San Juan Islands, Washington Travel Guide
San Juan Islands Summary
- Gorgeous scenery, from farmland to rocky beaches to evergreen forests
- Lots of wildlife (whale-watching is fabulous from April to October)
- Lots of outdoor activities, including sailing, kayaking, and hiking
- Quaint towns with restaurants and shops
- Mom-and-pop stores selling local products such as alpaca sweaters
- Several kid-friendly museums
- Romantic, secluded environment for couples
- Several small wineries and farms open to visitors
- Only accessible via boat or plane (although the ferries can accomodate cars)
- Can be crowded during the summertime; hotels and restaurants book up very quickly and in advance
- Most hotels are no-frills
- Practically no nightlife (a pro for some!)
What It's Like
The San Juan Islands are a popular summmer getaway for Washingtonians, and have a relaxed, back-to-nature vibe; expect farmlands, evergreen forests, nature trails, whale-watching, and mom-and-pop shops. Most visitors arrive by ferry, but there are a few small airports for those who don't want to wait (during the summer months, lines for the ferries can take hours). Some bring cars on the ferries, while other visitors choose to stay in the vicinity of their hotel and walk or bike.
Temperatures are moderate, and rainfall is about half that of Seattle's, so it's possible to spend plenty of time outdoors. Popular activities include hiking, wildlife spotting (whale-watching in particular is common, and the Shark Reef trail on Lopez Island leads to a harbor seal hangout), sailing, and kayaking. For those days when it does rain, the islands have several wineries, farms, and museums.
There are about 200 named islands (and about 600 more unnamed), but only four can be accessed by ferry and only three have accomodations for visitors: Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and San Juan Island.
Though Orcas Island is a good spot for seeing Orca whales, the island is actually named for the Spanish ship that landed on it in the 18th century. Its beautiful scenery makes it one of Washington's most popular destination wedding locations.
Lopez Island is closest to the mainland but the least populated (and least popular) of the three tourist-friendly islands. Its vast stretches of beautiful countryside make it a popular spot for biking, and Lopez Village is the main hub of activity, where there are several shops, restaurants, and a grocery store.
San Juan Island has a bit more history to it, with a historic park featuring former barracks from the days when the United States and the United Kingdom almost went to war over the island's ownership. Friday Harbor is a small, compact town located on the eastern side of San Juan Island; small shops sell products produced on local farms, such as alpaca, wool, and fleece yarn and sweaters. Its kid-friendly attractions and the dozens of outdoors activities attract families and active travelers alike year-round.
Where to Stay
Hotels book up quickly and well in advance for the summer months, so visitors coming between June and August should not only book early, but even make restaurant reservations ahead of time. Though the islands may be at their most beautiful during the summer, rates drop and the crowds vacate during the off-season. Visitors looking for the most seclusion may consider opting for Lopez Island (nicknamed Slow-pez Island). Orcas Island and San Juan Island are about equally popular, and both feature several quaint towns.
The San Juan Islands hotels are more quaint than luxurious. Although visitors can find fabulous restaurants and gorgeous spas, many hotels here are intimate and no-frills.