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The name San Juan is proof enough that these islands were once coveted by Spain, Britain, and the newly founded United States. Before these nations argued over ownership, Native American peoples occupied the islands and developed their own thriving cultures, attracted by the temperate climate, rich soil, abundant timber, and the bounty of the ocean. San Juan Island -- the second largest in the archipelago bearing the same name -- is in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island in Canada and the U.S. mainland, north of Seattle in the state of Washington. Today, the San Juan Island National Historical Park is ideal for nature lovers and history buffs.

The U.S. and Britain agreed to peacefully and jointly occupy San Juan Island until such time as the two countries could agree on a border between the United States and Canada, a process that went on for some time until the 49th parallel was decided upon. The first commander of the U.S. Army on San Juan Island was George Pickett, who went on to become a Confederate general and lead his division in the famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg. He may have lived in the American Camp's Officers' Quarters, built in 1859 and still standing. The dispute with Britain over the island was settled by General Winfield Scott, known as the Great Pacificator.

How to Get There

You get here today either by Washington State (car) Ferries, several private cruise outfits, or three different air services. You can take the train from Seattle or Vancouver to Mount Vernon, where you get local transit or a taxi to Anacortes in order to catch the ferries there. There is also a direct shuttle from SeaTac Airport to the ferry terminal daily.

Highlights

You'll be aware of the American Camp wherever you go on the island. It, along with the English Camp, was a center for the rival armies on the island. The U.S. Army occupied American Camp from 1859 through 1874. You can visit the former Belle Vue Sheep Farm here, one of the last outposts of the Hudson Bay Company south of the 49th parallel.

Another highlight is The Redoubt, an earthen fortification on the island's southernmost peninsula. The old barracks in the English Camp were used by the Crook family in the 1870s. They left behind a pot of gold coins and currency, which was found in the attic about 100 years later.

If you can visit here during Bloom Week (this year's dates are May 3-8), you'll be treated to displays of wildflowers. Rangers guide walking tours on weekends running up to this period. The week culminates with a Wildflower Festival on the American Camp parade ground from 10am to 3pm. The festival features booths with local artists and conservation organizations, plus music, games, activities, prizes, and more.

If you like bald eagles, this is the place to come. The island group has one of the largest populations of nesting bald eagles in the nation's lower 48 states; one pair has been nesting above the American Camp Visitor Center since 1995.

Things to Do

You can ride horses in the park in certain areas after May 3 this year (by permit only). Hiking is fun for all concerned, especially in spring. In August, you can pick blackberries. Boating and kayaking is great here (ask rangers for facilities), and there is always bird watching and looking out for deer, foxes, and snakes. The latter are harmless, as no vipers exist in Washington State west of the North Cascade mountains.

From the bluffs at American Camp, you will find the best places for viewing marine life, especially between April and September. This may include opportunities to spot whales, seals, porpoises, and otters.

Hours and Admission Fees

The American Camp Visitor Center is open year-round from about 8:30am to 4pm or 5pm, depending on the season. Closing days are Christmas, New Year's, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving. The English Camp Visitor Center is open in summer only, from about early June to late September.

There are no fees to visit either of the camps.

Visitors

There were 263,370 visitors here in 2010, the NPS says.

More Info

San Juan Island National Historical Park (tel. 360/378-2902; www.nps.gov/sajh)