Bucket List June 03, 2021
San Juan Islands: Spot Orcas, Go Sailing & Relish The Relaxed Pace Of Island Life In Washington
When it comes to island getaways, we tend to think of tropical oases rather than the Pacific Northwest, but the uppermost corner of Washington State is hiding an island escape that you’d be foolish to pass on. The slower pace of life on the San Juan Islands will instantly set your mind at ease, and it’s nearly impossible not to feel relaxed when surrounded by some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the country.
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
The adventure of experiencing the San Juans begins before you even step foot on land, as this archipelago of 172 islands is pretty remote.
There are no bridges or overland routes to reach the islands, so you’ll need to travel by ferry from Anacortes, a small town in the northwestern corner of mainland Washington, to one of the four ferry-served islands.
Drive-on ferries run daily between Anacortes and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, with stops at other islands along the way.
Reservations are recommended if you plan to bring your vehicle to the islands with you. Other travel options include seaplane and private boat, but the ferries are the easiest arrival option.
The group of islands occupies a pretty unique territory, nestled in the Salish Sea between the United States and Canada.
Victoria, British Columbia actually sits to the southwest of the islands, just to give you an idea of how far north they are!
The majority of the archipelago is made up of smaller, uninhabited islands, so the most popular - and populated - islands to visit are are San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island.
San Juan Island is home to just around 7,000 people, but countless visitors come each year to bask in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Your adventure will likely begin at Friday Harbor, the main point of entry for many traveling to San Juan Island.
The historic town of Friday Harbor is only one square mile, but it’s packed full of charming shops and galleries, fascinating museums, tasty restaurants, and lovely spots to spend the night. While many visitors do bring a car to the island, it is entirely possible - and quite fun - to get around without one. The town is extremely walkable, but there are also shuttles and trollies that will take you just about anywhere you’d like to go, as well as places to rent bikes and mopeds.
The top draw for visitors to any of the San Juan Islands is the world-class whale watching, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, let’s explore a bit of all there is to see right here in town!
The San Juan Islands Museum of Art is a must-see for any visitor to the island.
There is an impressive concentration of artists who live in and are inspired by this unique region, and this is certainly reflected in the beautiful collections on display here. The museum rotates around 8 to 10 exhibitions per year through its three galleries in addition to its “Art as a Voice” lecture series.
Hours vary by season, but
is typically open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday through Monday between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday through Monday between September and May.
The masterpieces aren’t all found indoors, though. Plan a visit to the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park to see over 150 beautiful works of art playing in harmony with nature.
The sculpture park covers 20 acres and includes five marked trails for visitors to explore.
If you visit San Juan Island during the summertime, the Annual San Juan Island Artists’
Studio Tour is a great way to see some of the local galleries! It typically takes place in early June.
For history buffs, a trip to the San Juan Historical Museum is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon learning about the rich history of the region.
A visit to the
San Juan Historical Museum
gives you a unique peek into the past into the pioneer era, featuring a restored farmhouse, the original county jail, and a log cabin filled with artifacts from the island’s earliest days.
As we mentioned, whale and wildlife-watching are among the most popular activities in the San Juan Islands, and you’ll have a whole host of options when it comes to choosing how you wish to explore.
Opt to embark on a chartered whale-watching tour from one of the many local guides, or, explore the waterways on your own via kayak rentals and guided tours offered by local outfitters.
While spotting whales isn’t a guarantee, the San Juan Islands are world-renowned for the thriving population of orcas that call the area home.
Whales can be spotted year-round, but the best time to visit if you’re hoping to see them is from mid-April through early October, when the whales feed on the runs of Pacific salmon and raise their young in the calm waters around the islands and in Haro Straight.
One tour company, San Juan Safaris, works closely with conservation groups and naturalists to both protect and showcase the beauty of these unique whales on small-group tours.
Check out some of their amazing cruises on the San Juan Safaris website
Make sure to stop by the picturesque Lime Kiln Light as well.
This historic lighthouse was built in 1919 and is located within Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of San Juan Island. This area is considered one of the best spots for whale-watching on land if you aren’t up for a boat tour, and keep an eye out for seals, sea otters, and bald eagles as well!
After a day of adventuring and whale-watching, you’ll need a spot to rest your head. From quaint B&Bs to chic little hotels, Friday Harbor has a wide variety of tempting accommodations.
The Tucker House Inn
is about as charming as it gets. The historic inn has 18 rooms and emphasizes eco-friendly lodging, and it’s even pet-friendly! Guests also get to indulge in a complimentary, multi-course breakfast delivered hot and fresh to your door each morning!
For a decidedly upscale experience, check out
Friday Harbor House.
The amenities here are hard to beat, and the views overlooking the harbor are as picturesque as it gets.
As tempting as it may be to stay for your entire vacation on San Juan Island, get out and explore the surrounding islands as well!
Orcas Island is known as the “Gem of the San Juans,” and it’s absolutely worth exploring.
In addition to whale-watching opportunities here, visitors to Orcas Island also rave about Moran State Park.
Stretching across 5,252 acres and featuring more than 38 miles of hiking trails, it’s safe to say that this is a nature lover’s playground. The terrain here is diverse, stretching from the marine coast, through rugged, old-growth forests, and to the summit of the Islands’ tallest point: Mount Constitution. You can hike, bike, or drive to the top for the most expansive view of the archipelago!
This stunning photo was captured from the summit of Mount Constitution at sunrise and shows Mt. Rainier - the tallest peak in the Cascade Mountain Range - which sits nearly 200 miles away!
Many visitors to Moran State Park prefer to camp beneath the starry sky, and there are 151 campsites within the park to choose from across five different camping areas. Reservations can be made online through the
Washington State Parks website
Sailing is another top activity among the San Juan Islands, and there are several sailing charters that operate right from Orcas Island.
For a particularly unique sailing adventure, consider booking a trip with
Schooners North, which sails a restored wooden schooner from Friday Harbor throughout the San Juans.
Talk about a one-of-a-kind journey!
Not up for a sailing trip? Grab a kayak and a paddle and get ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
No matter what island you visit, there are countless kayak and paddleboard opportunities. You'll see some remarkable ocean views and fall in the love with the islands around you. If you haven’t spent time in a kayak or on a paddleboard in the ocean, make sure you always bring along an experienced guide.
Onward to Lopez Island!
Lopez Island is the ideal spot for travelers looking to disconnect from the dizzying pace of everyday life. Of the main islands, Lopez offers the easiest cycling, and there are rental shops if you decide not to bring your own bike.
If cycling isn’t for you, Lopez offers beautiful beaches to stroll, state parks to explore, and even the lovely, little Lopez Island Vineyard!
Learn more about their delicious wines and tasting room
You truly can’t go wrong with a visit to any of the San Juan Islands, so perhaps the best way to see them as is by embarking on the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway.
Since there are no overland driving routes, the scenic byway is divided into three segments, including 30 miles along the Washington State Ferries routes, as well as driving tours around San Juan Island and Orcas Island. You can see the whole route - as well as all of its enticing points of interest
With the views, activities, dining, and more, the San Juan Islands truly are the perfect place to get away from it all.
Accessibility: The San Juan Islands are extremely accessible. You can explore most of the main islands by car on paved roads. You will find handicap parking around the island and wheelchair-accessible accommodations for many activities and points of interest. For more information about wheelchair and ADA accessible areas of the islands, visit the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau website here.
Pet-Friendly: Pets are certainly welcome on the San Juan Islands. You will find many hotels, bed and breakfasts, and campsites that are pet-friendly. You can learn more about traveling with pets on the San Juan Islands here.
Parking: While there is plenty of parking on the many islands, many individuals do not bring a vehicle. On the three main islands, you can use public transportation or a trolley to easily travel to many popular areas. Many individuals choose to explore the island by renting a bike, moped, or car. For more information on transportation options on the San Juan Islands, click here.
Seasonal Access: You can travel to the San Juan Islands year-round, and you don’t have to worry about the heavy Pacific Northwest rains, as these islands receive approximately 50% less rain than Seattle and the surrounding areas. December and January are the coldest months to visit the islands and during the summer months, you’ll enjoy an average temperature in the low 70s.
Cost: The cost of visiting the San Juan Islands will depend on your transportation arrangements, the activities you choose to enjoy, where you stay, and more. You will want to make all reservations in advance as many activities and popular accommodations fill up quickly.
You can learn more about the San Juan Islands by visiting its
Feeling inspired to fill your Bucket List? Check out our previous feature of Shenandoah National Park, Hawaii’s Napali Coast, and Crater Lake in Oregon, then subscribe to our weekly Bucket List Newsletter to discover new destinations across the country that definitely deserve a visit. Address: San Juan Islands, Washington, USA