Don’t be fooled by the name. The San Juan Islands are not a part of the sunny island of Puerto Rico. They are quite the opposite. The San Juan Islands are a group of islands off the coast of Washington state. Known for rural Pacific Northwest landscapes and wildlife, each island in the San Juan Islands chain — there are 172 named islands in this archipelago – offers unique experiences and accommodations. Discover the beauty and unique experiences of visiting the San Juan Islands.
Your Guide to the San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago (island group) off the coast of Washington State. They are situated between Washington state and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. There are 172 named islands and reefs in this northern pacific island chain. The four most populous islands are accessible by the Washington State Ferry system and include San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island. These islands also hold the majority of lodging and dining options and tourism activities, although Shaw Island has no commercial amenities. Ferries to these islands depart from both Anacortes, Washington, and Sidney, British Columbia.
Besides the Washington State Ferries, additional seasonal ferry routes run to the San Juan Islands from spring to early fall. During this peak tourist season, you can ride the San Juan Clipper directly from Seattle to San Juan Island. You can also catch the Puget Sound Express from Port Townsend, Washington, to San Juan Island during this time of year.
You can also reach the San Juan Islands by air or by sea. A number of airlines offer charter flights — many of which are seaplanes! — to Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan Island. On these, you have the option of leaving from many Washington and British Columbia locations. You can also take a chartered or private boat in and around the islands. Boaters need to be on the lookout, though, because a number of the islands are only visible at low tide!
The San Juan Islands have a temperate year-round climate, making them a wonderful place to visit, no matter what time of year you want to vacation. The islands do not get much snow in winter, but with the majority of the islands being quite hilly, you can find snow in the higher elevations. Winters in the San Juan Islands are usually mild and rainy with relatively sunny summers. Temperatures average around 70° in summer and 40° in winter. So depending on what sorts of things you are interested in doing while you are there, any time of the year is a good time to visit this beautiful area.
The islands are actually the highest points of a submerged mountain range that connects Vancouver Island with the mainland. Most of the shorelines on these islands are irregular, with deep indents and harbors. The coastlines are a mix of sandy and rocky beaches with both shallow inlets and deep harbors, in addition to coves and reef-studded bays. Pacific madrone trees grow along the islands’ shorelines. These evergreen trees have a distinctive flaky bark and generally grow contorted, making them easy to identify. If you have visited the Pacific Northwest before, you know exactly what these trees look like.
Among the most popular activities on the San Juan Islands are boating, whale watching, fishing, and sea kayaking. There are also ample opportunities for cycling and hiking these beautiful northern pacific islands.
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Visiting the San Juan Islands
While there are 172 named islands in the San Juan Islands, the most populous and easy to get to are San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez Islands. If you are considering heading to the islands, whether for a day or a week, here are some things to check out on the big three while you are there.
San Juan Island
San Juan Island is the second largest but most populated island within the San Juan Islands archipelago. The island is home to miles of farmland and stretches of forest. This island is often the choice for visitors to the San Juan Islands because it has lots of shops, restaurants, museums, and art galleries to visit. It is typically one of the busier islands with lots of people. It also offers the most beach access of all the islands here.
Visit American Camp or English Camp, both part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park. American Camp has the island’s longest stretch of beach, South Beach, as well as a network of trails perfect for hiking along the coast. American Camp serves as home to a seasonal residence of more than 200 species of migratory birds, a nesting pair of bald eagles, and red foxes. Orcas and other marine mammals are also frequent visitors to the waters off South Beach.
Nearby, English Camp is a beautiful day-use park with a small, seasonal visitor’s center and trails that range from a fairly strenuous hike up Young Hill to an easy loop along the bay. On Saturdays from June through August, park rangers and volunteers recreate some of the skills of military and civilian life during the island’s early pioneer period.
On the far side of the island, visitors will find Lime Kiln Point State Park, also known as Whale Watch Park because of the three local orca pods that are frequent summer visitors here. This park is considered one of the best whale-watching spots on earth and is the only park dedicated to shore-based orca whale watching. That is right. You can see orcas from the shore here!
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The pods of orcas, which also include humpback and minke whales, pass through every May through September, with peak times depending on that year’s salmon runs. A seasonal visitor’s center that is open from May to September offers information on orcas and the history of the 19th-century lime kilns and the nearby historic lighthouse. The park also offers a number of forest and shoreline hiking trails.
Besides the island parks being must-visit spots on the island, another can’t-miss attraction is Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. This 50-acre working farm is home to the largest herd of alpacas in the San Juan Islands. The farm offers both self-guided and guided tours. There is also a country store where visitors can find all kinds of alpaca-related items.
Another unique stop on San Juan Island is Pelindaba Lavender Farm, one of the island’s most popular visitor destinations. Here there are over 25 acres of beautiful views. Throughout the summer, visitors can enjoy the fragrant blooming fields, shaded picnic fields, and opportunities to pick their own lavender. Educational exhibits provide opportunities to learn about the on-site essential oil distillery. More than 200 lavender-based, botanical, culinary, personal care, therapeutic, household, and pet care products are handcrafted and sold on-site in the farm store and nursery.
It is easy to stay busy here, so be sure that a visit to San Juan Island leaves plenty of time to relax and enjoy the beautiful beaches on this island.
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The horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands. It is hilly and green, and known by locals as “the gem of the San Juans.” This island is plenty of dense woods and feels more secluded and remote than San Juan Island. For visitors looking for that type of vacation, Orcas Island will feel like paradise. Some of the fun activities available on Orca Island include guided or self-guided kayaking, whale watching, fishing, and sailing. There are also opportunities to rent bikes or take a guided horseback ride.
Orcas Island has lots of curving roads that wind through forests and fields alike. They are both fun for people who enjoy driving around and looking at the scenery. They are also a nice challenge for avid cyclists. Beware that the terrain here is more aggressive than on San Juan Island, so cycling here is not the family-friendly bike ride that you might expect when going to the beach.
Visitors to Orcas Island should be sure to visit Moran State Park. With a number of lakes and more than 38 miles of hiking trails, Moran State Park is perfect for hiking, biking, swimming, and horseback riding through the forest. It is the perfect place to spot bald eagles, deer, rabbits, and more than 250 species of birds. There is an observation tower at the top of Mount Constitution, the island’s highest point, that offers spectacular views.
Orcas Island is also home to a vibrant art scene. South of Moran State Park is the little hamlet of Olga, which is home to Orcas Island Artworks Gallery, a favorite Orcas Island destination. The Gallery is housed in a restored strawberry barreling plant that was built in the late 1930s. It boasts an extensive collection of pottery, painting, jewelry, sculpture, and other art from more than 50 island artists. If performance art is more to your taste, the Orcas Center offers over 40 performances a year of community theater and the performing arts, presenting both local and professional artists.
Be sure you do not miss the opportunity to see the orcas, minke whales, harbor seals, harbor porpoises, bald eagles, ospreys, great blue herons, and other seabirds that call these waters and this island home. Seasonally, look for California sea lions, gray whales, and elephant seals. There are a number of tour companies on the island to offer you the best wildlife viewing opportunities.
If you plan on visiting Orcas Island, be sure to immerse yourself in the wilderness here. Spend some time hiking. Spend some time relaxing. Let yourself go with the flow of the easy island life here.
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Lopez Island is known as “the Friendly Isle” because islanders here are known to wave at every passerby. The island is relatively flat, open, and pastoral. It is the smallest of the islands that have a ferry service. It is also the shortest ferry ride — Lopez Island is the closest island to the Anacortes ferry terminal. This island is your destination in the San Juan Islands if you are looking to disconnect from the world and relax because you will not find public transportation, rental cars, or stoplights on Lopez Island. Instead, there are plenty of opportunities here for beach walking, hiking, bird watching, and kayaking.
Lopez Island offers the fewest dining and activity options in the San Juan Islands. There is also only one village here. Ideal visitors to Lopez Island are the type of tourists who like to wander on their own. In this part of the San Juan Islands, you can explore the beaches and trails at Iceberg Point, Shark Reef Sanctuary, Agate Beach County Park, Otis Perkins County Day Park, Hummel Lake Preserve, and Spencer Spit State Park — a 138-acre marine and camping park. A visit to the Historical Society Museum or the restored Port Stanley Schoolhouse makes for an interesting afternoon.
Lopez Island provides some of the easiest and best cycling in the San Juan Islands, so visitors should be sure to spend a day or weekend doing some cycling around the island while here.
The San Juan Islands are worth a day trip if you are in the area and can catch the ferry for a day of exploring. They are also worth a longer stay if you enjoy beautiful outdoor landscapes and a little quieter way of life from the hustle and bustle of cities and heavily touristy areas. Plus, who doesn’t want to see a pod of orcas when they have the chance? No matter what island you visit or how long you are there, you will have a wonderful time visiting the beautiful San Juan Islands.
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