The Ultimate San Juan Islands Visitors Guide – Explore Like a Local

The San Juan Islands are a popular tourist destination for people in the Pacific Northwest. There is so much to do and see on these beautiful islands.

This blog post will discuss some of the best things to do in the San Juan Islands. Whether you’re interested in hiking, kayaking, or simply enjoying the area’s natural beauty, you’ll find something to love here.

About the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are located in northwest Washington State. They are a collection of islands part of the San Juan archipelago.

The San Juan Islands consist of hundreds of islands. Some come and go with the tide, while others are busy with people and activities.

The most populous and largest islands with ferry services are Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island.

Getting There

Washington State Ferry servicePin

The best way to get to the San Juan Islands is by ferry. The Washington State Ferry system runs regular ferries to the listed major islands.

You can drive your car aboard the ferry, board as a foot passenger, or take your bike. Ferry service runs several times each day, and the ferries run year-round.

You can also take a private boat, seaplane, or wheeled passenger plane to the islands as alternatives to the ferry.

The ferry ride from Anacortes to Friday Harbor (San Juan Island) is about an hour long. However, you can get around by car, bike, foot, or moped once on the island.

Which San Juan Island Is Best To Visit?

It depends on the vibe you are looking for. Each island has a unique feel.

Each of the four central San Juan Islands has its own personality. San Juan (Friday Harbor) is your pick if you want amenities, like shops and restaurants, while Lopez Island is much more quiet and great for biking.

Where To Stay in the San Juan Islands

While you visit Washington’s San Juan Islands, there are various places to stay, from quaint bed and breakfast inns to larger hotels.

The best place to stay will depend on your budget and the type of vacation you’re looking for.

Some of the best places include:

The Landmark on Orcas Island

The Landmark is an excellent option if you’re looking for amazing views and easy access to all the island’s attractions. In addition, each unit has a kitchen and incredible views. So whether you are traveling as a family or solo, the Landmark is a great option.

Rosario Resort on Orcas Island

The 107-room Rosario Resort is another excellent option. The hotel covers 30 acres, and each room has impressive water views.

Historic Moran Mansion is the cornerstone of the property, with a full-service spa and waterfront dining.

Roche Harbor Resort on San Juan Island

Roche Harbor is a historic seaside resort located on San Juan Island with accommodations, restaurants, and amenities.

Waterfront dining and a full-service spa are some of the Roche Harbor Resort’s offerings.

In addition, the marina is the perfect place to hang out, rent a kayak or take a whale watching tour.

Wayfarers Rest Hostel on San Juan Island

If you are familiar with hostel travel, it’s a great way to save money. Wayfarers Rest is located in the town of Friday Harbor. It offers guests easy access to local amenities and transportation options.

At Wayfarers Rest, you can cook your own meals and meet other travelers, so it’s a very interactive experience.

Lopez Farm Cottages on Lopez Island

Suppose you’re single or a couple just looking to get away from it all. In that case, Lopez Farm Cottages is the perfect destination. They offer cozy cottages and campsites that are perfect for singles or couples.

You can glamp with a furnished tent or pack your gear and camp in one of their private campsites.

When To Visit the San Juan Islands

The best time to visit the San Juan Island archipelago is summer, giving you the best opportunity to see Orcas (resident killer whales). The weather is beautiful during the summer, but there are more tourists, so it’s essential to make reservations in advance.

If you want to avoid the crowds, the offseason is also a great time to visit the islands. Of course, your chances of seeing the magnificent marine mammals decrease, but so do the crowds.

You’ll just need to prepare for cooler weather and rain, so be sure to pack accordingly if you plan on visiting during this time.

San Juan Islands National Monument

In 2013 President Barack Obama signed a proclamation to designate the San Juan Islands National Monument, covering 1,000 acres, to protect the land.  

What To Do In The San Juan Islands

There is no shortage of things to do in Washington’s San Juan Islands.

The San Juan Islands are a playground for all kinds of outdoor activities. Whether you’re into kayaking, hiking, biking, or just taking in the incredible scenery, there’s something for everyone.

Kayaking

Kayaking is a popular activity around the San Juan Islands, and there are plenty of great places to go kayaking. You can rent a kayak from one of the paddle shops in Friday Harbor or take a tour.

The currents in the Salish Sea can be unpredictable, so if you are new to kayaking or not familiar with the area, hiring a guide might be the best option.

There are so many beautiful waterways to explore, and you’re likely to see various wildlife while you’re out on the water.

Oh, and whales! Don’t forget about the possibility of encountering substantial marine mammals while you are paddling, which can be a fantastic or terrifying experience depending on your perspective.

Visit Friday Harbor

Picture of Friday Harbor on San Juan IslandPin

If you’re looking for a charming place to spend a day or two, Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the perfect destination. This small town has a rich history and plenty of shops and restaurants to keep you busy.

There are plenty of things to do in Friday Harbor, so you won’t be bored if you decide to spend some time here. You can stroll through the shops, visit the museums, go whale watching, or enjoy the views.

You can visit King’s Market for some local produce or satisfy your sweet tooth at Friday Harbor Chocolates.

There are also several excellent restaurants in Friday Harbor so that you won’t go hungry. If you’re looking for a place to stay, plenty of options range from camping to historic hotels.

See Killer Whales

Resident killer whale in San Juan IslandsPin

Whale watching is a must-do activity when visiting the San Juan Islands.

The best time to see Orca whales (resident killer whales) is April-October, but they can be seen year-round. The summer months offer the best weather for whale watching, but there are also more tourists.

Many different companies offer whale watching tours, and you can usually find a tour to fit your schedule and budget.

The San Juan Islands are a great place to see wildlife. So, if you’re looking for an unforgettable experience, be sure to add whale watching to your list of things to do.

Fishing

If fishing is your jam, you are in luck. Fishing is a popular activity in the San Juan Islands. If you have a boat and gear, you can head out on your own, or you can charter a fishing boat.

Full and half-day charters are available. Try your luck with Salmon, Halibut, Cod, and Dungeness Crab. Whether you’re a seasoned angler or just looking to try your hand at fishing for the first time, the San Juan Islands have some excellent fishing spots to check out.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Paddle boarding is another great way to explore the San Juan Islands. You can paddle around on your own or take a tour. Paddle boarding is a great workout, and it’s also a lot of fun.

Check out the crystal clear water, and enjoy wildlife and the views of the islands from a different perspective. Ensure you have a waterproof backpack to keep your gear dry for any watersports.

Oh, and don’t forget that waterproof phone case. The last thing you want is to lose your phone at the bottom of the ocean.

Hiking

Get your hiking boots ready!

There are plenty of great hiking trails around the San Juan Islands. In Moran State Park (Orcas Island), Mount Constitution is the tallest peak in the San Juans. Take your time and enjoy the incredible views from the top. You can see the mainland, including Mt. Rainier.

Orcas Island is also home to Turtleback Mountain Preserve. At just over 1,500 feet high, it’s the second-highest peak on the islands.

Twin Lakes Trail on Orcas Island is an excellent hike along Mountain Lake. Although the hike is mostly flat, with gorgeous views, it’s worth checking out. Get there early or off-peak. Parking is pretty hard to come by.

Young Hill is the perfect spot if you’re looking for a great hike with incredible views. Located in San Juan Island National Historical Park, this 2.2-mile hike takes you to the 650-foot summit for some fantastic views.

Lopez Hill (Lopez Island) is a nature-filled area perfect for hikers and explorers. With over seven miles of trails, you can find the perfect hike for your experience level. The terrain is challenging and takes you through prairie land, canyons, and rocky knolls. It’s a great spot to check out wildlife and local flora.

Shark Reef Sanctuary on Lopez Island is a must-see, with stunning views and marine life, including sea lions and otters.

Cattle Point Lighthouse

Cattle Point Lighthouse is located on the southern tip of San Juan Island. Cattle Point is part of the San Juans National Monument. You can park at the picnic area, and at low tide, it’s possible to hike to the lighthouse on the rocks along the water. But the better route is walking from the parking lot to the trailhead.

Pack a picnic lunch, relax and enjoy the views. You can see a variety of marine and other wildlife in the area, including deer, rabbits, and sea lions. Also, keep an eye out for a pair of Golden Eagles that call the area home.

Hit the Beach

There are plenty of great beaches to choose from when visiting the San Juan Islands. From rocky and rugged to sandy and secluded, there’s a beach for everyone.

If you’re looking for a place to relax and take in the views, Fourth of July Beach on San Juan Island is a great option. The beach is located on San Juan Island, and it’s a beautiful spot to chill out and relax.

Check out Jakles Lagoon, an easy one-mile walk from 4th of July Beach. It’s an excellent place for a picnic and to watch sea lions soaking up the sun.

Jackson Beach is another excellent option. The beach is located on San Juan Island and is close to town. The beach has plenty of amenities like sand volleyball courts, parking, and restrooms. There is also a free boat launch if that floats your boat!

If you’re looking for a more secluded beach experience, try Crescent Beach Preserve on Orcas Island. Located near Eastsound Orcas Island, Crescent Beach is a great place to stroll, go beachcombing, or relax and enjoy the views.

Shuck Oysters

If you’re looking for a unique and delicious experience while in the San Juan Islands, shucking oysters is a must.

Oysters are plentiful in the area and can be found at restaurants and farmer’s markets. There are plenty of great spots to enjoy fresh oysters, but if you want to try your hand at shucking them yourself, hit Westcott Bay Shellfish Co. They also offer oyster tours to learn about raising and harvesting oysters.

Rent a Bike

One of the best ways to explore the San Juan Islands is by bike. There are plenty of great trails to ride with stunning views.

If you don’t have your own bike, there are plenty of places to rent one. Cycle San Juan in Friday Harbor is a great option. They have a variety of bikes to choose from, including mountain bikes and electric-assist bikes.

Cycle San Juan also offers guided bike tours, so you can leave the navigation to someone else.

Village Cycles on Lopez Island is another great option for bike rentals. They have a variety of bikes, including road and mountain bikes, and they also offer electric-assist bikes.

Not to be left out, Wildlife Cycles on Orcas Island also offers bike rentals and tours. Wildlife Cycles has a wide selection of bikes, including road bikes, electric-assist bikes, kids’ bikes, and kid trailers if your little ones want to come along.

The bike shops also have plenty of information about the best trails in the area.

Biking is a great way to see the San Juan Islands, whether you’re looking for an easy ride or a challenging trail.

Visit Pelindaba Lavender Farm

If you love all things lavender, Pelindaba Lavender Farm is a must-visit when in the San Juan Islands. The farm is located on San Juan Island.

The farm offers tours, lavender products, and stunning views. Be sure to check out the beautiful lavender fields. The “peak of purpleness,” as they call it, is July-August, but the farm has offerings May-October.

The lavender fields never close, so you can walk through whenever you want. In addition, you can cut your own flowers from the Cutting Field, and admission to the farm is free, an added bonus.

Bring a picnic, and be sure to try the lavender lemonade.

Wine Tasting

Man holding a wine glassPin

The San Juan Islands are home to some excellent wineries. With stunning views and great wines, it’s no wonder why wine tasting is a popular activity in the area.

There are many great wineries to choose from, but a few of our favorites are here.

San Juan Vineyards in Friday Harbor is a must-visit. They offer a variety of wines, and all ages are welcome, including well-behaved dogs.

Orcas Island Winery is another great option. As the name indicates, the winery is located on Orcas Island and has a beautiful tasting room. They offer a variety of wines to wet your pallet.

For a unique wine tasting experience, head to Doe Bay Wine Co. In addition to wine, you can taste beer and cider.

There are plenty of great options for wine tasting in the San Juan Islands. Be sure to add it to your list of things to do while in town.

Explore English and American Camp

San Juan Islands English CampPin

The San Juan Islands are home to English and American Camp historical landmarks.

Located on opposite ends of San Juan Island, American and British forces occupied the island during the Pig War.

Today, both are National Historical Sites and are open to the public. The camps offer stunning views, picnic areas, hiking trails, and a chance to learn about the area’s history.

You can see Harbor Seals sunning if you hike up to the overlook above Grandmas Cove at American Camp.

Both English and American Camp are great places to explore in the San Juan Islands. Be sure to add them to your list of things to do while in town.

Visit the Whale Museum

If you aren’t fortunate to see Orcas in real-time or want to learn more about these fantastic creatures, the Whale Museum is a must-visit. The museum is located in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

The Whale Museum has two levels. The lower level has a gift shop and a new exhibit. The top level has a variety of interactive exhibits, models, and skeletons. The museum is open every day and is a great spot to take the kiddos.

If you’re interested in whales, the Whale Museum is a great spot to learn about the three resident pods of killer whales. Be sure to add it to your list of things to do while in town.

Visit the Farmers Market

The San Juan Islands is home to many great farmer’s markets.

The Orcas Island Farmers Market is a great place to find fresh produce, flowers, and artisan goods. The market is open from the first week of May to the last weekend in September.

The Lopez Island Farmers Market is another excellent option. The market features a variety of vendors selling all kinds of stuff, including arts and crafts, produce, plants, baked goods, you name it. The market is open on Saturday’s May through September.

Located at the Brickworks Building, the San Juan Island Farmers Market has something for everyone.

In addition to the traditional farmer’s market offerings, the San Juan Island Farmers Market has some exciting options. So whether you are in the mood for goat cheese or shellfish or need to have your bike repaired (special days), you can find it here.

Watch the calendar for live music and other special events. Days vary by season, but the market is open Saturdays, April-October.

Rent a Moped

Renting a moped is a fun way to get around and see the sights of the San Juan Islands. Mopeds are easy to drive and are a fun way to see the island.

Check out Susie’s Moped Rentals in Friday Harbor. Be sure to wear a helmet!

Lime Kiln Point State Park (Whale Watch Park)

San Juan Islands Lime Kiln LighthousePin

Lime Kiln Point State Park is a popular tourist attraction the San Juan Island. In addition, Lime Kiln Point is considered a top spot globally to whale watch.

The park has day-use parking and is easy to access by car or bike from Friday Harbor.

Touring the Lime Kiln Lighthouse is definitely worth checking out. The views from the lighthouse are amazing.

Take a picnic and your hiking shoes for a fun day exploring the park.

Go Camping

If camping is your jam, there are plenty of great camping spots on the San Juan Islands.

Orcas Island has excellent camping options, including Moran State Park, which offers over 38 miles of hiking trails, and five freshwater lakes. Moran State Park is an excellent place for hiking, mountain biking, and camping.

Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island is an excellent campground with beautiful beaches. The campsites are spread out, and there are spots available on the water, but you have to plan ahead to snag one.

Finally, San Juan County Park on San Juan Island is a great camping spot. Most of the campsites have water views, and there is a boat launch if you want to paddle a kayak.

Take a Drive

One of the best ways to explore the San Juan Islands is by car. You are all set to go if you drove your car on the Washington State Ferries.

There are plenty of great scenic drives on the San Juan Islands. For example, Mount Constitution on Orcas Island gives you a great vantage point, and you can see Mount Baker (on the mainland) from there.

San Juan Island has a lot of great spots to drive and take in the scenery. Take a drive from Friday Harbor to Lime Kiln State Park and see the whales.

It’s easy to get around by car, and there are some great spots to explore.

Visit the San Juan Islands Art Museum

The San Juan Islands Art Museum is a great place to spend some time and check out local art. The exhibits change frequently, so there is always something new to see.

The museum is located in Friday Harbor, and admission is $10. The museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, so plan accordingly.

Explore Tide Pools

What would an island visit be without exploring tide pools? Kids love looking for crabs, sea anemones, and other creatures in the tide pools.

If you are young or old, tide pools are a great way to explore the marine life on the San Juan Islands.

On San Juan Island, check out Cattle Point and Lime Kiln State Park.

Obstruction Pass State Park is a good spot for tide pools on Orcas Island.

Finally, Oldin County Park and Lopez Village Beach are fantastic spots to explore tide pools on Lopez Island.

Visit the San Juan Brewery

After exploring the San Juan Islands after a long day, stop by the San Juan Brewery for a pint. The brewery is conveniently located in Friday Harbor and has a great beer selection.

Seriously, the beer lineup is impressive, with seasonal favorites and year-round brews. There is something for everyone.

Have a Picnic

Island life is all about enjoying the outdoors, and what better way to do that than having a picnic.

There are plenty of great spots for picnics on the San Juan Islands.

Orcas Island:

  • Mount Constitution
  • Moran State Park (Cascade Lake)
  • Obstruction Pass State Park

San Juan Island:

  • Mount Young summit
  • San Juan County Park
  • South Beach

Lopez Island:

  • Odlin State Park
  • Spence Spit State Park

Conclusion

The San Juan Islands are a great place to explore, and there is something for everyone. Whether you’re looking for a great place to whale watch, go camping, or just take in the scenery, the San Juans have it all.

If you’re looking for a fun day out with the family, check out one of the local state parks or eateries. And don’t forget to enjoy a cold beer at the San Juan Brewery.

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About the author
Steve
Steve is the owner of Paddle About, a blog that's all about helping people get out and enjoy nature. He loves to kayak, camp, hike and spend time outdoors with his wife and two kids. When he's not out exploring the great outdoors, Steve enjoys writing about his adventures and sharing tips for getting the most out of your outdoor experiences. He has a lot of interesting stories to share, and he's always happy to help others get more out of life.