San Juan Island is a gorgeous and laid back destination away from it all that makes a wonderful weekend or longer trip for residents of Washington State as well as visitors. The journey there is half the fun, surrounded by the islands and coastal communities of the Salish Sea. I’ve spent a lot of time in the San Juan Islands, both on the water and on land and I’ll share the wonderful things to do on San Juan Island with you!
San Juan Island is the most populated of the San Juan Islands archipelago, which also extends into Canada as the Gulf Islands. It can be slightly confusing because San Juan Island itself is just one of the many islands in the area.
You can even do a day trip here which is totally worth it if that’s all the time you have. San Juan Island is accessible with or without a car so you have lots of options!
If you’re bringing a car with you, the only way to get to San Juan Island is to take the Washington State ferry from Anacortes. I highly recommend getting a reservation in advance for your car on the ferry. The ferry ride is just over an hour from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island (sometimes a bit longer if the ferry stops at other islands).
Getting to San Juan Island without a car
There are some benefits to going to San Juan Island without a car. It’s much less expensive to walk or bike on the ferry than it is to bring the car with you, and you don’t have to worry about reservations or long waits if you don’t have a resevation.
If you go to San Juan Island without a car, I recommend staying in Friday Harbor so you can get to shops, restaurants and tours easily. There is also a bus you can ride in the summer that goes to major points of interest on the island. You can also rent bikes to ride.
If you’re going to San Juan Island without a car, you can walk on the ferry in Anacortes. There is plenty of paid parking available. You also have a couple of other options. There is float plane service from Lake Union in Seattle to Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor and in the summer months the Victoria Clipper offers a passenger only boat from downtown Seattle to Friday Harbor which takes 3 hours and 45 minutes.
When to go to San Juan Island
San Juan Island is blissful in the summer, with long generally warm and sunny days. Make sure you’re ready for rain any time of year, though summer is quite dry. Summer is also extremely busy, with lodging and ferry reservations more expensive and harder to get.
If you are going to San Juan Island without a car, I recommend going in late spring, summer or early fall when the Victoria Clipper is running their ferry from Seattle to Friday Harbor.
San Juan Island is a wonderful year round destination! During the winter most tours are not operating but restaurants and parks are still open.
Spring and Fall can be particularly wonderful, with less crowds but also some sunny days.
San Juan Island is busy both on the ferry and finding a place to stay on holidays all year.
Planning a day trip to the San Juan Islands on San Juan Island
If you want to plan a day trip to the San Juan Islands, I think San Juan Island is the best island for it. Lopez is a close second if you want to focus on biking or kayaking. It’s a long day trip, but it’s incredible beautiful and if you just have one day to see the San Juan Islands it’s
For a day trip to San Juan Island, I recommend either doing the Victoria Clipper day trip from downtown Seattle, or driving to Anacortes and walking on the ferry.
If you don’t have a car, the Clipper will be your best option. If you have a car, then going to Anacortes makes sense.
You can spend the time in Friday Harbor either walking around town and checking out the shops and restaurants, or you can take the bus out to Lime Kiln State Park or San Juan Islands National Historical Park.
Whale watching tours as well as bike and kayak rental and tours are also available in Friday Harbor.
Where to stay on San Juan Island
San Juan Island has a few hotels and lots of vacation rentals! Roche Harbor has a larger hotel and Friday Harbor has several smaller hotels. Lakedale, in the interior of the island, has hotel rooms as well as glamping and camping near the lake.
Vacation rentals are situated all around the island. When choosing a vacation rental, if you are not bringing a car with you I recommend staying in or walking distance to Friday Harbor. This will make it easy to get to restaurants, groceries, bike rental and tours without having to travel far. If you’re driving, then you can easily get to any vacation rental on the island.
There are very limited camping options on San Juan Island and it’s critical to reserve in advance. You can camp at the Lakedale Resort or at the San Juan County Park.
All lodging on the island fills up, especially in summer, so make sure to have something arranged and reserved before you get to the island.
The Cask and Schooner is a great pub right near the ferry, with drinks as well as salads, sandwiches and seafood.
For something quick, try a sandwich from the Spring Street Deli or grab a pastry from Bakery San Juan.
Things to do on San Juan Island – Friday Harbor
These things to do don’t require a car or a bus and are easy to enjoy on a day trip to Friday Harbor. If you’re doing the day trip to Friday Harbor from downtown Seattle on the Victoria Clipper, you have the option of adding on whale watching to your trip.
Explore the shops and restaurants of Friday Harbor
Friday Harbor is a delightful small town with wonderful shops and restaurants. There is an independent bookstore, a brewery, lots of great fish and chips and coffee. The harbor itself is a joy to walk around, with a shocking number of boats for such a small community. You’ll also see float planes flying overhead and ferries and tour boats coming and going all day.
Visit the Whale Museum
The Whale Museum is the place to learn all about whales and other marine mammals. The emphasis is on the resident J, K and L pods that live in the waters of the Salish Sea around the San Juan Islands as well as the waters of Southeastern British Columbia and down towards Seattle.
They also have a gift shop which is the perfect place to find a whale themed gift for that whale lover in your life.
There are several companies offering whale watching tours out of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Whale watching tours typically go out into Haro Strait but can go anywhere in the nearby Salish Sea based on where whales have been seen recently.
The main focus will be on resident orca whales, though there are other whales such as gray whales that migrate through the waters near San Juan Island in the spring and fall. You are also likely to see other marine mammals such as seals and sea lions on your excursion.
Whale watching tours are generally at least two hours long and sometimes as much as four, depending on the company and exactly what tour you book.
Go for a bike ride
If you want to get out of town and don’t have a car, you can rent a bike or an e-bike to explore more of the island. Although San Juan Island is a bit hilly, it’s not nearly as hilly as nearby Orcas Island and it’s a much better island for biking than Orcas (though not as good as Lopez!).
Go for a paddle (kayak or stand up paddleboard)
One of the classic things to do on San Juan Island is to get out on the water on a kayak or stand up paddleboard. Several companies offer rentals as well as guided tours out of Friday Harbor so you can explore on your own or have someone guide you.
If it’s your first time paddling, I highly recommend a guided tour so they can help keep you safe as well as show you how to get started. They will provide the gear you need including life jackets for paddling, though I recommend bringing a good rain jacket and sun protection. I also like to wear gloves for kayaking to protect my hands, but this is a personal choice!
Things to do on San Juan Island – Outside Friday Harbor
There’s more to do on San Juan Island outside of the town of Friday Harbor! From farms to national parks to hikes and looking for whales from the shore!
San Juan Island National Historical Park – American Camp and Cattlepoint
San Juan Island National Historical Park includes two different locations on San Juan Island, and I highly recommend going to American Camp and the nearby Cattlepoint Lighthouse. Here you can see great views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains as well as the other San Juan and Gulf Islands on both sides of the border.
If you’re a hiker, I highly recommend my favorite hike on San Juan Island, Mt Finlayson. Despite its name and wonderful view, this hike only has a few hundred feet of elevation gain and lots of options for making it longer or shorter. On this hike, you get amazing views, beautiful forest and open meadows and you can hit the beach at 4th of July beach after your hike for a picnic.
Head to the Beach
San Juan Island has many wonderful beaches perfect for tidepooling or relaxing and playing with driftwood and rocks. My personal favorite is 4th of July beach, which has plenty of room to explore, great views and is the perfect place for a picnic.
Lime Kiln Lighthouse and Lime Kiln State Park
The picturesque Lime Kiln Lighthouse protecting boaters from the rocky shores of the island is worth a stop all by itself. This beautiful state park on the west coast of the island is also a really good place to look for whales from shore. Bring your binoculars and keep your eyes on the water for whales as well as other marine mammals such as seals and sea lions.
This is also a beautiful place to watch a sunset.
Roche Harbor is on the opposite end of the island from Friday Harbor and has a busy marina and resort. There are many vacation rentals clustered around this area as well. The Lime Kiln Cafe at Roche Harbor has really good food and is a perfect breakfast or lunch spot if you’re exploring the island.
Explore the food and farm scene
Like the other San Juan Island, San Juan Island is home to many farms and there is a ton of local food to try! If you’re a foodie, you’ll love the local menu at Duck Soup (mentioned above). You can also take a self guided farm tour around the island.
Make sure to stop at the Pelindaba Lavendar Farm, especially wonderful in July when the photogenic lavendar is in full purple bloom!
Another required stop for seafood lovers is the Westcott Bay Shellfish Company, where you can enjoy mussels, oysters and clams just steps from where they are harvested.
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!
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