Off the coast of the Pacific Northwest and 60 miles north of Seattle lies an archipelago of 172 islands, the San Juans, in the Salish Sea. Oh, and they are stunningly beautiful.
There are three main islands: San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez, plus several smaller islands with year-round inhabitants, and there are so many unique adventures to be had on them. Here are some of the best things to see and do during your San Juan Islands vacation.
Whale Watching In The San Juans
When I visit the San Juan Islands, I’m fortunate to have access to a close friend’s boat for all my whale watching (and crabbing) experiences. I even spent one trip boat camping off Orcas Island, which is something I recommend at least once. Of course, having access to a friend's boat is not the only way to see the San Juans -- or the whales that live around them.
Whale watching excursions are available from San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas islands, but to stack the deck for seeing a pod of orcas or other whales, leave from San Juan Island. The best opportunity to see Orcas is from June to September when they forage on salmon in the area’s waters.
Another tip is to book with a company that is part of the Pacific Whale Watch Association. This professional spotting network communicates whale sighting locations and times to the network so member boats can travel there. Some members of this network find whales and other sea and wildlife on 90 percent of their tours.
The best place to whale watch on land is from San Juan’s Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island. With over 2,500 feet of shoreline, it’s nicknamed Whale Watch Park.
Kayaking In The San Juans
There are unguided, guided, and overnight/camping options for kayaking in the San Juans. You can rent kayaks by the hour for unguided exploring or take a three- or five-hour guided tour. You’ll find many good options leaving from Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Guided tours include paddling through the island’s west-side killer whale sanctuary and sunset outings, or an evening bioluminescence tour to see glowing plankton -- best seen after a hot, sunny day during a new moon.
Extreme sea kayaking tours let participants experience the islands in the most unique way. These are two- or three-day-long tours that involve kayaking and camping. A three-day trip with a night on Stuart Island is an especially unforgettable experience as Stuart is only accessible by private boat or kayak and has 33,000 feet of shoreline and hiking trails through old-growth forests.
You can book with a kayaking company offering all-inclusive trips. You bring the clothes specified on their packing list and they provide the rest, including valuable expertise and knowledge.
Fishing And Crabbing In The San Juans
Eating a Dungeness crab you caught changes the way you look at restaurant crab forever. My experience started with baiting the crab pot, dropping it from the back of a boat, and returning later with high hopes of finding crab-stuffed pots. Then we boiled and ate our catch.
You can have this same experience by taking an early morning or afternoon open boat charter. FYI, the average passenger leaves with approximately five crabs, but we had leftovers after catching and cooking three.
If you want to catch salmon, look for a four- to five-hour open boat charter trip. For the best price go between July and September. If you’re traveling to the islands in the winter, you’ll be just in time for the best Chinook salmon fishing.
Seaplane Tour Of The Islands
Taking a Seaplane tour of the San Juan Islands is on my bucket list. It falls into the once-in-a-lifetime experience category.
Check out some of the small aviation companies offering tours of the San Juans and combo tours that include Mount Baker -- one of the area’s active volcanoes. Planes take off from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
Hiking In The San Juans
After experiencing the rich beauty of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants, get back on land and explore the islands. On land, you can hike, bike, and explore aquaculture, lavender farms, historic sights, and old-growth forests.
There’s a lot of ground to cover, and there are hiking trails everywhere. It’s easy to pick the best hike to start with -- Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.
The highest point in the island archipelago and part of Moran State Park, Mount Constitution is open year-round. The hiking trail to the top has a 1,490-foot elevation gain and is seven miles roundtrip, meaning this is no easy hike. You can also bike (May to October) or drive up the mountain.
At the top, you’ll find a 63-foot-tall stone observation tower with (on a clear day) a 360-degree view of the islands, Mount Baker, both the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges, the Canadian Gulf Islands, and Vancouver Island. In other words, you can see everything.
The park trails are dirt paths with wood plank bridges and some shorter trails connect to picturesque lakes and a waterfall. You can picnic, fish, and even swim in the lakes. Or drive up Mt Constitution Road to enjoy the views in comfort and with ease.
Explore History On San Juan Island
On San Juan Island there are remnants of English and American army encampments from the mid-1800s. The camps were set up on opposite ends of the island after the Pig War in 1859. You can learn the full story of the Pig War when you visit.
American Camp, on the southern end of the island, has hiking trails through prairie landscapes and a chance to see the resident nesting bald eagles. To the west, there’s trail access to South Beach, the longest stretch of public shoreline in the San Juans, and Fourth of July Beach to the east.
English Camp is on Garrison Bay and has a few buildings, a cemetery, and formal gardens remaining. There is a steep hiking trail up to the cemetery and an easier loop through the woods along the bay.
On Saturdays June through August, park rangers recreate military and civilian life in the camps, and there’s a full reenactment one weekend in July. Both historic sights are open year-round, but their visitor centers are open Memorial Day to Labor Day, so plan accordingly.
Visit Pelindaba Lavender Farm On San Juan Island
After visiting American Camp, drive or bike up to Pelindaba Lavender Farm. The farm is open May to October, but the fields are in full purple bloom from July through August. Between October and May, visitors are welcome to walk the fields.
If you visit during the summer months, you can walk the fields, cut a bouquet, buy plants to take home, visit the lavender essence distillery, visit the shop, and have a picnic.
Eating On The San Juan Islands
The best food on the San Juan Islands is locally sourced and boats a farm-to-table culture that’s captured national attention. Using ingredients farmed on the islands and pulled from the Salish Sea, artisan chefs create amazing eating experiences.
Salish Sea Shellfish
To have an “only in the San Juans” experience, trek to eat oysters, clams, or muscles at one of the island’s aquaculture farms.
On San Juan Island, Westcott Bay Shellfish Company is a family-owned working aquaculture farm. You’ll plunge your hands into cold water, choose your own shellfish, and shuck them (shucking demonstrations are provided). Eat at one of the family-style waterside picnic tables mid-May to September 1 and on Saturday afternoons in the off-season.
On the northern edge of Lopez Island, Chef Nick Coffey is creating a hyper-local food experience at Ursa Minor. The restaurant serves small shared plates and relies on ingredients from local farms, the Salish Sea, and foragers.
Over on smaller Lummi Island (which is northwest of the San Juans in Whatcom County), you’ll find a menu with similar devotion to farm, sea, and foraging at the award-winning Willows Inn. The website quotes Chef Blaine Wetzel who “has described his approach to food as a ‘story about the land.’”
Great Bakeries On The San Juan Islands
Baking on the San Juan Islands centers on the same attention to ingredient sourcing and artistry as the farm-to-table restaurants. Barn Owl Bakery is on Lopez Island and has a unique focus on grain sourcing. You can buy their bread at the islands’ farmers market and at Ursa Minor.
Located in the old Eastsound Fire Station on Orcas Island is Roses Bakery Cafe. This bakery uses European techniques to produce incredibly crusty bread. They also have deli offerings, wines from the Pacific Northwest, and picnic supplies perfect for packing provisions and exploring Lopez.
Also in Eastsound is Brown Bear Baking. They’re best known for their cinnamon rolls, which always sell out early, and also serve breakfast, brunch, and lunch.
Getting To The San Juan Islands
For my visits, I flew to Seattle and took a car to the ferry in Anacortes. The Washington State Ferry website has schedule, fare, and reservation information. Book two to three months early for peak season travel (May to September) and allow three to four hours between flight arrival and ferry departure if you want to head to the San Juans the same day you fly in.