The Best Things about Washington’s San Juan Islands

When we hear the name San Juan as a travel destination, most of us think of Puerto Rico.

But, if someone says, “the San Juans,” move your mental map about 4,000 miles northwest to a lovely collection of islands in the northwestern tip of Washington State in Puget Sound. You’re almost gonna need a passport.

The San Juan Islands are 172 islands accessed by ferry from the mainland community of Anacortes, about 100 miles north of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (It’s at least 2.5 hours drive time, depending on traffic in Seattle).

Only three of the San Juans are accessible by the Washington State Ferry system. A few others are inhabited, but private transportation is needed to reach those.

But on a hot summer day when many of the contiguous United States are sweltering, the San Juans are cool, lush and a world unto themselves filled with wildlife, welcoming farmsteads and an interesting bit of American history.

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Friday Harbor and San Juan Island, Washington

The island of San Juan is the most populous of the islands with about 6,500 year-round residents. The ferry arrives at Friday Harbor, an adorable village filled with independent restaurants, art galleries and sweatshirt shops. Yes, they sell t-shirts, too, but sweatshirts will most likely be worn during part of your visit, no matter what time of the year it is.

Near the Visitors Center, you’ll find Edward Warbass, founder of Friday Harbor, and his beloved dog Bob, waiting to greet you.

Washington_SanJuanIsland_FridayHarbor_Founder

We climbed up the hill to the San Juan Brewing Company, the only craft brewery on the islands. They have a lovely woodfired pizza and inviting patio with a view to the harbor, as well as plenty of ales and IPAs with clever island-inspired names. Bruce added a T-shirt to his collection.

You’ll notice that their T-shirts and other items carry the logo of a fox. The island is known for wild foxes that live out in most rural areas. Some people traipse all over the place trying to get pictures, but don’t do that. Please. Plus, much of this area is planted to protect the endangered Island Marble Butterfly. Let wild things be wild.

Funny and Fun History on the San Juan Islands

As soon as we started researching our trip to the San Juans, I learned a story about a pig that created an international incident. That’s reason enough to visit a place, in my opinion. So, our second day on San Juan Island, we sought out the English Camp, followed by the American Camp. These two sites, on opposite sides of the island, make up the San Juan Island National Historical Park.

It was here in 1859 that one farmer’s pig rutted up another farmer’s garden. The garden owner killed the pig. One farmer was American, the other British and the ensuing dispute revealed confusion about this being a British or American territory (Canada was not founded until 1867).

So, troops gathered in what is now known as The Pig War. No shots were fired, but troops mustered and blustered and drilled for 11 years. The Pig War ended when it was determined that San Juan Island was in the U.S., not Canada. But the story is fun and the remaining buildings give a glimpse of life here 150 years ago. The gardens in the English Camp are fairly interesting and the hiking trails on the American Camp provide expansive views of the bay.

The National Historical Park is just one federally designated destination in the islands. Much of the area is a wildlife refuge and marine sanctuary, known as the San Juan Islands National Monument.

Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands

The best way to see much of the protected area is by a cruise through the Salish Sea, which surrounds the San Juans. We had a wonderful day with All Aboard Sailing, based out of Friday Harbor. It’s owned and operated by David and Barbara Howitt who took us along the Haro Straight to Speiden Island and beyond. David has spent much of his life working to protect whales and other marine life, including several years working on the Sea Shepherd, a boat that engages in action around the world to protect marine life. Ask David for some stories.

We saw humpback whales, harbor seals, bald eagles and Mouflon Sheep. We actually saw a whale breach, which was a thrill, but Bruce didn’t get his camera up in time to get anything but the splash. But it was a lovely morning on the Howitt’s sail boat. We snuggled under blankets and enjoyed the sun on our face, the sea air and the beauty of the region. It was a lovely day.

We spent another hour at The Whale Museum in downtown Friday Harbor. The museum focuses primarily on Southern Resident Orcas, which were once prominent in the region, but was added to the endangered species list in 2005. Learn about some of the reasons, including the loss of chinook salmon in these waters, pollution in the ocean and noise created by boats, cargo ships and even the military. The museum has a sound research station on San Juan Island at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse.

And while you’re learning about whales, check out the podcast the seven-episode series, Pod of Orcas, created by the SeaDoc Society, an organization based on Orcas Island that provides education and marine wildlife and their ecosystems.

Orca whale mother and child in the Salish Sea of the San Juan Islands.
Photo courtesy of the San Juan Tourism Office

The Sculpture Park on San Juan Island

The San Juan Sculpture Park is located in an area called Roche Harbor. And it’s lovely. More than 20 acres filled with about 150 sculptures and beautiful gardens. Walking trails take you around past a lake, into various plantings and spaces to allow your brain to imagine and your soul to breathe.

I got so many ideas to improve my little garden project at home. And Bruce was happy with colorful things to photograph. Had we planned ahead, we would have packed a picnic to enjoy in the pavilion and spent much longer. If you’re traveling with a dog, they are welcomed here to play off-leash. It was such a happy, family friendly place. We could have spent all day.

Orcas Island of the San Juan Islands

We spent a couple of days on San Juan Island before taking another ferry to Orcas Island. It is totally different – fewer people, heavy foliage and a feeling of being very remote and secluded. That’s certainly the setting at Otter’s Pond, a wonderful bed and breakfast near Eastsound with no TV or phone signal, but otherwise every comfort to relax and unwind.

Moran State Park is a big attraction on Orcas Island, complete with 38 miles of hiking trails, camping sites and fishing. We made our way to the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans at 2,400 ft. On a clear day, you are supposed to be able to see Vancouver, but it was cloudy on our visit, so here’s wishing you blue skies.

public art on Orcas Island, San Juan Islands, washington

The biggest dose of civilization on Orcas Island is the town of Eastsound. We loved Darville’s Bookstore, one of the best independent bookstores anywhere. Someone told me about a series of books set on Orcas Island by the author Laura Gayle, and sure enough, they were on proud display in Darville’s. I made the mistake of buying just one and it left me hanging. Tip: Buy all five to avoid shipping costs later.

Navigating the Washington State Ferry System

Don’t get too stressed out about ferry times when traveling between the islands. Obviously, you want to be there on time, even early to get a good spot with your vehicle. But, sometimes they are on time, and then sometimes they are not. Waiting patiently is an artform. We spoke to a local woman in line who always brings a book, loads a movie on her iPad and packs plenty to eat and drink. Fortunately, there are restrooms nearby.

We didn’t have time to make it to Lopez Island, but we are now officially super fans of the San Juans. We visited in the summer months, which are obviously the busiest, thus the most expensive. If you can get there in the off season, you’ll enjoy lots of bargains, peace and quiet and the beauty of a lovely corner of the U.S.