Moon San Juan Islands
Best Hikes, Local Spots, and Weekend Getaways
By Don Pitcher
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- Flexible itineraries like a 4-day best of the islands and a weeklong family camping trip, with coverage of gateway towns such as Anacortes, Whidbey Island, and Bellingham, plus nearby Seattle and Victoria
- Unique experiences and can’t-miss sights: Picnic on cliffs overlooking the ocean or paddleboard on a tranquil lake. Spot playful orcas and check out the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor. Visit local farms filled with fragrant lavender or fluffy alpaca and sip wine or cider at island vineyards. Savor the flavors of the Pacific Northwest at incredible farm-to-table restaurants, sample oysters fresh from the sea, or browse your way through quirky book stores and funky antique shops
- The best outdoor adventures: Go sea kayaking alongside whales or glide through glimmering nighttime waters during a bioluminescence tour. Set your sights on the islands’ marine life, including killer whales, humpback whales, porpoises, and seals, during a whale-watching trip. Sail around the islands or fish for salmon, cod, and halibut. Take a forest hike, spot rare birds, or bike through rolling farm country and along the stunning shorelines
- Expert advice from former wilderness ranger Don Pitcher on when to go, how to get around, and where to stay, from romantic B&Bs to stunning campsites
- Full-color photos and detailed maps throughout
- Thorough information on the landscape, climate, wildlife, and history
DISCOVER the San Juan Islands
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
Best of the San Juans
ROMANCING THE ISLANDS
Exploring the Outer Islands
Nestled between the Washington mainland and Vancouver Island, the San Juan Islands offer a perfect getaway. The islands are equidistant from two major Northwest cities, Seattle to the south and Vancouver to the north. Despite this proximity, they remain largely rural. You’ll find a host of bed-and-breakfasts, distinctive art galleries, specialty farms selling everything from alpaca garments to oysters, and fine restaurants where your waiter might also be the owner.
From the air, it’s easy to imagine the San Juan archipelago as broken pieces from a shattered plate. They encompass 176 named islands, and a total of 743 islands, islets, and reefs at low tide (or 428 at high tide). Thirty of these are inhabited. Some 16,000 people live on the islands year-round, half of them on San Juan Island, home to Friday Harbor, the islands’ only incorporated town. The three largest islands—Orcas, San Juan, and Lopez—form a cluster of oddly shaped puzzle pieces around Shaw Island, with many of the smaller islands strewn outward to the north and east from this hub.
As soon as the island-bound ferry leaves the dock, a sense of timelessness descends on all on board. Visiting the San Juans means escaping to rocky shorelines and dark evergreen forests, a place where the natural world dominates. Birders gather to watch for eagles or murres, clusters of cyclists huddle around maps and plot their next adventure, and spotting a passing whale is a big event. Locals read books and sip coffee at window tables, and children wave excitedly to passing sailboats. The pace of life here is slow—and all the better for it.
10 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Go kayaking: Take an easy harbor paddle, explore remote coves, or embark on a multi-day adventure. Many outfitters offer trips that combine kayaking daytrips with the chance to see whales.
2 Spot Whales: Orcas are a major attraction, with San Juan-based tours departing daily in search of the iconic—and increasingly endangered—animals. Learn more about these beautiful creatures at Friday Harbor’s Whale Museum.
3 Ride the Ferry: The Washington State Ferries are more than a means of transportation; they provide an ideal introduction to the San Juans—and Island Time. Ferries depart from Anacortes, stopping on Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan Islands, with some continuing to Vancouver Island.
4 Explore Moran State Park: Moran has a paved road up 2,409-foot Mount Constitution for panoramic vistas. Miles of hiking trails lead through tall forests to waterfalls. You can also camp along Cascade Lake, take a swim, or try stand-up paddleboarding.
5 Taste Farm-Fresh Food and Wine: With a revitalized back-to-the-land movement focusing on regionally produced foods, the San Juans have become home to a growing number of small farms, farmers markets, and organic products.
6 Go Biking: All the islands are popular with cyclists, but Lopez Island is the primary attraction because of its quiet backroads, picturesque shorelines—and relatively level landscape.
7 Step back in time: San Juan Island National Historical Park commemorates the conflict—and more important, the peaceful resolution—between the United States and Britain for control of the islands. Visit English Camp’s lovely garden and American Camp’s windswept beach.
8 Watch the Sunset: Lime Kiln Point State Park has a photogenic lighthouse and underwater hydrophones to listen for the whales passing offshore. It’s also a marvelous place to watch the sunset over Haro Strait.
9 Discover the Outer islands: Access to these marine state parks is by water taxi, kayak, or private boat. Sucia Island is a favorite of kayakers, Stuart Island has forested trails, and Jones Island has beachside campsites.
10 Relax on Island Time: Choose your own way to unwind, whether it’s a romantic dinner at Roche Harbor Resort, a quiet paddle from an Orcas Island B&B, or an afternoon sailing trip out of Friday Harbor. You’re not in Seattle anymore.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Gateways to the Islands
Most visitors to the San Juan Islands arrive on board Washington State Ferries that depart from the town of Anacortes. Nearby is popular Deception Pass State Park, and farther south is bucolic Whidbey Island, with the artsy towns of Coupeville and Langley. The island provides a scenic access route for people driving up from Seattle. Another entry point is Bellingham, with its museums, historic Fairhaven neighborhood, and shore-hugging Chuckanut Drive. Victoria, the elegant capital of British Columbia, Canada, lies nearby on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
San Juan Island
San Juan Island is the most visited island. It comprises 55 square miles. The main town, Friday Harbor, is a picturesque spot, and it boasts The Whale Museum, fine dining and lodging, and abundant opportunities for whale-watching and sea kayaking. Roche Harbor has a busy marina, gorgeous grounds, historic buildings, and a sculpture garden. San Juan Island National Historical Park reveals the island’s vivid history, with protected English Camp on the western shore and great beaches at American Camp. Other island attractions include a much-photographed lighthouse, the only whale-watching park in the nation at Lime Kiln Point State Park, wineries, a lavender farm, and an alpaca farm.
The “Gem of the San Juans,” Orcas Island is the most diverse island in the archipelago. It’s also the largest: 57 square miles, stretching 12 miles across by 8 miles north to south. The main settlement is Eastsound, with its picture-perfect inns, cozy cafés, earthy farmers market, and even a skateboard park. Elsewhere on Orcas are marinas, resorts, and pottery studios. The east side of the island is dominated by woodsy Moran State Park, with mountaintop vistas, miles of trails, camping, and lakes for swimming. Nearby is the century-old mansion at Rosario Resort.
Quiet and slow paced, Lopez Island covers 30 square miles. It’s a destination for bicyclists who pedal a 30-mile paved loop that traverses gently rolling farm country. “The Wave” isn’t a surfer’s term here, but one applied to the ubiquitous hands that lift off steering wheels to acknowledge every passing car or bike. B&Bs and vacation rentals are scattered around the island, and Lopez Village has shops, restaurants, a little museum, and a nearby organic vineyard. Spencer Spit State Park is popular for camping and for its long beach and its kayaking opportunities.
Once you get beyond the three largest islands, the number of visitors decreases markedly. State ferries visit Shaw Island, but not the other islands, where access is by water taxi, boat, kayak, or plane. Shaw Island offers hiking and camping options. Lummi Island provides snug lodging and four-star dining. Many of the smaller islands in the San Juans are maintained as marine state parks, most notably Sucia Island, Jones Island, and Stuart Island, all of which have protected coves and hiking trails.
Know Before You Go
When to Go
The San Juans are primarily a summer destination. Heading to the islands between mid-June and early September will put you among throngs of fellow travelers. Many of the best accommodations fill up far in advance, especially on weekends, when some resorts are booked a year or more ahead. Call at least four months ahead for a midsummer weekend. Anyone looking for space on Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, or Labor Day should make reservations up to a year in advance. This is particularly true if you want a place for less than $200 a night.
Summers are primarily warm and dry, with lush floral displays and plenty of chances to view whales just offshore. July and August each average only an inch of rain per month, and May, June, and September are also reasonably dry. If you don’t mind the wait for a table at the restaurants and lengthy ferry lines—and if you can get lodging reservations—this is a great time to visit.
Spring and fall provide ideal times to visit. By May, many plants are already flowering—don’t miss the wildflower displays on Yellow Island—but school is still in session, so most folks haven’t yet headed out on vacation. Lodging prices aren’t at peak summer rates. Fall brings a bit of color to the trees, cooler temperatures, and relative peace and quiet. By mid-November, long ferry lines are gone, prices drop, B&Bs have rooms on short notice, and it’s easy to take a romantic walk down an unpopulated beach. Holiday weekends can be busy, but for much of the winter, you’ll have the place to yourself. This is also the chilliest and rainiest part of the year, with an occasional dusting of snow.
Whether you’re aboard a state ferry threading its way through the islands or in a small floatplane dipping down to a watery landing, getting to the islands is half the fun. Access is primarily by Washington State Ferries from the town of Anacortes (an 81-mile drive north from Seattle along I-5), but quite a few visitors fly in, while others ride private passenger ferries, motorboats, or sailboats to the islands. The state ferry system links the four main islands—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw—with Anacortes, with some ferries continuing westward to the Canadian port of Sidney (20 miles north of Victoria) on Vancouver Island. Bikes and kayaks are welcome on board these ferries, making the islands an ideal destination for adventurous travelers. Private ferries and tour boats run from Seattle, Bellingham, and Port Townsend. Scheduled floatplane and wheeled-plane flights are available from Seattle, Anacortes, and Bellingham.
Many island visitors bring their own vehicles on board the state ferries, but you can also rent a car or take a taxi once you arrive. On weekends, it’s a good idea to leave your vehicle in Anacortes to avoid lengthy waits at the ferry terminal. On San Juan and Orcas Islands, shuttle buses provide reasonably priced transportation during the summer. All three islands also have bike rentals, including electric-assist bikes for the hills.
If you’re flying into Seattle, the Sea-Tac Rental Car Facility has all the major car rental companies in one location. Getting around Seattle is easy and cheap, with the Link Light Rail System connecting the airport with downtown, and all sorts of bus and streetcar options serving other parts of the city.
What to Pack
Everyone and everything (from oranges to cement) must get to the islands by boats, ferries, or planes. So, bring anything essential with you. Shorts and T-shirts are ubiquitous throughout the summer, though you will want long-sleeve shirts and pants for cooler evenings and cloudy or rainy days. Carry a light jacket for rainy days or on-the-water trips. Keep it casual when it comes to clothing: Even the most upscale island restaurants don’t require a sports jacket or tie. In winter, dress in layers. Bring a sweater or two, gloves, a hat, and a Gore-Tex or other breathable rain jacket. Don’t forget binoculars, camera, cell phone (of course), sunscreen, and sunglasses. Passports are mandatory if you plan any cross-border travel into or out of Canada.
Best of the San Juans
The San Juan Islands are an easy half-day drive and ferry ride from Seattle or Vancouver. Expect crowds on summer weekends; avoid them by visiting in the off-season or in the middle of the week. Even at their most crowded, the San Juans offer a peaceful respite from city living.
Each of the islands makes a perfect weekend trip. If you have more time, combine the itineraries below for a full 10-day getaway. Leave your vehicle in Anacortes to avoid the lengthy ferry lines. Both Orcas and San Juan Islands have taxis and car rentals, and an excellent shuttle service is available on San Juan Island. Some lodgings also provide limited transportation. It’s easy to get from one island to the next via the ferry system.
San Juan Island Getaway
Always a favorite of visitors, San Juan Island is great for an extra-long weekend escape, with plenty to do and a range of lodging and food choices. The ferry docks right at Friday Harbor, making this the perfect base for your trip.
Drive to Anacortes, stopping for a short tour through Washington Park before boarding the Washington State Ferries for the town of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. The ferry ride is always entertaining, providing the perfect way to reset your brain to island time. There are many lodging choices in Friday Harbor, including well-maintained rooms at family-friendly Discovery Inn, swanky suites at Island Inn at 123 West, and a unique lakeside setting at Lakedale Resort. The last of these also has lakeside campsites, cabins, and glamping yurts.
In Friday Harbor, visit The Whale Museum and then spend the day exploring the north end of San Juan Island. Drive to beautiful Roche Harbor for lunch on the patio at Madrona Bar & Grill, stopping to sample wines at San Juan Vineyards along the way. The outsized art of San Juan Islands Sculpture Park is just up the hill. From Roche Harbor, take a short detour to Westcott Bay Shellfish Co. to sample fresh oysters on the shore, or go to Westcott Bay Cider for hard ciders and brandy.
Drive south on West Valley Road to English Camp, part of San Juan Island National Historical Park. You’ll find prim-and-proper English gardens and a parade ground, plus an enjoyable hike up Mount Young that provides panoramic vistas. A short drive takes you to the cuddly alpacas of Krystal Acres Ranch before returning to Friday Harbor for dinner at Backdoor Kitchen.
This is another full day, so get an early start or focus on one or two sights instead of trying to see them all. Get best-in-town espresso at Crows Nest Coffee Shoppe and drive south to American Camp for a hike through the flower-filled meadows (look for red foxes) and a stroll along sandy South Beach—one of the finest beaches in the islands.
Turn west now to soak up fragrant Pelindaba Lavender Farm, where a shop sells lavender-infused products of all kinds, before continuing to tiny Westside Scenic Preserve and Lime Kiln Point State Park with its picture-perfect lighthouse. The lighthouse provides a splendid vantage to look for killer whales in Haro Strait, as well as a romantic sunset destination. End the day with a memorable farm-to-table dinner in downtown Friday Harbor (reservations advised) at Coho Restaurant.
Max out your time in Friday Harbor before ferrying back to Anacortes. Do a little browsing at Griffin Bay Bookstore, buy an ice-cream cone from Yo! Friday Harbor or a slice of pizza from Bakery San Juan, browse the art galleries, or rent a bike and pedal the loop road around Pear Point, stopping for a picnic lunch at Jackson Beach. If you have an hour to kill while parked in line for the ferry, walk up to San Juan Brewery for a beer and burger on the patio.
Orcas Island Getaway
Orcas Island is too big to really take in over a long weekend, but this short trip provides a sampler that will make you wish for more time there.
Catch an early ferry for a timely start on this diverse island. With a central base in the Eastsound area, you can easily get to most of the sights on the island. Outlook Inn features a great in-town setting and a variety of room choices, including inexpensive ones in the historic main building and sparkling waterside units. Couples will enjoy earthy Doe Bay Resort & Retreat (where else can you stay in an honest-to-god treehouse?), while Golden Tree Hostel appeals to single travelers.
You may want to spend time exploring the sights around Eastsound, such as the Orcas Island Historical Museum, or rent a sit-on-top kayak from Crescent Beach Kayaks to paddle this protected bay. New Leaf Café is an excellent dining choice.
Start the day with a pecan sticky bun and mocha from Brown Bear Baking. Explore Moran State Park, including the paved road to the stone tower atop Mount Constitution. Hike the trails, try some mountain biking or horseback riding, or let your kids play in the waters of Cascade Lake. Be sure to take the detour to Rosario Resort for a visit to this historical getaway. Orcas Island Artworks is nearby, with works by 40 or so local artists and a fine café. Dinner can be a tasty pizza at Hogstone or a memorable seven-course dinner at Inn at Ship Bay (reservations required).
Take it easy on your last day on Orcas Island. Grab brunch at Roses Bakery Café and tour local galleries and gift shops in Eastsound before heading back to the ferry terminal at Orcas Village. If you arrive early for your ferry, sample hard ciders crafted from local orchards at BoatHouse CiderWorks or premium wines at waterside Champagne Champagne.
Lopez Island Getaway
Lopez is all about relaxing, so this weekend adventure is short on activities and long on letting go.
Arrive at the Anacortes ferry terminal and get on board for a truly relaxing weekend. In Lopez Village you can wander through the handful of shops and restaurants and the town’s museum, and then stroll over to Weeks Wetland Preserve to watch migrating birds.
Once you’ve settled into your lodging place (Edenwild Boutique Inn and Lopez Farm Cottages are especially nice), enjoy a waterside dinner at Haven Kitchen & Bar and then take a sunset walk along the beach at Otis Perkins County Park.
Get a gourmet picnic lunch from Vita’s Wildly Delicious, and if you’re in town on a summer Saturday, walk across the road to check out the Lopez Island Farmers Market. Rent a bike from Lopez Bicycle Works or Village Cycles to see the island at an appropriately slow pace, stopping for a leisurely break at one of the beaches; Watmough Bay and Agate Beach are great choices. It’s an easy 0.5-mile hike from Agate Beach to Iceberg Point, a rocky point with views east to Mount Baker and west to the Olympic Mountains.
If you’d rather explore Lopez from “see” level, rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard from Outdoor Adventures Center in Spencer Spit State Park for a paddle to nearby James Island.
Drop by Isabel’s Espresso in Lopez Village for a cappuccino and then walk up to Setsunai Noodle Bar for a tasty bowl of udon before catching the ferry back to Anacortes. If you have time, drive the scenic route south to Seattle via Deception Pass State Park and Whidbey Island.
Family trips don’t have to resemble the 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation.
- On Sale
- May 26, 2020
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Moon Travel