The San Juan Islands in Washington (not to be confused with Puerto Rico) are some of the most beautiful in the world. With spectacular land and seascapes, rolling hills, and pristine natural landscapes, these islands are perfect for nature or photography lovers. Orcas and other sea life can be found in the surrounding waters, and history buffs will enjoy the century-old lighthouses dotting the coast. Foodies and wine connoisseurs will also appreciate the local cuisine and the many wineries available to visit.
Whatever the travel goals, there are almost endless things to do in San Juan Islands for tourists of all ages and budgets. With so much to choose from, it's easy to fill a vacation with memories that will last a lifetime.
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Where to stay in San Juan Islands?
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Top things to do in the San Juan Islands
Here is a list of some essential things to do in San Juan Islands. You'll find activities for those who are more adventurous, like kayaking, and activities for those who have a deep love of the arts,such as the San Juan Art Museum.
No matter what everyone can find a little magic and fun with a trip to these beautiful islands.
#1. Kayaking Around The Archipelago
When it comes to San Juan Islands activities, many visitors are enticed to leave the islands to explore the deep blue ocean waters surrounding this archipelago. A day spent kayaking through the San Juan Channel and Upright Channel is almost magical – between the wildlife sightings, the fresh ocean air, and the unparalleled views, this is an activity that simply can't be skipped.
Viator offers a guided kayak tour that passes through all the best spots to view porpoises, seals, and native bird species such as eagles. Lunch is included in this popular tour, and group sizes are intentionally kept small in order to provide the best possible experience.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: Traffic circle near Downriggers is main pickup, with hotel pickups also available.
Hours: 10:30 – 5:30
Price From $119
Tips: A waterproof case or bag is a good idea to keep cameras and cell phones safe.
What to bring: Sunscreen, snacks and water. Lunch is provided.
#2. Winery Tours
The Pacific Northwest is known for having some of the best wines in the country, and the San Juan Islands are no exception. There are quite a few small wineries and breweries available to tour and taste, to the great delight of both locals and visitors. Two of the most popular wineries are the San Juan Vineyards and Orcas Island Winery.
San Juan Vineyards can be found on San Juan Island and has a delightfully decorated tasting room, though no tours. Orcas Island Winery is located on the neighboring Orcas Island, near the Turtleback Mountain Preserve, and offers picnic tables, blankets, and snacks along with its wine tastings. Events such as “Imbibe & Paint” also take place there, making it a favorite even among those who live on the island.
If you're looking for a unique tour, there's The Orcas Project Wine Tasting where you get to visit and learn about the collaboration between acclaimed winemakers and vineyards in the Pacific Northwest to create limited run bottles.
#3. Whale Watching Tour
When deciding what to do in San Juan Islands, a whale tour cannot be left off the list. Orcas and other species of whales can frequently be seen in the waters of the channels and sounds that surround these islands, a claim few other locations on earth can make. Porpoises, seals, and even sea lions can also be spotted on these unforgettable tours.
Viator offers an amazing whale watching tour, departing from Friday Harbor in San Juan Island. This three-hour tour comes complete with an experienced guide, binoculars, and a “cruiser” suit designed to keep wearers warm and dry. While lunch is not provided, Friday Harbor has plenty of little cafes and restaurants to enjoy either before or after the tour.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: Upstairs at 1 Spring St, Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Hours: 11AM or 3PM
Price: From $121.30
- A waterproof camera case isn't a bad idea, to ensure any splash-back from the waves doesn't cause expensive damage. Bring Snacks, sunscreen and water.
#4. Art Museum
The San Juan Islands Museum of Art (IMA), also located in Friday Harbor, is a pleasant and educational way to pass an afternoon. It focuses on the art of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest British Columbia, and there are rotating exhibits throughout the year. This local museum is made up of three main galleries, which will take the average visitor a couple of hours to fully review.
This top notch island museum also hosts frequent special events, such as live music and art education classes. Perfect for both adults and children, this indoor activity will let visitors see the island through the eyes of local artists.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Address: 540 Spring St, Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Hours: 11-5PM, Friday – Monday
Price: $10 for adults, free for children
On an archipelago with so much natural beauty, it makes sense that hiking and camping are popular activities. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails to be found on the various islands. Some of the best are on Orca Island, home to Moran State Park. Nature buffs can explore trails for all fitness levels. When you reach the top of Mount Constitution, you'll see the epic view above.
Cascade Lake also offers a good, short hike for beginners or those on a tight timeframe. Campgrounds can also found here, allowing visitors the opportunity to fall asleep under the stars and wake up next to some of the most beautiful views on earth.
There is something mysterious and intriguing about lighthouses that goes far beyond their practical purpose. San Juan Islands has multiple available to visit, delighting history buffs and hardcore romantics alike. These buildings, many still in use, can be the perfect hiking destination or an ideal place to watch a sunrise or sunset. Depending on the season, there are also tours available, giving visitors a glimpse of what life was like for those who ran these lighthouses in decades past.
Two especially lovely lighthouses are the Lime Kiln Lighthouse and the Turn Point Lighthouse. Lime Kiln will celebrate its centennial this year and serves as a great place to spot whales from land. Turn Point Lighthouse is also worth a visit, though it's a bit more remote. Built in 1893, it is accessible only by water but is another great place to spot orcas and sea lions.
A Quick San Juan Islands Travel Guide
Money – Though ATMs can be found throughout the islands, it is a good idea to carry some cash, as they are not always convenient to some of the more rural corners of the island.
When is the best time? – Summer is the ideal time to visit the islands, for both weather and whale watching, though the islands are lovely in the spring and autumn as well.
Getting here – Though the simplest way to get to San Juan Islands is by ferry or boat, it is also possible to take a small regional flight from SeaTac. One popular and affordable ferry option departs from Anacortes via Washington State Ferry (WSF).
Getting around – The most scenic way to travel between the islands and coastal cities is by ferry, though it is possible to also rent a bike, moped, or car. The San Juan Island is also serviced by the Friday Harbor Jolly Trolley, giving visitors an additional opportunity to relax and let someone else take the wheel.
Where should I stay?
Here are a few recommendations for those planning overnight stays in the San Juan Islands.
San Juan Island Hostel
“Beautiful, large facility, with a great kitchen and comfortable seating. Clean, comfortable bed with sheets provided. Large room with a sink is nice. Best of all it's in a great location.”
Earthbox Inn & Spa
Feel relaxed after your stay at this hotel and space with massage treatments, getting your nails done, or enjoy the sauna. This hotel also offers free bikes for its guests to use and take in the scenery. Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal is only a 5 minute walk away.
BED AND BREAKFAST
Bed & Breakfast
This bed and breakfast offers free WiFi, free private parking, and your own private bathroom. Take a stroll through the gardens located on the property when the weather is nice and you'll find Orcas Island Airport only steps away.
Friday Harbor House
“The property is gorgeous. The rooms are nicely furnished, have comfy beds and a fireplace. The views of the sunrise over the harbor are breathtaking.”
Frequently asked questions
Great news, all year round whales can be seen around the San Juan Islands. Most frequent sightings occur between May and September of the Southern Resident Killer Whales.
You must take a small plane or a passenger ferry. You can bring your car with you on the Washington State Ferry if you make a reservation on your roundtrip.
You will have good service while you're in the Friday Harbor town but it gets spotty once you leave the area. Beware your phone may pick connect to Canadian cell towers causing you to incur roaming charges.
There is a Washington State Ferry International service between Anacortes/Friday Harbor to Sidney, B.C. From there you can catch the standard interisland service from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands. There is also a Blackball Ferry International service between Port Angeles, WA and Victoria, B.C. however, you'd still need to drive from there to a WSF ferry terminal.
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Featured image via Flickr by Jonathan Miske