Accessible only by private boat, helicopter or small plane charter from Saipan, the Northern Islands are well worth the extra effort for the adventurous traveler who loves nature and wishes to enjoy the ultimate in ecotourism. The islands are incredibly beautiful, with smoking volcanoes, black sand beaches, striking rock formations and an abundance of wildlife.
It is truly a unique experience to visit an island that is uninhabited, as most of the Northern Islands are. This was not always the case, as ancient Chamorros once inhabited all of the islands up through Maug (History of the Northern Mariana Islands). During WWII, all residents were repatriated to Saipan. Today there are only small settlements on Agrigan and Pagan. The islands are seldom visited, except by scientists and CNMI Emergency Management Office officials, who monitor the activity of the volcanoes.
What is there to do in The Northern Islands? Hiking, fishing, snorkeling, hunting, bird watching, volcano watching, photography and camping are just a few suggestions. You won't find any hotels or restaurants just yet, so you'll need to bring your own food, fresh drinking water and other camping supplies like tents and sleeping bags if you're staying overnight.
Here is a brief run-down on the unique features of each island:
The first island on your itinerary might be Anatahan. If you're visiting by helicopter, you might see the wild goats scatter as you dive over a cliff. Inside the huge caldera of Anatahan, bubbling mud pits give evidence of the active volcano. Huge fern trees grow there too. A small, currently abandoned settlement lies at the western tip of the island. In 1990, a strong earthquake hit the island and the residents were moved to Saipan for safety. Since that time, Anatahan has been uninhabited.
Conical-shaped Sarigan's tip is often in the clouds. No one knows when the last eruption occurred on this volcanic island 105 miles north of Saipan. It is inert for the time being. Visited very infrequently, Sarigan is home to hundreds of wild goats and thousands of coconut trees that were planted by Marianas residents years ago as part of a successful copra industry. You might want to park your boat in a secluded cove for swimming or exploring. Islanders often visit Sarigan for fishing and collection of wild goats. A few flame trees bloom amidst the coconut forests and there are many fishing floats that have washed up on the rocky shores.
At one time Guguan's volcano literally blew its top. The now dormant volcano rises up 988 hundred feet from sea level and then flattens out abruptly. After a good rain, there are waterfalls. A wildlife preserve, Guguan is home for thousands of white seabirds which roost in the cliffs. There is a huge ancient lava flow on the barren west side, a striking gray comparison to the lush forests that cover the rest of the island. From Guguan you can see Alamagan in the distance.
A beautiful caldera and grassy slopes are what you'll find on Alamagan, as well as a small herd of cows and calves that roam freely. This island has been inhabited on and off since ancient Chamorro times, and a few abandoned homes center around a square cement water catchment. Hundreds of coconut trees were planted on this island during the Spanish, German and Japanese administration of the Northern Marianas.
This island is striking in its contrasts. A long island with two volcanoes -- one active, having erupted in 1981, and one dormant, Pagan has perhaps the most varied and unusual features of all the islands in Marianas chain.
You may land by helicopter on the grassy area between twin bays or use the old Japanese airstrip which is partially covered by lava flow, a 30-foot wall that rises unexpectedly. A skilled pilot with a small plane can land on this strip.
The first thing you'll see is a wide black sand beach and an old concrete monument from the Japanese era, a memorial to those who fought in the Marianas during World War II. There is also an old bomb shelter and a WWII Japanese Zero for history buffs to enjoy.
The black sand beaches are pristine, except for fishing floats and an occasional glass ball. Spend some time snorkeling in Banadero Bay and you'll see tropical fish and octopus. Cows and pigs grow as big as they can on Pagan before they die. They have no natural enemies here.
The active volcano stands majestically. Flying over the mouth of the volcano is like looking into Hell, and is one of the most exciting experiences you can imagine. The bottom is perhaps a thousand feet deep.
At that special time of day in the hour before sunset, the 3,166-foot peaks of the tallest volcanic mountain in the Marianas is lit up in a warm glow. The giant caldera is best visited by helicopter. Huge tree ferns and tall grasses grow inside. Circle the island and you'll see small pocket beaches and a jagged coast where lava once flowed into the ocean. The wide black sand beach on the south side may be wide enough to land a plane in an emergency. This place, near the inhabited village, is as good a place as any to camp.
A wildlife sanctuary, Asuncion has very developed vegetation, with forests of coconuts and other native trees. They say there is a hot spring on the island. A concrete building made by former Japanese settlers catches fresh drinking water; however, there are no dwellings. You'll see evidence of coconut crabs as you step through shredded nests of coconut husks. The top of the volcano is often in the clouds. A notch in the mouth of the volcano shows where lava once drooled out over the side.
The three islands of Maug are an exciting sight. Once a single volcano like other islands in the chain, Maug blew its top, the result of which was three separate islands. Huge white birds nest in the cliffs. The colorful lagoon is actually the caldera of a submerged volcano. These islands are rich in vegetation and surrounded by Coral reefs. The sapphire-colored lagoon also includes a beautiful coral reef.
Farallon de Pajaros
Sitting on the horizon like a prize is our last destination, Farallon de Pajaros, more than miles from Saipan and difficult to get to. A new island still in its formative stages, this is the northern-most point in the Marianas chain and an active volcano with smoking caldera and sulfur fumes. There is no shade on the island, which is inhabited by only by birds and other sealife.
NOTE: Farallon de Mendinilla, the southern-most island in The Northern Islands, just north of Saipan, was not discussed in this narrative as it is used for military bombing practice. Visits to the island are neither safe or advised.