The San Juan Islands are a group of islands located in the northwest corner of Washington state, in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. The islands are known for their beautiful natural scenery, including forests, beaches, and mountains. Outdoor activities like hiking, biking, kayaking, and boating are some of the cool San Juan Islands things to do. Here are some tips on how to prepare your San Juan Islands visit, as we explored the area during our Seattle Vancouver road trip.
San Juan Islands Washington State
The famous islands off of Seattle are composed over 170 islets and reefs, though only a couple of dozens are inhabited. Most people visit the major islands served by public ferries: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw.
San Juan Islands History
In addition to its landscape of thick forests and never ending beaches that are so typical of the Pacific Northwest’s scenery, the San Juan Islands also provide a window into the history of the region. Indeed, the archipelago was first explored by a Spanish expedition in the late 18th century, followed shortly after by George Vancouver. The area even fell under the brief control by the Hudson’s Bay Company, an iconic fur trade company from Canada that has been an important element in the development of Canada and the United States of America as we know them today.
San Juan Islands Things to Do & Itinerary
When considering a trip to this part of Washington State, one of the most common question is “How many days do you need to visit the San Juan Islands”. As usual, it all depends on what you are interested in. However, given the islands can only be reached by ferry or plane, a minimum of two days is highly recommended to make the trip worth while. If you are considering island-hopping and adding an outdoor activity like kayaking, that would add some extra days as well.
So the bare minimum would be 2 days on the San Juan Islands, with potentially 3 to 4 days for a more extensive visit.
Day 1: San Juan Island Washington
Head first to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal where you will board the ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
San Juan Island is the second-largest and most populous of the islands. The town of Friday Harbor is a popular destination, thanks to the Washington State ferry that deserves it. It is home to a variety of shops, galleries, and restaurants like Cask and Schooner or Downriggers, as well as the Friday Harbor Maritime Museum.
One of popular things to see is the Whale Museum. This museum is dedicated to the study of whales and provides educational exhibits and programs. You can learn about the different species of whales that can be found in the area.
Another popular attraction is the San Juan Island National Historical Park. This park includes the historic British and American Camps, which were established during a dispute over the ownership of the islands in the mid-1800s. Explore the camps and learn about the history of the island.
Cool activities include whale watching from Lime Kiln Point State Park, or going on a night bioluminescence tour, or strolling on the beautiful beach of American Camp.
Where to Stay on San Juan Island:
Most of the accommodations are located around Friday Harbor. We reviewed some of the Friday Harbor resorts and lodging:
- Discovery Inn Friday Harbor: check their location
- Island Inn Friday Harbor: click here for the latest prices
- Snug Harbor San Juan Island: book your room now
- San Juan Island Hostel: find out their latest deals
- Inn to the Woods Friday Harbor: Read their top reviews
- The Web Suites Friday Harbor: Book now
- Trumpeter Inn Friday Harbor: Reserve today
- The Orca Inn Friday Harbor: Read their latest reviews
Day 2: San Juan Island Kayaking
One of the top things to do in San Juan Islands is kayaking the expansive coastline. You can either rent kayaks or join a guided tour to kayak in San Juan Islands. Note that conditions can get rough quickly, so kayaking in San Juan Islands on your own is best reserved to people with previous kayaking experience.
Visit Lime Kiln Point State Park to see the lighthouse and lookout for whales, or hike on one of the island’s many trails, such as the American Camp National Historic Reserve, which is part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, or the Young Hill Trail. If you are hungry, you can try out a local café, such as Islander Juice and Java.
Day 3: Orcas Island Washington
Board the ferry to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan islands and is accessible via the Washington State Ferries system. Things to see include the Orcas Island Historical Museum home to 6,000 historical objects, paper documents and photographs relating the island’s history.
Take a scenic drive on the Orcas Island Loop Road and stop at various overlooks and parks, such as the Moran State Park and Cascade Lake. At the Moran State Park, hike up Mount Constitution which is the highest points of the San Juan Islands at 2,409 feet (734 meters). The park features several lakes (Cascade Lake, Mountain Lake, Summit Lake, and Twin Lakes) and waterfalls.
Check the rocky shores of Rosario Beach, to get a closer look of the ocean.
The former traditional burial ground of Madrona Point of the Lummi Nation has been closed since 2007 due to disrespect from visitors.
For food, you can at a local restaurant, such as The Lower Tavern, The Kitchen, The Island Skillet or The Garden Café.
Take the ferry back to Anacortes for either returning home from Seattle Airport, or to continue Washington State itinerary.
Where to Stay on Orcas Island:
Most accommodations on Orcas Island are located around Eastsound, but some other options are available around Olga and Doe Bay, or by Orcas Village (often referred as just Orcas).
More affordable options:
- Obstruction Pass Cottage Olga: check their ideal location at affordable rates
Orcas Island resort options include:
- West Beach Resort Orcas Island Eastsound: book now
- Rosario Resort Orcas Island Eastsound: check their latest deals
The Orcas Island Inn (The Orca Inn) is actually located on San Juan Island!
Other San Juan Islands
While our itinerary focuses on two of the islands, these other two are also worth a visit if you have time.
Lopez Island Washington
The third largest island, Lopez Island is also accessible via the Washington State ferry about 40 minutes from Anacortes. The island is a popular bike ride destination. Book your bike tour san juan islands now.
Shawn Island Washington
Shaw Island is the smallest of the four major San Juan islands. An historical Little Red Schoolhouse has been continuously used since 1891 and is a U.S. National Register of Historic Places., given its status of the longest-running school in Washington State.
San Juan Islands Map
Probably the easiest way to visualize the region is to look at a map of San Juan Islands:
Adventurous Things To in the San Juan Islands
San Juan Islands Whale Watching
The San Juan Islands are known for their abundant marine life, which makes whale watching whale watching San Juan Islands a popular activity. You can take a boat tour to see orcas, humpback whales, and other marine species.
A recurring questions is “Which San Juan Island is best for whale watching?” Well, the best whale watching San Juan Islands is San Juan Island, as several areas are good observation points. For the best San Juan whale watching opportunities, head to Lime Kiln Point State Park, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Westside Scenic Preserve, the San Juan County Park, and Friday Harbor.
Orcas Island whale watching is another great alternative, as orca whales (also called killer whales) roam the water around the island.
Check these san juan islands whale watching tour options:
San Juan Island Hiking
The islands have a variety of trails, ranging from easy to challenging, that offer stunning views of the surrounding landscape. Some popular hikes include Mount Constitution on Orcas Island and Mount Young on Lopez Island.
San Juan Islands Kayaking / Canoeing
Kayaking in the San Juan Islands is probably one of the most popular activities. The islands have a number of waterways that are perfect for kayaking and canoeing, including the calm waters of San Juan Island and the more challenging currents when Orcas Island kayaking.
For kayaking San Juan Islands, you can either rent and go independently, or join a kayaking tour. If you kayak independently, make sure to review the tides before your trip.
See some of the top recommended kayak tour san juan islands:
The islands have very little light pollution, making them a great place to see the stars. Bring a telescope or binoculars to get a closer look at the celestial objects.
San Juan Islands Wildlife Watching
The islands are home to a variety of wildlife, including bald eagles, seals, and sea otters. Keep an eye out for these animals as you explore the islands.
San Juan Islands Swimming
The ocean temperatures are cold all year round, and range between 50 °F (10 °C) to 58 °F (14.5 °C ). But if these temperatures don’t faze you, you can swim in the lovely, sandy Grandma’s Cove in American Camp National Park on San Juan Island.
How To Visit the San Juan Islands
Independent or Guided Tour of the San Juan Islands
You can certainly explore the San Juan Islands independently. If you rented a car from Seattle, boarding one of the numerous ferries is easy, and the islands’ infrastructures allow for comfortable self-drive exploration.
Once on the islands, joining some guided tours can offer additional information about the local history, or take you to some adventures on a kayaking tour. It all depends on your interests, prior knowledge and experience of the given activity, and your level of confort. If of interest to you, the islands definitely offer a variety of guided tours, including boat tours, history tours, and wildlife-watching tours.
See below some of the best san juan islands tours:
How Much Does It Cost to Visit the San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands are accessible on a budget: a one-way auto ferry journey will run you about US$20; a campsite night would cost you about US$50; you can carry a stove to prepare your own meals. To experience the seafood cuisine of the islands, be sure to peruse the markets and sample some of the fare!
You can, of course, splurge in higher budget hotels and restaurants!
San Juan Islands Lodging
Various San Juan Islands hotels are available, depending on the islands you want to stay.
From luxury San Juan Islands resorts, rustic San Juan Islands cabins, or even San Juan Islands camping, you can find accommodations for all budget and service amenities. Check the latest deals in the San Juan Islands.
How to Get to San Juan Islands
Since there are no bridges that connect the mainland to the San Juan Islands, the only way to reach them is by air or water. Most people will want to know how to get to san juan islands from Seattle, but some like us will travel to the San Juan Islands from Vancouver Island, Canada.
Fly to the San Juan Islands
The nearest major airport to the islands is Sea-Tac International Airport in Seattle. From there, you can take a ferry or a small plane to the islands.
Drive by Ferry
If you’re driving to the islands, you’ll need to take a ferry from the mainland. The ferries depart from Anacortes, which is about a 1.5-hour drive from Seattle. You can also drive to the islands from Victoria, British Columbia, which is about a 3-hour ferry ride from the islands. Four islands are accessible to vehicles and passengers thanks to the Washington State Ferries.
San Juan Ferries
You can choose between four ferry systems depending on the San Juan islands you are traveling to.
- Washington State Ferries: Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island from terminals in Anacortes, Washington. If you are traveling from British Columbia, you can board at Sidney.
- The passenger-only Puget Sound Express runs from Port Townsend to San Juan Island’s Friday Harbor.
- For short day trips, board the M/V San Juan Clipper catamaran ferry service for high-speed crossing between San Juan Island and Seattle, Washington.
To the question “How long is the ferry ride to San Juan Islands?”, it depends on which island you are aiming for your first stop. However, the ferry ride from Anacortes to San Juan Friday Harbor – usually the island most visitors visit first – takes about one hour. Check the individual San Juan Islands ferry schedule links for the latest timetable.
By Public Transportation
By bus: The Whatcom Transportation Authority and the Skagit Transit offer bus service from Seattle to Anacortes, where you can catch a ferry to the islands.
By train: The Amtrak Cascades train serves the islands and stops at several stations in the surrounding area, including Mount Vernon and Everett. From there, you can catch a bus or a ferry to the islands.
Once you arrive on the islands, there are several options for getting around. You can rent a car, take the local bus system, or use a bike-sharing service. There are also several taxi and shuttle services that can take you to different parts of the islands.
Best time to Visit San Juan Islands
The best time to visit the San Juan Islands is between April and October. The warmest months to visit are July and August but these tend to be the busiest and most expensive. Temperature average between 67°F (19 °C) degrees in June and September, and 71°F (22 °C) in July and August, though they can reach around 86 °F (30 °C) on the hottest days.
Make sure to check the weather forecast before kayaking.
Now, if you wonder: “what is the best time of year to see whales in San Juan Islands”, the best month to see whales is from mid-June to early September. Indeed, the Orcas sightings are higher when the salmon runs happen between between May and October. It is possible to spot them outside the summer months, but sightings are less frequent.
Overall, the San Juan Islands offer a wide range of activities and attractions for visitors to enjoy. Whether you are interested in outdoor adventure, history, or just want to relax and enjoy the beautiful scenery, the islands have something for everyone.
Have you been to the San Juan Islands? What was your experience? Are you planning your WA trips soon? Share with us your adventures in the Comments section!
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