Cattle Point Interpretive Area

Far southeast corner of San Juan Island
Friday Harbor , WA 98250


Every day Dawn - Dusk


Arriving at the Cattle Point Interpretive Area, the first thing you notice is the austere block building sitting in the middle of a small grassy prairie. Besides this historic relic of marine navigation, this site offers a wealth of opportunities for observing the geologic past and wildlife. Here or within close viewing distance, every marine bird and mammal known to occur in the San Juans can be observed at some time during the year.

The structure before you housed a radio transmitter and a power generator. Back in 1921 The Navy was responsible for marine navigation aids and they built three Radio Compass stations in the Puget Sound area (the other two were New Dungeness and Smith Island). Using the "new" technology of radio they were able to supply bearings to ship-board operators thus allowing them to pinpoint their location despite dense fog, storms, or long winter nights. A lone sailor monitored a receiver at the Cattle Point Lighthouse, took bearings on ship’s radio transmissions and then sent this information to the blockhouse that you see here. From this building another radio operator sent the bearing information back to the ship, allowing them to eventually plot their exact position. All of this communication was done in Morse code beginning with the ship’s transmission of "QTE" being the code for "What is my true bearing." By 1935 other technology surpassed this method and the station was abandoned.

Today the Washington State Department of Natural Resources maintains this site for the public both to preserve its natural features and to allow the public recreational access. Picnic tables on the bluff provide convenient viewing locations and in less than ideal weather you can always run into the block house. Below the bluff is a strip of beach embraced on either side by rocky outcrops and private property. The access down to the beach can be difficult and at times dangerous, but the views from on top are better anyway so don’t feel compelled to scramble down. On the rocky outcrop to your left as you face the water, are diagonal scars on the rock surface. When the mile thick river of ice (that’s a mile high above your head from where you’re standing) slowly plowed across the land it pressed down tremendously on boulders trapped between ice and rock. As the ice slowly moved along it ground these boulders along the bedrock forming the long thin grooves that can still be found.

In the spring, earlier in the islands than on the mainland, the bright blue camas flowers can be seen. Their bulbs were a natural food crop nurtured by fires ignited from summer lightning or by Native Americans who burned the grass fields each fall to prevent the encroachment of shrubs and trees. Shell middens, the waste piles of generations of shellfish harvest, have been found on this site, indicating that it was popular long before the picnic tables were placed here.

On clear days you can see as far as the mountains of the North Cascades but the real drama of this site is the narrow channel of water before you known locally as Cattle Pass. With twice daily tidal flushes from the large open strait on the south and the pocket of Griffin Bay to the north, a lot of water has to move through this channel. Depending on winds, this narrow passage can become a virtual maelstrom. Thrilling to observe from land it can be a mariner’s nightmare if they lack the power or the timing to make this passage safely.

The large island across the channel is Lopez, this is the nearest that any of the there major islands come to each other. Closer still, the small island in the channel is where you want to point your binoculars. This is Goose Island. Now a preserve and monitored by the Friday Harbor Labs, all sorts of marine birds and mammals spend time here. Unlike most of the San Juans, the vegetation on this island has escaped large scale impacts to its natural state making it unusually valuable for wildlife habitat and scientific study. Even the scientists limit their visits to this island to maintain its natural character and purity.

Once you’ve enjoyed your visit here it’s possible to walk to several other locations including the Cattle Point Lighthouse, Mt. Finlayson, or the Lagoons. But be careful while walking on the roadside. There are limited shoulders and drivers may become more focused on the views than on the pedestrians.

While most people desire a blue-sky experience, keep this location in mind for less than ideal weather. Located next to a narrow channel on the southern exposed end of the San Juan archipelago, this is a wonderful place to watch the fury of nature unleashed in a storm. With the welcomed shelter of the block house nearby, you can at least escape the worst of it if you have to. Native American culture, naval history, wildlife viewing, geology, storm watching; there’s a wide and interesting assortment of reasons to visit the Cattle Point Interpretive Area, enough to make it a regular stop on your island visits.
Written By: Bud Hardwick
On: 10/15/2009


Drive through the American Camp National Park site on the south end of San Juan Island. After the road drops down to the prairie and passes the Cattle Point Lighthouse look for parking and historic building on the right. This is just after the prairie ends and a shrubby forest begins, and the road will have made a distinct curve left.


Parking | Picnic Tables | Restrooms


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