Beautiful Islands, Leave-No-Trace Style

Let us acknowledge that we reside on the ancestral lands and waters of the Coast Salish people who have called this place home since time immemorial and let us honor inherent, aboriginal, and treaty rights that have been passed down from generation to generation. 



When I first realized I was moving to the San Juan Islands, I could hardly contain myself. Not only for my own thrill of living in one of my favorite places in the world, but for the opportunity to share the bohemian and whimsical spirit that is so pervasive here with family and friends.

So when my friend Jes said she wanted to visit in February, my mind started racing with all the things we could possibly do. Raised in Colorado, we both love being outdoors, and I knew she’d love to do any and all of my favorite hikes, plus experiencing the one element we don’t have in Colorado—the ocean.

A self-professed ‘orcaholic,’ I know just what an extraordinary experience it is to see them in the wild, so immediately added whale watching to the growing list that also included wine tasting, shopping in Friday Harbor, and a visit to the Whale Museum. This might have been our first getaway together in over a decade, but there were no awkward moments. Just easy camaraderie tinged with elated anticipation of a fun adventure.

Two nature-loving friends, three favorite spots

Mt. Grant had long been on my bucket list of must-see places in the Islands, and it fit perfectly into our girls’ weekend.  We’d hiked around American Camp and Lime Kiln the day before, and wanted to add a summit to the trifecta.

South Beach at American Camp in the San Juan Islands National Historical Park is one of my favorite beaches, with such a sweeping view of the Olympic Mountains and numerous nooks and crannies to explore in the driftwood and rocks. And there’s the added bonus of the bald eagles often soaring overhead. We hoped to get lucky and watch one dive for a fish or other prey, but no dice. Maybe next time. Instead, we came away with a handful of sea glass as a consolation prize.

Lime Kiln Point State Park is undeniably my number one favorite spot in the San Juan Islands. Not just for the possibilities of seeing the orcas come by, though that definitely plays into it, but for the sheer beauty of the spot itself. Something about the combination of the rocky shore and madrone trees mixed with Douglas-firs just seems to bring me a measure of peace.

While I can be content to settle on the rocks beneath the lighthouse, I wanted to share as much of the park as possible with Jes. Venturing into the trees just beyond the lighthouse, it wasn’t long before we came across the restored and secluded lime kiln the park is named for. More so than the lighthouse, which is still in use, it was a poignant reminder of the transience of time and what will remain long after we’re gone.  

The damp leaves underfoot muffled the sounds of our steps as we set out up the road at Mt. Grant Preserve. It was one of those perfect Northwest spring days – only a few clouds, temperatures creeping towards fifty, and the scent of last night’s rain still in the air.

Before leaving the car, we made sure we both had water, snacks, and a trash bag for wrappers and other trash. In the time between my last trip here and moving to the Islands, San Juan County adopted the seven principles of Leave No Trace to become the first county in the country officially designated a Leave No Trace Area. Other hiking trips have compelled us to pick up trash along the trail as we go, but this wasn’t necessary on Mt. Grant. If it weren’t for the road itself, it would have been easy to believe no one else had ever been there. Clearly others before us had followed the same rules. Perhaps because it was the end of February, we had the trail to ourselves. Conversation was muted, though often punctuated with laughter as we speculated what sort of mythical creatures might live in these woods. Humor aside, there was an almost transcendent quality we both feel when we’re out in the forest. Our phones made sporadic appearances to try and capture the moment for posterity, but for the most part, we let ourselves just be.  

The views from the top were so spectacular we kept turning in circles, occasionally even bumping each other, trying to take it all in. For such a panoramic outlook, it felt weirdly intimate rather than grand. Mt. Baker was shrouded in clouds, but we could pick out Vancouver Island and several of the other Gulf Islands in the west. The interpretive signs gave us a real sense of what a true accomplishment Mt. Grant Preserve is. A joint campaign by the San Juan Preservation Trust and the San Juan County Land Bank, along with thousands of dollars in community donations over the course of two years, it’s now permanently protected as a public nature preserve. Much like other public lands, the knowledge that a beautiful place like this will still be there for our grandchildren to enjoy is a great comfort.

As with any great adventure, it came to an end too soon. But now we’ll have the picture-perfect memories to pull out of our back pockets when we have need of some happy thoughts. Hiking the islands is a truly special adventure where you can "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."

Amy Nesler moved to Friday Harbor from Colorado to join the staff at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau. An aspiring naturalist with a background in sustainable tourism and environmental education, she can often be found in her off time volunteering out at Lime Kiln Point State Park, waiting for the whales.

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