Don’t Miss Washington’s San Juan Islands

The Pacific Northwest of the United States is a fascinating place to visit. Forests and mountain cliffs meet the edge of the Pacific Ocean providing for dramatic beauty. While it does have a reputation for receiving lots of rain, the summers and early fall provide glorious sunny conditions. One of my favorite spots to visit in the area is the San Juan Islands, located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, in Washington state.

An extra benefit of visiting the San Juan Islands is that they sit within the rain shadow meaning you can expect much better weather during the rainy season than you’ll find elsewhere in the Evergreen State.

san juan islands, ferry, washington

The islands are most commonly accessed by taking one of the state-operated passenger and vehicle ferries from the charming town of Anacortes. The journey takes about 1-1/2 hours. Even if you have a problem with seasickness, you’ll probably experience no issues on these ferries. My friend who gets sick in a rocking chair had no problems whatsoever without medicine. There is plenty of indoor seating with tables as well as many places outdoors to enjoy the phenomenal views.

The ferries also have a cafeteria where you can get reasonably-priced food and beverages.

The most-visited islands in the chain are Orcas and Friday Harbor. Orcas is more of an outdoors-loving location providing lots of camping and hiking opportunities, and cyclists who enjoy more of a challenge hit the incredibly hilly roads. Friday Harbor is more developed and larger.

On Friday Harbor you can take a kayak tour and may get a chance to get fairly close to some of the islands’ year-round aquatic residents—numerous pods of orcas.

san juan islands, orcas

There are more than 100 smaller islands that are all part of the state park system, and if you’re more adventurous you can rent a kayak, paddle out to one of the islands, and enjoy some primitive camping in a most unusual setting.

Because the strait is home to residential and migratory creatures, it is also possible to take a whale-watching tour. Depending on the time of year one can see orcas, minke whales, and other wildlife. The best time of the year for these tours is May through September.

san juan islands, orcas, seal

Spot the seal hiding in the kelp from the hunting orcas?

Friday Harbor is also home to one of the best land-based areas for whale watching in the world, Lime Kiln Point, and is one of the few whale-watching parks in the world. The islands enjoy a rapid drop in depth fairly close to shore which means that the passing orcas often get very close to the viewpoint.

From the park you can watch orcas hunt, spyhop, and occasionally breach (where they jump out of the water and crash back down on their side). You can also see bald and golden eagles, harbor seals, and Stellar sea lions.


This popular island offers a wide range of accommodations from luxury resorts to charming bed & breakfast inns as well as several campgrounds where you can fall asleep nestled among fir trees while listening to the sounds of the ocean below. Because of its small size and the frequency of ferries, it is also easy to do this as a day trip from the mainland. There are also ferries going between Anacortes and Sidney, BC, in case you want to visit Canada while you’re so close.

No visit to the Pacific Northwest would be complete without going to the San Juan Islands, even if all you can spare is one day in your itinerary.

Have you been to the San Juan Islands? Which island or activity is your favorite?

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