vancouver in honor of his one-time shipmate Henry Roberts during their exploration voyage of the Pacific coastline.
Separated from the U.S. mainland by two border crossings and 17 miles of Highway 99 has limited the potential for development. The Point is home to about 1,300 permanent residents but its summer population swells to at least two or three times that as Canadians come down to their summer cabins.
For such a small place, the Point is rich in parks and public access to the beaches. Each corner of the Point has a park with unique attractions. The latest addition, Lily Point Marine Park, sits at the southeast corner and was purchased through the efforts of the Whatcom Land Trust, the Nature Conservancy and Whatcom County. Much of the Point’s history is concentrated here: the Indians used to camp here while fishing for salmon and collecting clams, crabs and other creatures of the sea.
Around the turn of the 20th century, elaborate weirs and traps were constructed each season to capture and can millions upon millions of soon-to-spawn salmon on their way to the Fraser River. The traps were outlawed in 1934 as the salmon stock declined and the buildings and machinery were taken away or left to rust away. Now, even during the height of the summer it is a quiet refuge where the eagles soar in the sky and Great Blue Herons wade in the shallows feeding on small fish attempting to hide in the eelgrass. Trails in the uplands wind through the trees taking walkers from shaded glens to dramatic lookouts over the Salish Sea, Lummi and the San Juan islands. To the southeast stands the magnificent glacier-shrouded Mt. Baker, named for another of Vancouver’s officers.
On the southwest corner, there is Lighthouse Marine Park. The bracing waters of Georgia Strait rush against the shore bringing salmon and resident pods of orcas looking for fresh salmon sushi. They usually show up in mid- to late afternoon but have been known to come by in the morning on their way to other happy hunting grounds. Check with Ben, the always genial and informative park manager, or any other park ranger to see if they are still visiting at the time of your trip – you will be surprised at how close they come to shore especially if they feel like seal for dinner. During salmon season, you’ll find fishers casting from shore. Some big fish have been hauled in that way. It is also possible to launch your boat at the park.
Don’t think of the park as just a day stop – sleep under the stars in the park’s campground, and enjoy the orca interpretive center, a boardwalk, barbeques and trails. There are group as well as individual campsites available. They can be reserved ahead by calling the park at 360/945-4911.
On the northwest corner of the Point is Monument Park. Here stands the first of many markers that line the U.S. and Canadian border between Canada and the U.S. from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. There is a trail down to the beach; it’s a nice walk to Gulf Road where you can have a cold drink at Kiniski’s Reef Tavern while watching the sunset from the patio. You will rarely find other people on the beach – it makes for a quiet retreat from the world.
On the northeast corner, there is Maple Beach Park. Sand flats extend a half-mile off-shore and when the tide comes in at the end of a warm summer day, the water temperature can get up to the mid-80s. Here you can go clamming or catch crabs in the shallow waters between the sand bars. The bay’s typically calm surface provides the perfect spot for wake boarding, kite surfing and skim boarding.
For more info, visit pointrobertschamberofcommerce.com.
Things to do in Point Roberts:
Take a Hike: Park at the entrance to Lily Point Park and wander the trails through the woods to the lookout. Hike down the hill to the beach. At low tide, walk the shoreline to
Maple Beach or to the marina.
Go Fishing: If you’re looking for salmon, the best place to fish is off Lighthouse Marine Park. There’s a ramp, but no dock, at the park or drop your boat in at the marina. You can also cast off the shore if you’re so inclined – some big fish have been hauled in that way.
Pack a Picnic: Stop by Brewster’s or The Pier and pick up a ready-made picnic lunch.
Go find a place on the beach where you can wiggle your toes in the sand and watch the
boats go by.
Ride a Bike: Rent a bike and circle the Point. From start to finish, it’s about 10 miles,
but you’ll find lots of places you’ll want to stop and take a rest.