Soaking in the San Juan Islands

Located at the heart of the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands have long served as a gathering point—a place where water highways intersect, where Coast Salish Tribes thrive, where orcas congregate, where fishermen and vacationers alike can come ashore. Today, these beautiful islands offer the perfect chance to immerse yourself in Washington’s maritime world through a long weekend with your partner or friends. While there are 172 named islands and reefs in San Juan County, the three ferry-served islands of San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez are the most populous and host the vast majority of lodging, dining, and visitor services.

A few key tips for planning your trip:

  • Stick to shoulder season. The San Juan Islands are a very popular destination, so we recommend planning your visit for spring or fall to avoid the summer crowds.
  • Learn from the islands’ first peoples. Coast Salish people have lived in and cared for the San Juan Islands since time immemorial and continue to guide the protection of these special places today. Read up on historic Coast Salish locations and place names with this map from the Samish Indian Nation.
  • Travel sustainably. With more than a million visitors every year, it’s important that we all visit responsibly to protect fragile ecosystems and respect local communities. Learn more about how you can “Love It Like a Local” here.

Day One

Ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island

Reservations recommended

Washington State’s ferry system is the nation’s largest and is one of the best (and least expensive) ways to ride our state’s water highways. Reservations are highly recommended for vehicles traveling from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island (even outside of the busy summer season). Spots are released two months before the season start date, two weeks before each sailing date, and two days before each sailing date. If you’re planning to head home via Orcas Island, don’t forget to book a return trip as well (Lopez Island departures are first-come, first-served).

You can also leave your car behind at the Anacortes ferry terminal and walk onto the ferry reservation-free. Most of this itinerary can be done with a bike, especially if you opt for relatively-flat Lopez Island rather than Orcas on Day Three. San Juan Transit and the Friday Harbor Jolly Trolley also offer easy ways to get around San Juan Island without a car.

You’ll want to arrive at least 30 minutes before your ferry’s schedule departure. While you’re waiting, leave your car in the holding line and explore the Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve. This beachfront boardwalk features interpretive signage about the history of the harbor—from Coast Salish fishing village to cannery hub to ferry terminal—and offers great opportunities for birdwatching.

San Juan Historical Museum

Open Tuesday-Friday, 11:00 am-2: 00 pm or by appointment | 405 Price Street, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Start your visit at the San Juan Historical Museum to learn about island life, history, and culture. Explore the grounds of the restored James and Adeline King farmstead featuring eight heritage structures, including the original San Juan County jail and a settler log cabin, along with farming and maritime artifacts. And don’t miss the developing Museum of History and Industry—an interactive, educational facility detailing the history of four industries that have shaped San Juan Island for generations: fishing, farming, logging, and limestone processing.

“Be sure to see the rudder from the America, a sailing vessel that wrecked off the west coast of the island on a foggy day in 1914 and eventually sank. The wreck was a popular diving spot for a number of years, and as such, portions were salvaged, including the rudder. Local folklore abounds regarding the America, but the wreck led to the eventual construction of Lime Kiln Lighthouse in 1919, a short distance from the wreck.”

The Whale Museum

Open daily 10:00 am-4:00 pm | 62 First Street N, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Next, it’s time to learn about the non-human residents of the San Juans at the Whale Museum. Located in a historic building in downtown Friday Harbor, the Whale Museum has an array of exhibits on whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem. It’s a great place to introduce yourself to one of Washington’s most famous animals: the orca or “killer whale.” We particularly love the genealogy charts and profiles of the Southern resident community of orcas, including the extended families known as J, K, and L pods. Use this opportunity to get to know the local orcas before you head out on your own whale watching adventure tomorrow—true enthusiasts can often identify individual whales from their dorsal fins alone.

Exploration and Dinner in Friday Harbor

From the Whale Museum, wander into the quaint town of Friday Harbor. This charming, historic seaport is home to plenty of local shops and restaurants and is easy to get around without a car. Friday Harbor is said to be named after Hawaiian Islander Pōʻalima (Peter) Friday, who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company and settled on San Juan Island as a shepherd in 1854.

“For waterfront dining and yummy seafood, grab an alfresco table at Downriggers (be sure to try the crab tots)!”

Day Two

Breakfast to-go at Salty Fox Coffee

Open daily 7:00 am-2:00 pm | 85 Front Street, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Located in the only remaining structure of the once-thriving cannery on Friday Harbor’s waterfront, Salty Fox Coffee is a perfect place to grab a breakfast sandwich and a few local gifts to bring home.

San Juan Island National Historical Park – American Camp

Park open 24 hours per-day, year-round | Visitor center opens Thursday-Monday 10:00 am-3:00 pm | 4668 Cattle Point Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

With breakfast in hand, it’s time to head out to San Juan Island National Historical Park’s American Camp. Start at the brand-new visitor center and find your bearings with the 3-D bronze map at the entrance, where it’s easy to see the San Juan Islands’ central location at the crossroads of the Salish Sea. Inside, you’ll learn about the multiple histories of San Juan Island, including the infamous Pig War. You won’t want to miss the new visitor center exhibits co-created with participating Coast Salish Tribes. The state-of-the-art facility, opened in June 2022, features a wall-to-wall mural vibrantly depicting Native lifeways on San Juan Island. Visitors can learn about the historically significant Cattle Point site, listen to audio phrases recorded by speakers of four Indigenous languages, see a life-sized model of an ocean traveling canoe, and experience the stunning paddle display by Coast Salish carvers to represent their Tribal communities.

If you’re in town before the visitor center opens for the season in mid-April, it’s still well worth a visit—there’s plenty of material outside the building itself. Make sure to say hello to Kaiser Will-ham, the statue of the Berkshire Boar whose death sparked the 12-year boundary dispute known as the Pig War.

After the visitor center, take off on the nearly 20-miles of hiking trails in the park. Walk through history amongst the remaining buildings of American Camp, catch stunning views from the top of Mount Finlayson, or enjoy water and wildlife views at South Beach (the longest public beach in the Islands). Be sure to download the NPS app for self-guided tours and more information on the park’s history.

Cattle Point Lighthouse

Cattle Point Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Next, it’s time for a quick stop at the Cattle Point Natural Resources Conservation Area, located on the southern tip of San Juan Island. This scenic lighthouse was built in 1935, but a navigational lantern has been on watch here since 1888. The lighthouse itself is just a short walk from the road but provides a great opportunity to spy bald eagles, seals, sea lions, and other wildlife alongside stunning views of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains.

Drive the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway to Lime Kiln Point State Park

Open daily 8:00 am-dusk | 1567 Westside Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Also known as “Whale Watch Park,” this Washington State Park is one of the best places in the San Juans to see orcas from shore. Grab a hotdog at the Blow Hole and head to one of the waterfront picnic tables. Keep your eyes on the water to spy an iconic orca whale—most common March through October—and other marine wildlife. An interpretive center and tours of Lime Kiln lighthouse are available mid-May through mid-September, but there’s plenty of interpretive signage for those visiting off-season, including a live orca listening station. Don’t miss the short walk to the historic lime kiln that gives the park its name!

San Juan Island National Historical Park – English Camp

Park open 24 hours per-day, year-round | Visitor center opens Friday-Sunday 10:00 am-3:00 pm | 3905 West Valley Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

Hop back on the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway and head 15 minutes north to English Camp—the second half of the San Juan Island National Historical Park—to explore the site British troops called home during the joint occupation of the Pig War. While there, be sure to check out the reef net captain totem pole and two salmon story boards dedicated by Lummi and Saanich Nations to commemorate the National Park Service’s centennial. The totem and story pole tell the story of reef net fishing, a form of fishing unique to the area.

Dinner in Roche Harbor

Finish your day in Roche Harbor, the former site of the “largest lime works west of the Mississippi.” This former company town is now an elegant resort, but many historic structures remain such as the Hotel de Haro, offices, store, several residences, and lime kilns. Explore the campus—including the docks packed with high-end boats—before settling into McMillin’s Dining Room or the Madrona Bar & Grill for some well-earned drinks and dinner. We particularly love the Pig War Martini at McMillins!

Day Three Option: Orcas

Ferry to Orcas

Take an eastbound ferry from Friday Harbor to Orcas Island. Eastbound inter-island ferries are free but are not reservable in advance, so make sure to arrive early to the dock to get in line. Check out this post from the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau for more tips on taking the ferry between islands.

  • Pro tip: If you catch an early ferry, our friend Amy at the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau recommends treating yourself to a decadent brunch at New Leaf Café or Rosario Resort’s Mansion Restaurant on Orcas Island.

Orcas Island Historical Museum

Open March – December, Wednesday – Saturday 11:00 am – 3:00 pm | 181 North Beach Road, Eastsound, WA 98245

Made up of several historic buildings—including six of the original homestead cabins built on Orcas Island in the 1870s and 1890s—the Orcas Island Historical Museums interpret different aspects of island history as told through the life stories and material culture of peoples of the island from indigenous to the European-American settlers to more contemporary residents. Exhibits illustrate the unique ways in which maritime culture and heritage have shaped the communities of the Puget Sound islands.

“How do you get to Orcas Island? How did the early explorers find their way before they even knew what was there to be found? The Orcas Island Historical Museums’ exhibition ‘Mapping Orcas: The Way Home’ features an extraordinary collection of maps that tell that story…. Historical surveying and marine navigational tools lent by islanders provide support to the maps—and help the viewer to understand how we found our way before Google Earth and GPS were everyday realities in the 21st century.”

Buck Bay Shellfish Farm

Open April through September (most years) | 117 East J Young Road, Olga, WA98279

Stop by the local Buck Bay Shellfish Farm for fresh oysters grown on site and other local seafood like halibut tacos, crab mac ‘n’ cheese, and steamer clams. 

Take a hike at Obstruction Pass or Moran State Park

Obstruction Pass State Park: open 6:30 am-dusk in summer and 8:00-dusk in winter | Olga, WA 98279

Moran State Park: open 6:30 am-dusk in summer and 8:00-dusk in winter | 3572 Olga Road, Olga, WA 98279

Orcas is known for being the most mountainous of the San Juan Islands, so no trip here is complete without hitting the trails. For a low-effort, high-reward option, Obstruction Pass State Park offers one of the few public beaches on the island. Follow the half-mile trail through a low forest down to the beach for gorgeous views of the water framed by craggy madrone trees.

If you’re looking for a higher point of view, head to Moran State Park and make your way up Mount Constitution by car, bike, or hike. Mount Constitution is the highest point in the San Juan Islands and offers 360-degree views of the other islands of the archipelago, as well as the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Many of the buildings in the park—including the stone observation tour on the top of Mount Constitution—were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. End your visit to the park with a stop by the historic Rosario Resort and the Moran Mansion (now a museum, restaurant, and spa). 

 Ferry to Anacortes

Reservations recommended

Day Three Option: Lopez

Ferry to Lopez

Take an eastbound ferry from Friday Harbor to Lopez Island. Eastbound inter-island ferries are free but are not reservable in advance, so make sure to arrive early to the dock to get in line. Check out this post from the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau for more tips on taking the ferry between islands.

Lopez Island Historical Museum

Open Saturday & Sunday 11:00 am-4:30 pm | 28 Washburn Place, Lopez Island, WA 98261

The Lopez Island Historical Museum includes exhibits on natural history, island life, Coast Salish history, and local economies of farming, fishing, services, and tourism. While you’re there, make sure to learn about the history of reef net fishing in the islands, and don’t miss their new exhibit on the Straits Salish people of the San Juans. There’s also plenty to explore in their outdoor collection, including vessels like the Sally J gill net fishing vessel, a reef net tender, and a small “captain’s gig” taken from a British sailing ship.

“It would be hard to miss the FV Sally J in front of the museum! She is a gillnetter built on the Duwamish River around 1930 for Bastian Jevick, who was only 19. Jevick fished out of Mackaye Harbor on the south end of Lopez Island every summer. He was consistently the ‘high’ boat in the bay, meaning he caught the most fish in a fleet of up to 400. Signage around the boat tells the story of the Sally J, boatbuilding on Lopez, and how different kinds of net fishing work. The Sally J symbolizes the high point of commercial salmon fishing by independent fisherman on Puget Sound.”

Lopez Village Walking Tour

After your stop at the museum, take a walking tour of the village on Lopez Island. On this self-guided tour curated by the Lopez Island Historical Society, you’ll learn about the Native peoples of Sx’wálech (Lopez), the first post office on the island, and how the village has changed over the past 150 years. As you explore, be sure to pick up lunch at a local eatery for your next activity!

Picnic at Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve

Open daily | Park at designated parking area, Chestnut Lane, Lopez Island, WA 98261

Bring your lunch to Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve for a picnic with a view. This park is a traditional Straits Salish reef net fishing site, where Tribes caught salmon for thousands of years. The spit itself is the final resting place of reef net boats and gear from the 1940s, alongside beautiful views of the bay. Access the shoreline by passing through an old orchard, the stone ruins of a Lopez homestead, and varied ecosystems from wetlands to sandy shorelines. These are fragile areas, so be sure to stay on the trail.

Take in the view at Watmough Bay and the Richardson Store site

Open daily | Park at trailhead parking area, Watmough Head Road, Lopez Island, WA 98261

If you have time before your ferry, squeeze in a few more views from Lopez. Head to Watmough Bay Preserve on the southern side of the island, where a short, shady walk will lead you to a small beach with great views of Mount Baker to the east. Watmough Bay has very limited parking, so if the lot is full, skip ahead to the location of the former Richardson Store at the southern end of Richardson Road. While not much remains at the site today, this point was a former hotspot, where fishers heading into the Strait of Juan de Fuca would stop to refuel. Today, you can enjoy a view over the water highways that connected Lopez with the world. 

Ferry to Anacortes

The ferry from Lopez to Anacortes is first-come, first-served, so be sure to arrive early to secure your spot in line.

All Itineraries