point roberts washington american canadian border

Quirky America: Why you need a passport to visit Point Roberts, Washington

by Michael on January 2, 2015

The quaint hamlet of Point Roberts, Washington looks like a piece of Norman Rockwell’s America. Seattle Seahawks flags flap in the breeze while families frolic at the beach. But then something seems out of place: gasoline prices are listed in liters and there’s an awful lot of liquor stores and parcel post drop-off businesses. You see Point Roberts (or Point Bob or simply the Point as locals refer to it) is an exclave. No not an enclave, an exclave: an area of a country that’s separated from the main part by foreign territory. (Yes, I am a geography geek who revels in such arcane trivia.)

Point Roberts custom map

Due to a quirk of both geography and history, Point Roberts sits at the tip of a peninsula that is attached to Canada. In 1846 the boundary between Canada and the United States was set at the 49th parallel leaving this unattached tip of land as part of America.

Point Roberts visitor center (800x602)

It would have made sense to give it to Canada but that never happened. To travel to Point Roberts by land from the United States you must drive over the border and through Canada before reaching it. It’s a quirky aspect of life that locals are used to.

Point Roberts Michael border sign (800x618)

Public schooling is offered until Grade 3. After that students embark on a daily 40 minute bus ride through Canada where they reenter the United States to attend class in Blaine, Washington. It all seems so complicated but the 1,100 residents of Point Roberts take it in stride.

Visiting point Roberts Washington cheap gas (750x563)

The gas prices are posted in liters because Canadians visit quite frequently to get lower priced American gasoline. The parcel delivery stores are there so Canadians can get packages shipped to a U.S. address and avoid international tariffs.

Point Roberts Michael border patrol lomo (800x600)

To enter Point Roberts you must pass through a U.S. Border Control checkpoint that is the same as any other along the Canadian and Mexican borders. What’s odd though is that when you stray a few blocks from the checkpoint the border gradually becomes a random fence along people’s backyards, until finally petering out into a yellow concrete curb with a sign marking the border. You can even toss a Frisbee back and forth between the two countries. However, the best indication of which side is Canadian is the presence of a children’s hockey goal in the street.

Point Roberts beach marker (800x573)

On the beach there is no physical barrier between the two countries, just a giant concrete marker designating the border. (This was in sharp contrast to our sojourn to the beachside U.S.-Mexican border south of San Diego. When we walked up to the border there we were greeted by a a steel fence and a Border Control agent flipping his siren on and telling us to turn around.)

visiting point roberts beach (750x562)

As we were leaving Point Roberts we passed through Canadian customs for the second time that day. The border agent asked us the purpose of our visit. After I told him it’s a place I always wanted to visit he responded, “Did it fulfill your hopes and dreams?” You have to love that wry Canadian sense of humor.

Point Roberts stone border marker (800x621)

 This obelisk was placed here in 1865 to mark the 49th parallel and the western terminus of the longest undefended border in the world.

Can you suggest any unusual places like this to visit?

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Scott January 2, 2015 at 6:27 pm

Oh Michael, Have you been to the Haskell Library and Opera House in Derby Line, Vermont/Stanstead, Quebec? The front door is in the States and the reading room is cut in half. When you enter you get both hello and bonjour because they’re not sure what language you speak at home. For a show, you can sit in Canada and watch the stage in the US. Google has some fine pictures of the reading room. Of course you have to be there to watch the odd behaviors that people do around the line.

Michael January 2, 2015 at 6:56 pm

Wow that is bizarre. I assume they don’t have a Customs checkpoint in the building. I definitely have to go there now. Thanks for the tip.

Tonya January 2, 2015 at 11:06 pm

I love fun and quirky attractions so one would think I could suggest an equally amazing locale for you to visit. I’m stumped, but I just added another location to my ever growing list of places to visit.

noel January 5, 2015 at 12:10 pm

How interesting, the coastal areas look beautiful. I guess I would be interested if I was close by in the area and wanted to do something quirky at best from the area.

Elle | Spain Buddy January 5, 2015 at 12:11 pm

I love quirky places like this. I’d never heard of it though – so you’ve broadened my mind today.

JessieV January 5, 2015 at 12:57 pm

This is awesome!

Elaine J. Masters January 5, 2015 at 6:47 pm

What a giggle! I’ve never heard of this phenomenon before but now have an inkling of what exclave is! Thanks for the insights and great pictures.

Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru January 5, 2015 at 8:47 pm

Loved reading this! A similar quirky place exists in Northern Minnesota: Northwest Angle in Lake of the Woods (which can also be reached by water, but it’s a long, cold trip), which is actually above the 49th parallel. Kids ride the schoolbus a long ways there, too.

The GypsyNesters January 5, 2015 at 9:18 pm

We didn’t know about this, but love these kinds of quirks. Hope we can visit some time.

Donna Janke January 5, 2015 at 9:38 pm

I did not know about Point Roberts although I have been very close to it several times, catching the ferry to Vancouver Island at Tsawwassen. My daughter lives in Vancouver. On one of my future visits, one when I rent a car, I will make a trip to Point Roberts.

Kristin Henning January 7, 2015 at 4:38 am

I love the illustrating map. That’s a fun excursion. Hope next time you visit there isn’t a fence and border patrol!

Cat of Sunshine and Siestas January 9, 2015 at 11:53 am

Reminds me of the little piece of Serbia you have to drive through just outside of Dubrovnik. The difference between Basque Spain and Basque France is so minuscule, too, that you hardly know it! Border crossings get me all giddy!

Carole Terwilliger Meyers January 9, 2015 at 5:50 pm

Thanks for tipping me to quirky Point Roberts! Who knew? Certainly not me. I’ll visit next time I’m in the area.

Travelogged January 9, 2015 at 8:00 pm

I love weird stuff like this — I would totally visit if I was in Washington. I had never heard of it before — what a fun, quirky little place.

Tawanna January 9, 2015 at 9:34 pm

Very quirky indeed! What made you stumble across it?

Michael January 10, 2015 at 1:12 pm

Read something about it years ago and put it on my must-see list.

Marilyn Jones January 10, 2015 at 1:00 am

How fascinating! I never heard of an exclave before. Very interesting blog!!

Meghan January 11, 2015 at 11:27 pm

Quite the accident of geography and geopolitics … unique part of the world that everyone should visit when in the Vancouver area!

Rick Hulsey August 31, 2015 at 9:16 pm

Looks like you caught a nearly perfect day on the point.

It’s a great place to visit or live. Yep I’m one of those 1100 or so.

And you’re right; when you live there (or visit long-term), you become accustom to ‘quirky’ differences and plan around them.

Michael September 1, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Thanks for the insider’s view of Point Bob.

Jen July 2, 2016 at 8:26 pm

I just went here last week, and it was so interesting. What struck me is that it’s strange to be so close to a big metro area (Vancouver) without being able to use any of the services like fire, police, hospitals and schools. It’s an interesting kind of isolation.

Michael July 4, 2016 at 4:13 am

It’s certainly off the beaten path.

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