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Inside: From orca whales to hiking trails, here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip to the San Juan Islands.
They are one of the USA’s best island groups. Yet many Americans outside the state of Washington have never even heard of them!
Made up of more than 400 islands and rocky outcrops, the San Juan Islands straddle the border between the US and Canada. Just 80 miles north of Seattle, the islands are part of the US state of Washington.
They are best known for their resident pods of orca whales. But the San Juan Islands are also home to the greatest concentration of Bald Eagles in the continental United States.
The San Juans are a terrific spot for a family vacation, a romantic getaway or just an outdoor adventure!
Full disclosure, San Juan Island was the site of my first vacation with my husband. We consider it the place where we fell in love. So expect what follows to be a thorough San Juan Islands travel guide with perhaps a slight love-struck bias!
What’s the best time of year to visit the San Juan Islands?
The San Juan Islands are most enjoyable from April to October. But be prepared for cooler temperatures and a little rain on either end of that range.
Like much of the Pacific Northwest, the islands are at their best in July and August. If you plan your visit for those months you’ll find warm, sun-splashed days and cool, comfortable nights. Of course, you’ll also find packed ferries and peak hotel rates.
And for that reason, my favorite months to visit the San Juan Islands are June and September. In those months, the odds are still favorable for sunny days but without the crowds (or prices) of the peak season.
How to get to the San Juan Islands
You can fly from Seattle by seaplane or wheeled-plane. But the most common way to reach the San Juan Islands is by a combination of car and ferry.
The four largest islands -San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw – can be easily reached from the mainland via scenic passenger ferry service from the coastal town of Anacortes.
From Seattle, the drive to Anacortes takes about 90 minutes. Washington State Ferries accommodate both passengers and cars. Ferries depart frequently for the islands in the summer months. The ferry ride (depending on your island of choice) takes from 45 -75 minutes and provides a stunning preview of the islands along the way.
Keep an eye out for orcas!
If you’re planning to bring a car on the ferry, advance reservations are now available and recommended. For those traveling on foot, reservations are not necessary.
Parking is available at the Anacortes ferry terminal if you’d prefer to ditch the car and make use of shuttles or bikes to get around the islands. That said, we do find it extremely convenient to have a car.
Also, note that all ferry tickets are round-trip, meaning you only pay to come to the San Juan islands, not on the return.
San Juan Island
The main island of San Juan makes the perfect base for exploration. With the most extensive tourist infrastructure, the island offers a variety of hotel options in both Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor.
The historic harbor town of Friday Harbor delights with open-air markets, art galleries, shops, restaurants, and a variety of hotels and B&B’s.
From town, it’s easy to get around the island using the San Juan Transit mini-bus which travels the Scenic Byway making stops at all the island’s parks and points of interest.
Where to stay in Friday Harbor
My favorite hotel in Friday Harbor is the Earthbox Inn & Spa. Just 4 blocks from the ferry terminal, this stylish hotel features a full-service spa and 73 newly-renovated cozy rooms. The hotel offers free beach cruise bike rentals and is just a short walk to the restaurants and shops of Friday Harbor.
Budget-friendly options are limited on the island but The Orca Inn is a decent choice for those on a tight budget. Rooms are small but clean and it’s just a short walk into town. (Expect zero frills here.)
5 Best Things to do on San Juan Island
Once you’ve decided where to stay, it’s time to get out and explore the island!
Here are a few of the top things to do on San Juan Island:
- Hit the open waters on a whale watching tour
- Sip the island’s best wines with a wine tasting at San Juan Vineyard
- Visit the alpacas at Krystal Acres
- Harvest your own lavender at the Pelindaba Lavender Farm
- Take a hike! Try the South Beach Trail for sparkling views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the snow-capped Olympic Mountains, and the Cattle Point Lighthouse.
Whale watching on San Juan Island
Whale watching tours are the most popular activity on San Juan Island but for those who prefer to stay on dry land, the killer whales can still be spotted regularly from shore, especially from the Whale Watch point at Lime Kiln Park on the western side of the island.
There, you’ll also find the historic Lime Kiln Lighthouse which is one of the island’s best photo ops!
The most popular activities throughout the islands are sea kayaking and whale-watching. During the summer months of May to September, whale watching tour operators boast a 90% success rate for orca sightings.
Located on the northwest side of San Juan Island, the quaint village of Roche Harbor is perhaps best known for its landmark Hotel de Haro. The hotel is named for Spanish explorer Gonzalo Lopez de Haro, the first European to discover the San Juan Islands.
Lime production was once a major industry in the islands and the small, protected harbor was originally developed as a company town for the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company, which incorporated in 1886.
The sheltered anchorage of Roche Harbor’s marina is a designated port of entry for those sailing the San Juan Islands. It’s also considered one of the best marinas in the Western United States.
Whether you stay at the historic Hotel de Haro, dock at one of the marina’s 377 slips or simply visit for an afternoon from Friday Harbor, this tiny village with its yellow-brick roads, flowering arbors and quaint shops will likely be the highlight of your visit to the islands.
But while San Juan Island offers the most activities and accommodations, there are several neighboring islands also well worth a visit!
Here are a few of my favorites:
Ferries arrive at the southern tip of Orcas, about 8 miles from charming Eastsound, the main village. Like San Juan Island, outdoor activities abound on this horseshoe-shaped island known as “the Emerald Isle.”
Orcas is home to one of the country’s most beautiful parks, Moran State Park, with more than 5,000 acres of hiking trails and lakes. And, of course, whale watching is at its prime during the summer months.
The island’s best views can be found atop its highest point, Mount Constitution. You can drive, bike, or hike up to the top for jaw-dropping views of the entire island group and snow-capped Mount Baker.
For lodging on Orcas Island, one of the top choices is the Rosario Resort & Spa. Located on Cascade Bay, the Rosario Resort & Spa is home to waterfront dining at the Moran Mansion, listed on the National Historic Register. All 107 rooms and suites offer spectacular water views spread across 30 waterfront acres.
If you don’t arrive on the island by car, San Juan Transit offers a weekend summer shuttle service connecting the Ferry Landing, Deer Harbor, Eastsound, Moran State Park, and the Rosario Resort.
Which is better, San Juan Island or Orcas Island?
If you’re looking for amenities like plenty of restaurants and things to do, San Juan Island is your best best. However, if you’re looking for a true escape, Orcas Island feels more remote and has far fewer visitors each year.
The islands are equally beautiful, so it just depends on what kind of holiday you’re seeking.
With just 2,500 year-round residents, Lopez is known as “the Friendly Isle.” Hiking, cycling, and kayaking are the most popular activities on this tranquil island but you can also just relax on one of many beautiful beaches.
The options for accommodation on Lopez Island include everything from in-town hotels to B&B’s and private, waterfront cabins. The Edenwild Boutique Inn is a gloriously-restored Victorian home with colorful rooms that each feature a fireplace. This cozy B&B has a lovely terrace and also offers a delicious breakfast.
As the smallest of the ferry-served islands, Shaw Island is less than 10 square miles. With no restaurants or hotels, the island is best visited by day trip on foot or bike. If staying on one of the larger islands, you can ride the ferry for free as a walk-on or bike passenger departing for Shaw in the morning and returning by mid-afternoon.
At the ferry terminal you’ll find a stocked general store with a deli where you can pick up a few supplies for your day on the island. Highlights for a day trip include the Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine Monastery where the nuns run an active farm and welcome visitors.
From there, head for the stunning shorelines of Shaw County Park to enjoy your picnic lunch and then check out the University of Washington’s biological preserve and the island museum and library.
So why visit the San Juan Islands?
With so much natural beauty to offer, the San Juan Islands make a terrific weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of Seattle. Of course, it’s the place where my husband and I fell in love, so I may be a little biased.
But there’s no denying the spectacular landscape enjoyed by these lovely islands so close to one of America’s best cities.
So, if you’re planning a trip to Seattle, don’t miss the chance to spend a few days exploring the San Juan Islands.