Visiting Afterglow Vista on San Juan Island

As many visitors to this page can probably identify with, I sometimes get a restlessness if I’m cradled in the mundane for too long. When this happens, I often turn to Atlas Obscura for travel inspiration to seek out unique destinations and avoid the crowds. When I read about Afterglow Vista, I knew I had to go. The family’s story, the majesty and sanctity of this hidden temple surrounded by nature, all of it drew me in. This is not a place one would expect to exist outside of a movie set. With cameras and coats donned, my partner and I set out to explore.

Ferry to Friday Harbor

We began our journey with a ferry ride from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands, which lasted about an hour and a half. The air was crisp and cold. The departure by boat felt renewing and exciting — leaving one land behind for a new one. Upon arrival, we waited in a line of vehicles before being set loose on the island. The immediate town was charming and inviting. Small streets were lined with sleepy bookstores and lively cafes, the people inside a subtle mix of locals and visitors. With our stomachs full and our sights set, we headed towards Afterglow. 


History of the McMillin Memorial Mausoleum

Afterglow Vista, also known as the McMillin Memorial Mausoleum, is a grand structure built in the forest on Friday Harbor by John McMillin as the tomb for him and his family. The architecture of this monument was thoughtfully planned out and executed, with intentional meaning behind the shape of the layout, the number of stairs and the incompletion of certain pieces. A staircase ascends to Grecian-like pillars and a concrete and limestone table centered in this fantastical bower. This table is surrounded by beautifully crafted and gracefully aged stone chairs which contain the ashes of the McMillins, the backrests serving as their markers and their placement around the table signifying their unity in the afterlife. 


The mausoleum is located roughly a half-mile past Roche Harbor Cemetery, the walk through which is an experience in and of itself. Instead of the traditional clear, grassy field, the cemetery was heavily wooded with multiple meandering paths snaking their way through headstones. The graves were in small groups, each surrounded by white picket fencing. As we walked, we began to hear ringing. The sound was coming from distant church bells. Eventually, we recognized the music — a situationally somber rendition of “Yesterday” by The Beatles and an ironic rendering of “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters. Carefully, quietly and respectfully we continued our walk.

Visiting Afterglow Vista

The initial graveyard felt melancholy. Peaceful, but a bit heavy or alone. As we continued to walk, the headstones became sparser and the forest deepened. The signage was scarce, with the exception of a few, comforting posts telling us we were headed the right direction. 

Afterglow Vista
Afterglow Vista

The spotting of Afterglow was surreal. The mausoleum didn’t hold that same heaviness as the cemetery — it felt full of light, with regal orange columns brilliantly set against the tones of nature. Reverently and ceremonially, we approached the entrance. The world fell so quiet. The air was just chilled enough to see one’s breath. There were no other visitors. An experience so peaceful and enchanting begged for hushed tones and awed eyes. Knowing the backstory of the structure before ascending towards it added such depth to the appreciation of the experience. I couldn’t help but feel privileged to witness this beautiful representation of life, death, and family. We spent roughly an hour marveling at the McMillin family’s resting place before making our way back out into our lives. 

All that marveling made for a fulfilled ferry ride home. Mooring in our harbor was a welcomed sight after a long day of travel, which had exceeded our expectations. If you’re ever in need of an experience that connects you with both nature and man, this might be it. It leaves you reverent of the past and appreciative of the present. A setting so ethereal serves as a reminder that there is secular magic to behold if you choose to look for it. 

Ferry photos: Brandon Fralic. All other photos by the author. 

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Amy Shull

Amy is a transplant in the Pacific Northwest, hailing all the way from Florida. She’s explored several states in the US., as well as explored parts of Canada and some of Europe—but Washington’s landscape offered a diverse beauty that was impossible to ignore. She has spent time as a music journalist and dabbles in photography. Combined, those two interests have fueled a desire to document the experiences she’s had and will continue to have in this vast state.

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