The San Juan Islands are located off the coast of Washington State, bordering Vancouver and Victoria BC islands. These islands are one of the true natural wonders of the world and definitely worth a visit, especially if you love the outdoors.
Made up of 172 named islands, the San Juan Island archipelago is an incredible playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Kayaking, bird and wildlife viewing, camping, sailing, hiking, fishing – you name it – there are tons of things to do in the San Juan Islands.
A Little About the San Juan Islands
While there are 172 named islands and reefs in the county, and up to 400 total islands, there are only five islands that are reachable by ferry, so those are the largest islands and they all have abundant accommodations and restaurants, plus they host the majority of the things to do in the San Juan Islands.
- San Juan Island is the largest and most populous. The main town of Friday Harbor is just one square mile in size.
- Orcas Island is the hilliest and is home to the tallest peak at Mount Constitution.
- Lopez Island is known as the friendly island and is also the flattest, so it’s a great place to ride a bicycle.
- Shaw Island is the smallest of the ferry-served islands with only 240 year-round inhabitants.
- Lummi Island is very small and quiet. The main draw for tourists is the Willows Inn.
The islands have really not been exploited or overrun by tourists and they still exude an untapped charm and local feel that is hard to come by these days.
Another thing that draws people to the islands is the resident Orca pod, called the Southern Resident Killer Whales. There are said to be over 80 whales in this pod that have made the San Juan Islands their home.
Planning your trip to the San Juan Islands?
Where to Stay in San Juan Islands:
Best Tours and Experiences in the San Juan Islands;
- Anacortes Whale Watching – Experience a thrilling 3-hour whale-watching cruise aboard a Blackfish fleet vessel in search of orcas, humpback, and gray whales.
- 3-Hour Sea Kayak Tour in the San Juan Islands – Embark on an exciting sea kayak tour of Washington state’s San Juan Islands Monument, setting off from Anacortes.
- Tree Canopy Climbing on Lopez Island – Experience the thrill of a lifetime with this canopy tree-climbing adventure at Deception Pass State Park.
Things to Do in the San Juan Islands (Friday Harbor)
San Juan Island is the biggest of the islands and has the most available conveniences for tourists. The main town is Friday Harbor, which has everything you might need – plentiful accommodations, restaurants and the bulk of the tour operators.
- Visit Lime Kiln Point State Park in Friday Harbor to observe the resident whale pods and see the historic lighthouse. Take a picnic, do some hiking or just hang out and wait for the whales to make an appearance.
- Explore Friday Harbor: This charming town is the main hub of San Juan Island and offers a variety of shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore. You can also take a whale watching tour or rent a kayak or bike from one of the local outfitters.
- Visit the San Juan Island National Historical Park: This park features several historic sites, including the English Camp and the American Camp, which played a key role in the Pig War between the United States and Great Britain in the 19th century.
- Go hiking: San Juan Island has several great hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. Some popular trails include the Mount Young Trail, the American Camp Trail, and the Cattle Point Trail.
- Visit the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park: This unique park features over 150 sculptures by artists from around the world. It’s a great place to take a leisurely stroll and enjoy the art and natural beauty of the island.
- Go kayaking or boating: The waters around San Juan Island are perfect for kayaking or boating. You can rent a kayak or bring your own boat to explore the island’s coastline.
- Boat Tours: You can find all kinds of boat tours leaving from Friday Harbor. Check them out here.
- Visit the San Juan Island Farmers Market: This popular market features locally grown produce, crafts, and other goods. It’s open 9:30am to 1pm Saturdays from April-Oct; the 1st & 3rd Saturday from Nov-Dec & Mar; and the 1st Saturday from Jan-Feb at the Brickworks Building,150 Nichols Street.
- Relax on the beach: San Juan Island has several beautiful beaches where you can relax, swim, and soak up the sun, including South Beach and Jakle’s Lagoon.
- You can circle the entire island easily and along the way you’ll find treats like an alpaca farm, a winery with regular events, beautiful parks and beaches, lively restaurants, farms and lighthouses.
- You can rent a scooter or bicycle, or just take the shuttle bus that navigates the island. From here, you can also take inter-island ferries to the other islands.
- Go on a whale watching excursion with San Juan Safaris. Tours frequently see porpoises, bald eagles, harbor seals and many different types of birds.
- Go on a kayaking adventure around the islands on your own, or join a local tour group that will ensure you see tons of local sea life. The Orca whales are around between May and September.
- Friday Harbor is home to many lavender farms. Visit Pelendaba Lavender Farm to see the beautiful fields in bloom and pick up some unique lavender items from their visitor store.
- Ever wanted to hang out with alpacas? The Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm and General Store in Friday Harbor is just the place to learn more about these fuzzy animals and even purchase some items made onsite from their fleece.
- Yes, there is ziplining in the San Juan’s! The San Juan Island Zip Tour lasts about 3 hours and features 8 zip lines that take you through forests, over lakes and into wetlands.
- The San Juan Island Distillery is located in Roche Harbor, on the northwest side of San Juan Island. They make a great local gin!
- Go on a seaplane ride from Friday Harbor.
Where to Stay on San Juan Island
The main town on the island is Friday Harbor, which makes a great place to stay. You’ll be centrally located and there are many restaurants.
Snug Harbor Resort is located on the West side of San Juan Island on peaceful Mitchell Bay and is a gorgeous place to stay.
Things to Do on Orcas Island
Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands and is often referred to as the Emerald Isle because of its dense, lush landscape, filled with forests, lakes and hilly terrain. You’ll never be wondering what to do on Orcas Island because there are activities galore.
- Visit Moran State Park: This beautiful park covers over 5,000 acres and features several hiking trails, a freshwater lake for swimming and boating, and several scenic vistas, including the summit of Mount Constitution.
- Explore Eastsound Village: This charming village is the main hub of Orcas Island and offers a variety of shops, restaurants, and galleries to explore. You can also take a whale watching tour or rent a kayak or bike from one of the local outfitters.
- Visit the Orcas Island Artworks: This co-op gallery features the work of over 45 local artists and artisans. You can find everything from pottery and jewelry to paintings and sculptures.
- Go on a whale watching tour with Outer Island Excursions to see orca, humpback and gray whales.
- Go kayaking or boating: The waters around Orcas Island are perfect for kayaking or boating. You can rent a kayak or bring your own boat to explore the island’s coastline.
- Visit the Orcas Island Historical Museum: This museum features exhibits and artifacts that showcase the island’s history and culture, including a restored pioneer cabin and a collection of historic photographs.
- Go hiking: Orcas Island has several great hiking trails, ranging from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. Some popular trails include the Turtleback Mountain Preserve, the Cascade Falls Trail, and the Mount Constitution Trail.
- Visit the Orcas Island Farmers Market: The market runs the first weekend in May to the last weekend in September, 10:00am to 2:00pm on the Village Green in Eastsound.
- Relax on the beach: Orcas Island has several beautiful beaches where you can relax, swim, and soak up the sun, including Crescent Beach and North Beach.
- The tallest peak on the islands is located on Orcas Island on Mount Constitution. This draws many hikers and climbers to the Island. You can drive to the top for the lookout, from where you can see the splendor of the islands and the surrounding mountain peaks, like Mount Baker. Hiking, biking and kayaking are all activities you can do near Mount Constitution.
- Visit the Island Hoppin Brewery on Orcas Island.
- There are over 38 miles of hiking trails to explore.
Where to Stay on Orcas Island
One of the area’s best resorts, Rosario Resort, is also located on Orcas, so if you’re looking for luxury, you’ll find it there.
Things to Do on Lopez Island
Lopez is called “the Friendly Isle” because its 2,500 year-round residents are so nice and friendly. The island is 15-miles long and is the flattest of the islands, which means it’s a great place to ride around on a bike.
You’ll find a little bit of everything on Lopez, from farmland to nearly deserted beaches to amazing views of the distant mountain range and Mount Baker. Lopez also has a farmer’s market that’s in operation from May to September.
There isn’t as much going on here as other islands. If you’re looking for a quiet place to just relax for an overnight stay, Lopez is your place.
- Explore the island by bike: Lopez Island is very bike-friendly, with many quiet roads and scenic routes to explore. You can rent a bike on the island or bring your own.
- Visit Lopez Village: The main town on the island is a charming place to stroll, shop, and dine. There are several restaurants, cafes, and shops to explore.
- Go hiking: There are many great hiking trails on Lopez Island, ranging from easy strolls to more challenging hikes. Some popular trails include Iceberg Point, Shark Reef Sanctuary, and Spencer Spit State Park.
- Go kayaking: The waters around Lopez Island are perfect for kayaking. You can rent a kayak on the island or join a guided tour.
- Visit the farmers market: The Lopez Island Farmers Market is a great place to sample local produce, crafts, and other goods.
- Go whale watching: Lopez Island is a great place to see whales, especially during the summer months. You can join a whale watching tour or watch from shore.
- Relax on the beach: Lopez Island has several beautiful beaches where you can relax, swim, and soak up the sun.
- Visit the Lopez Island Historical Museum: Learn about the island’s history and culture at the Lopez Island Historical Museum.
Shaw is the smallest of the four main islands at just over seven square miles. While there are less amenities for visitors to Shaw, you will find a peaceful and quiet place to relax.
Most visitors choose to make Shaw a day trip from one of the other islands because of the lack of accommodations. There is a campground on Shaw though, in Shaw County Park, along the waterfront, so if you’re wanting a quiet place to commune with nature, you’ll find it there.
- Visit the Shaw Island County Park: This beautiful park features a sandy beach, picnic areas, and hiking trails. It’s a great place to relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the island.
- Explore the island by bike or foot: Shaw Island is a small island that’s easy to explore on foot or by bike. There are several scenic routes and trails to explore.
- Visit the Shaw General Store: This historic store has been a fixture on the island for over 100 years. It’s a great place to grab a snack or pick up some souvenirs.
- Go kayaking or boating: The waters around Shaw Island are perfect for kayaking or boating. You can rent a kayak or bring your own boat to explore the island’s coastline.
- Visit the Shaw Island Library: This small library is a great place to relax and read a book. It also hosts community events and activities.
- Go fishing: Shaw Island is a great place to go fishing, with several spots around the island where you can cast your line.
Like the other small islands in the San Juans, Lummi Island is quiet and small. You can reach it via a small regional ferry from Bellingham, Washington, that holds a couple dozen cars. It’s only about 9 square miles, with just a handful of residents and no real tourist attractions.
The main reason to visit Lummi is to take in the amazing views and unspoilt beauty that surrounds you. But don’t plan on doing much else.
A great place to stay on the island is Nettles Farm. It’s secluded and gorgeous. For a quiet, chill weekend, it’s just the place.
- Visit the Lummi Island Heritage Trust: This organization works to preserve the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the island. They offer guided hikes, birdwatching tours, and other activities.
- Explore the island by bike or foot: Lummi Island is a great place to explore on foot or by bike. There are several scenic routes and trails to explore, including the Baker Preserve and the Lummi Island Scenic Byway.
- Go kayaking or boating: The waters around Lummi Island are perfect for kayaking or boating. You can rent a kayak or bring your own boat to explore the island’s coastline.
- Wine tasting at the Artisan Wine Gallery: They are open and have wine tasting ($5) each Friday and Saturday from 4-6 pm.
- Go fishing: Lummi Island is a great place to go fishing, with several spots around the island where you can cast your line.
Which of the San Juan Islands Should I Visit?
One thing we’ve learned from visiting the San Juan Islands is that each is quite different and unique in its own way. Where you should go depends greatly on what you hope to get out of the experience. If you live in the Northwest, I highly encourage you to visit each of the islands and see what makes them individually so wonderful.
If you’re visiting for the first time and don’t have time to see them all, the best island to visit is San Juan Island, because it contains the most things to do and see in one place.
You’ve already seen by now that there are dozens of outdoor activities in the San Juan Islands. Hiking, biking, kayaking and whale watching are some of the most popular activities, but basically if you can do it outside, you can do it here.
Just to give you a few ideas, here are the top things to do on each island.
5-Day San Juan Island Itinerary
With so many islands, you might be wondering how to make it all fit into an itinerary. Here is what we would do:
Day 1: Arrive on San Juan Island and explore the charming town of Friday Harbor. Visit the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, Whale Museum, and San Juan Historical Museum. Take a stroll along the waterfront and watch the boats come and go.
Day 2: Take a ferry to Orcas Island and explore Moran State Park. Hike to the top of Mount Constitution for stunning views of the San Juan Islands. Visit Eastsound Village for shopping and dining.
Day 3: Take a ferry to Lopez Island and explore the island by bike. Visit Lopez Village for shopping and dining. Go hiking at Spencer Spit State Park or Iceberg Point.
Day 4: Take a ferry to Shaw Island and visit the Shaw Island County Park and Library. Explore the island by bike or foot. Visit the Shaw Island General Store for a coffee and some ice cream.
Day 5: Spend the morning relaxing on the beach at South Beach or Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. In the afternoon, go on a whale watching or kayaking tour. Depart from San Juan Island in the evening.
How to Get to the San Juan Islands?
Most visitors to the San Juan Islands drive to get there, which obviously involves taking your car on the ferry, but you can also walk on the ferry or take a scooter, motorcycle or bicycle, as alternatives to driving. The ferry terminal is located in Anacortes.
The ferry is the least expensive way to get to the islands, but you can also take a seaplane or other private transportation, like a boat (The Victoria Clipper) or helicopter. It’s not necessary to take your car to the island, unless you want a convenient and quick way to get around without the hassle of public transportation.
It might be worth it for you to leave your car in the ferry parking lot and walk on, or take a bus to the terminal. Parking fees are roughly $10 for up to 24 hours; $25 for up to 3 days; $40 per week.
Taking Your Car on the Ferry
Keep in mind that it costs extra to take a car on the ferry. As of this writing, it costs about $14.50 for an adult to go to Friday Harbor on the ferry. It’s $2 extra to take a bicycle. To take a car would cost about $41-52 for the car and driver (extra for passengers). To take a motorcycle costs $22.15 for bike and driver. All of these are return trip prices (you don’t pay again on the return trip).
You’ll want to check the ferry schedule regularly before getting to the terminal. In the summer months (especially July & August), lines form at the ferry and the wait can be up to 2 or 3 hours for cars. If you’re walking, biking or are on a motorcycle, you can skip past the lineup of cars and go directly to the front of the line. This is my single best piece of advice for getting quickly and easily to the islands.
We take our motorcycle and are always very relieved when we bypass the 2-hour line and get right on. If you don’t have a motorcycle, consider renting a scooter or moped.
Avoiding Long Waiting Lines at the Ferry
The best way to avoid a long wait and to guarantee your spot on the boat is to make a reservation or buy walk-on tickets in advance online. This is particularly important during the busiest times, which are weekday afternoons and early evenings, and any time on Fridays and Saturdays. Holidays and mid-summer weekends can be a real nightmare on the ferry system, so do yourself a favor and reserve in advance.
Island Hopping on the Ferry
The ferry leaves from Anacortes and stops at Lopez, Shaw and Orcas along the route to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Not every ferry stops every time, so be sure to check the schedule. Some express ferries offer service directly to Friday Harbor.
Once you’re on the island, you can take an onward ferry to another island or head back to Anacortes. You can also get from the Islands to Sidney, BC, but you’ll need a passport to enter Canada.
When To Go to the San Juan Islands
The climate is temperate year-round in the San Juan Islands. Rarely does it go above the 70s or below the 40s, and there is less rain than in Seattle due to the islands being inside the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. That means there’s rarely a bad time to visit the islands, and outdoor activities go on year round.
For me, the middle of summer is the prime time to visit the islands because the weather is usually just perfect – warm enough to get out and enjoy just about any activity without much rain in the forecast, but that can also be the most popular time, so the ferry lines are longer.
If you want to avoid the ferry lines, go to the San Juan Islands on the shoulder seasons, which are from May to June and September to October.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is San Juan Island known for?
San Juan Island is known for its mix of natural beauty, historical significance, and recreational opportunities has made it a sought-after destination for nature lovers, history buffs, and those seeking a peaceful retreat in the Pacific Northwest.
Are the San Juan Islands worth it?
Yes, the San Juan Islands are worth visiting. If you appreciate nature, wildlife, history, and a slower-paced island lifestyle, then the San Juan Islands will likely be a destination you’ll thoroughly enjoy.
What is the best time of year to visit the San Juan Islands?
Ultimately, the best time to visit the San Juan Islands depends on your preferences for weather, crowd levels, and specific activities. If you want to experience the lively atmosphere, go whale watching, and enjoy the peak tourist season, summer is ideal. If you prefer milder weather and fewer crowds, consider visiting during the spring or fall seasons. For a more tranquil and introspective experience, the winter months may be the right fit.
How many days should I spend on San Juan Island?
A weekend getaway of 2 to 3 days is sufficient to experience the highlights, including whale watching and nature exploration. A midweek or long weekend trip of 4 to 5 days allows for a deeper exploration of historical sites and arts and culture. A week-long vacation of 7 days offers full immersion in the island’s beauty and outdoor activities, while an extended stay of 10 days or more is perfect for a comprehensive experience, including leisurely exploration and relaxation.
With so many things to do in the San Juan Islands, it’s a really spectacular place to vacation, all year round. You’ll see more natural beauty around you than you’ve ever imagines and catch glimpses of wildlife in abundance.
If you have any questions about traveling to the islands, feel free to contact me. Have you already visited the San Juan Islands? Tell us about your experience in the comments.
Be Prepared For Travel
Planning is the most important part of any successful trip. Do it the easy way:
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Laura Lynch, creator and writer of Savored Journeys, is an avid world traveler, certified wine expert, and international food specialist. She has written about travel and food for over 20 years and has visited over 75 countries. Her work has been published in numerous guidebooks, websites, and magazines.