Visiting The San Juan Islands of Puget Sound

The San Juan Islands: Your Northwest Adventure Paradise

Imagine this: The salty sea breeze ruffles your hair as you paddle a kayak through a sheltered bay, the only sound being the rhythmic dip of your oars. A pod of orcas surfaces nearby, their sleek bodies glistening in the sun. Later, you hike a forest trail dappled with sunlight, the scent of pine needles filling the air. As dusk falls, you pedal your bike down a quiet lane, rolling hills bathed in golden light.

This isn’t some far-flung fantasy; it’s everyday magic in the San Juan Islands. This stunning archipelago tucked away in the Pacific Northwest is your ultimate playground for outdoor adventure. Whether you dream of exploring by land, by sea, or even by air (hello, seaplanes!), the San Juan Islands will leave you breathless and eager for more.

Why go to the San Juan Islands?

Here’s the thing: The San Juans have a unique magic that calls to explorers, nature lovers, and those who simply need to slow down and reconnect with the natural world. Here’s why you should put these islands at the top of your travel wishlist:

  • Natural Wonder: From windswept shorelines and lush forests to the wildlife-rich waters of the Salish Sea, the islands are an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. You could spend weeks adventuring here and still only scratch the surface.

  • Orca Encounters: The San Juans are one of the best places in the world to witness orcas in their natural environment. It’s a truly awe-inspiring experience!

  • Island Hopping: Each island, from lively San Juan to laid-back Lopez, has its own distinct personality. Exploring multiple islands is part of the fun!

  • Small-Town Charm: Forget sprawling resorts or traffic jams. Island life centers around cozy cafes, local farmers markets, and a relaxed pace that lets you truly unwind.

  • Active Adventures: Sea kayaking, hiking, biking – there are no limits to how you can embrace the outdoors. Options range from beginner-friendly to those seeking a good challenge.

  • Escape the Everyday: The San Juans feel a million miles away from the bustle of daily life. Here, it’s about connecting with nature, savoring simple pleasures, and leaving feeling truly refreshed.

Is it worth going to San Juan Islands?

Absolutely, 100%, yes it is worth the work to visit the San Juan Islands! I’ve been to the San Juans on several occasions and each trip leaves me wanting more. Every time I go, I find that there is more I want to explore. From wandering through the eclectic shops in the towns, to wandering down trails, there is just so much to explore. Plus, I haven’t even started kayaking the islands yes. 

What are the San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands are a breathtaking archipelago tucked into the northwest corner of Washington State, nestled within the Salish Sea between the US mainland and Canada. This stunning cluster is made up of over 170 named islands and reefs, offering a diverse landscape to explore. Most visitors focus on the first four islands as they are accessible by ferry. The rest are more difficult to reach:

  • San Juan Island
  • Orcas Island
  • Lopez Island
  • Shaw Island
  • Stuart Island
  • Blakely Island
  • Guemes Island
  • Waldron Island
  • Decatur Island

While the San Juan Islands boast a wealth of natural beauty, it’s important to remember that many of the islands remain undeveloped, inaccessible by public transportation, or privately owned. This helps preserve their unique character and delicate ecosystems, ensuring these special places continue to enchant visitors for generations to come.

The 3 Main Islands of the San Juans

Ready to start exploring? The San Juan Islands offer a diverse range of experiences, and the three main islands are the perfect place to begin your adventure. Each island has a distinct personality, catering to different interests and travel styles. I’m sure you will find one that has exactly the vacation you are looking for!

San Juan Island

The heart of the San Juans, San Juan Island offers a lively mix of activities, stunning landscapes, and the charming town of Friday Harbor. Hike coastal trails, explore historic American Camp National Park, or embark on a whale watching, kayaking adventure, or hop a ride on a fishing charter to try your luck at landing some fish. Friday Harbor provides a vibrant base with shops, restaurants, and a welcoming atmosphere

Orcas Island

While San Juan Island is more developed, Orcas is the largest of the islands and is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise. Hike the trails of Moran State Park, ascend Mount Constitution for breathtaking views, or explore quaint villages like Eastsound. Kayaking offers stunning coastline views, and scenic drives showcase the island’s rugged charm.

Lopez Island

Known as the “Friendly Isle,” Lopez embodies a laid-back pace perfect for relaxation. Rolling farmland makes it a cyclist’s dream (aside from the hill up from the ferry dock), while its beaches are ideal for exploring on foot or by kayak. Embrace the island’s welcoming vibe, sample fresh farm-to-table cuisine, and discover the true meaning of island time. Just don’t be in a hurry to get home!

View of the Lopez Island ferry dock

Getting to and Around the San Juan Islands

Getting to and from the San Juans is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the lack of easy access makes planning trips difficult, but at the same time keeps away throngs of people like you would find on the mainland.

 There are several ways to get to the San Juan Islands, but most people take the state-operated ferry system to get around the main island, but there are several others. 

Getting To And From The Islands

  • The Ferry System: Your primary gateway to the islands is the Washington State Ferry system departing from Anacortes, WA. This is the most common and affordable way to reach San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw islands. This does take planning ahead, and I do recommend having your reservations made, especially for summer trips. For schedules, routes, and everything you need to know check the Washington State Ferries website for ships leaving Anacortes. 

  • Water Taxis: Sometimes, you need a more direct route. Water taxis offer a flexible option for reaching islands not served by ferry or destinations further off the beaten track. While they aren’t the most budget-friendly method, water taxis might be the only way to reach some of the archipelago’s lesser-known gems if you don’t have your own boat.

  • Seaplanes: For a faster and incredibly scenic experience, consider a seaplane flight! Companies like Kenmore Air offer flights directly from Seattle or other regional locations.

  • Island Hopping: One of the joys of the San Juans is exploring multiple islands. The inter-island ferry system makes this easy particularly if you are into cycling! Additionally, if you are into motorcycle tours, you may have more luck using those, as there is generally more space for them available on the ferries compared to cars.
    IMPORTANT! car reservations are essential during peak season.

  • Boats and Kayaks: If you have your own vessel, the San Juans are a true boater’s paradise. Kayak enthusiasts will find ample put-in points or can join guided tours to explore hidden coves and encounter wildlife. If you are hardcore, consider checking out the Cascadia Marine Trail, the north end of which accesses many of the San Juan Islands. 
    Cascadia Marine Trail PDF Map

How long is the ferry from Seattle to San Juan Islands?

This is a trick question as there isn’t a direct ferry running from Seattle to the San Juans. However from Anacortes to most islands is about an hour to two hours depending on stops and the ferry schedule. Consult the WSDOT ferry schedule for more details!

How Many Days Do You Need To See San Juan Islands?

To truly experience the best of the San Juan Islands, plan for a minimum of three days. This allows you to explore at least two of the main islands (San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez), enjoying a mix of outdoor adventures, town visits, and sampling the local flavors. A full week-long trip opens even more possibilities for multi-island adventures, delving deeper into the unique character of each island, tackling longer hikes or bike routes, and indulging in the unhurried island pace.

San Juan Island Ferry Schedules and Reservations

For the most up to date ferry schedule to and between the San Juan Islands, you will want to visit the Washington State Ferries website

While the WSDOT has had considerable staffing issues in the past few years, causing issues with the routes, on the technology side of things, they have done a stellar job of providing information on where the boats are and how full they are. 

They even have their own app!

Can you drive from Seattle to San Juan Islands?

There are no bridges to the San Juan Islands, so no you can’t drive directly to the San Juan Islands. You can drive from Seattle to Anacortes, then catch a ferry from there to the main Islands of the San Juans.

Are there ferries from Seattle to San Juan Islands?

There is currently no direct ferry running from Seattle to the San Juan Islands unless you book a private charter. The Washington State Ferry for the islands runs out of Anacortes which is a minimum of a 90-minute drive from downtown Seattle. Check your maps as that drive time can change wildly!

Can you do a day trip from Seattle to San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands cover a large area, so I would say no, you can’t day trip all of them in a day. 

That being said, with some careful scheduling, it is possible to visit any individual island and make a day trip of it. Just be aware that you may be catching the last boat to the mainland at ~10:00pm. 

Where do you fly into for San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands have three public airports as well as a handful of private runways. For traditional planes, you can fly into:

  • Friday Harbor Airport (FHR): Located on San Juan Island, this is the busiest airport in the San Juans. It serves both commercial flights and private aircraft.
  • Orcas Island Airport (ESD): Situated on Orcas Island, this airport handles smaller commercial flights and private planes.
  • Lopez Island Airport (LPS): This small airport on Lopez Island primarily accommodates private aircraft.

In addition to this, several services offer sea-plane service to many of the islands, including those that are not accessible by other means. 

Shaw Island Ferry Landing - Shaw Island
The welcome sign at the Shaw Island ferry dock

Can you island hop the San Juan Islands?

Island hopping it relatively easy between the San Juan islands depending on when you are doing and it if you are driving or not. Taking a car makes it more challenging, but if you are riding a bicycle or just walking on, it is as simple as catching the next ferry. 

Island hopping between the San Juans by boat or kayak is another fun option and gives you a completely different experience!

Do you need a car in San Juan Islands?

You don’t strictly need a car in the San Juan Islands, but having one definitely offers flexibility and convenience, depending on your travel style and the islands you visit.

Here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons:

Pros of Having a Car

  • Explore at your own pace: You’re not tied to shuttle schedules or bike limitations, making it easier to reach more remote scenic spots or go for spontaneous hikes.
  • Best for Orcas Island: With its hilly terrain and attractions spread out, a car on Orcas is especially beneficial. They do have some local rental cars available, so that is a great option for Orcas Island.
  • Multi-Island Trips: Easier if you want to island hop with your luggage or if you’re staying in less central locations.
  • Large Groups or Families: Logistics are simpler with a car when traveling with several people.

Cons of Having a Car

  • Ferry Reservations: Essential during peak season, and they can be competitive to get.
  • Parking: Limited in popular spots, especially within Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.
  • Extra Cost: Between the ferry fees and rental costs (if you don’t bring your own), it adds up.
  • Walkable Downtowns: You won’t need a car for exploring places like Friday Harbor on foot.

Can you Uber, Lyft, or Ride Share On The San Juan Islands

Finding an Uber or a Lyft is highly unlikely on the San Juan Islands. The population is too small, and there is an area better suited to self-sufficiency. Some islands do offer taxi services and rental cars, but don’t expect the level of service and convenience that you would in Seattle or other urban area. 

Moran State Park Entrance
The entrance to Moran State Park

What Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit The San Juan Islands?

As a PNW native, there is never a bad time of year to visit the San Juan Islands. 

Summer (June – September)

  • Peak Season: Expect sunshine, the warmest weather, and the widest variety of activities and tours available. Be prepared for crowds, especially on ferries and in popular spots.
  • Pros: Ideal for orca watching, kayaking, hiking, outdoor festivals, and enjoying long, sunny days. Plus many of the fun markets are open for their limited tourist season.
  • Cons: Accommodation can be expensive and harder to book last minute. Ferry reservations are essential.

Spring (April – May) & Fall (October – November)

  • Shoulder Seasons: These offer a balance of pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and often better deals on lodging. Fall brings beautiful foliage colors.
  • Pros: Still excellent for outdoor adventures, more availability for accommodations, and a peaceful ambiance.
  • Cons: Some businesses may have reduced hours off-season. Occasional rain is possible, especially in fall.

Winter (December – March)

  • Off-Season: Enjoy a tranquil island escape. Expect a higher chance of rain and wind, with some ferries on reduced schedules.
  • Pros: Cozy accommodations, storm watching potential, uncrowded trails, and a chance to experience local community life.
  • Cons: Limited business hours, some tours or restaurants may be closed. Outdoor activities more dependent on weather conditions.

Factors to Consider

  • Wildlife: Orca sightings are possible year-round, but summer months offer the highest chance. 
  • Budget: Summer is the most expensive time to visit. Look to shoulder seasons for potential savings.
  • Crowds: If solitude is key, winter is your best bet, while summer brings a much ‘livelier vibe’ and crowded ferries. 


There’s no truly bad time to visit the San Juan Islands! If you can be flexible, look into the shoulder seasons which often offer the perfect blend of good weather and a less crowded experience.


What time of year are the whales in San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands offer fantastic whale-watching opportunities, but knowing when different whale species are present is key! Here’s a breakdown:

  • Resident Pods (J, K, and L pods): These can be seen year-round, but their activity peaks from May to September. Summer offers the best and most reliable chances for spotting these iconic whales.
  • Transient Pods: These whales, who prey on seals and other marine mammals, pass through the Salish Sea sporadically. They can be seen any time of year, but sightings are less predictable.
  • Gray Whales: A portion of the Pacific Gray Whale population migrates past the outer coast of the San Juan Islands in the spring (March-May) as they head north to Alaska. Shore-based whale watching tours sometimes offer glimpses of these whales.
  • Humpback Whales: Increasingly common in the Salish Sea, humpback whales are primarily observed from late summer through fall (August-October) as they move south towards their wintering grounds.
  • Minke Whales: These smaller whales can be seen throughout the year, though sightings are less frequent compared to orcas.


When can you see Orcas in San Juan Islands?

The resident Orca pods can bee seen year round in the San Juan Islands, but late Spring through early Fall (May to September) is your best viewing time. 

You can track orca sightings, increase your odds of seeing them, and learn more about the resident pods via the Orca Network:

View from Crescent Beach on Orcas Island
View from Crescent Beach on Orcas Island

Activities & Adventures in the San Juans

Whether you dream of exploring the Salish Sea or venturing deep into island forests, the San Juan Islands offer a playground of outdoor activities and unforgettable experiences. From paddling alongside orcas to cycling along scenic routes, this archipelago is a haven for those who crave adventure intertwined with natural beauty. Get ready to immerse yourself in the wild wonders and local charms that make this corner of the Pacific Northwest so captivating.

Explore the Waters

The Salish Sea surrounding the San Juan Islands beckons explorers of all kinds. Whether you dream of tranquil paddles, thrilling wildlife encounters, or casting a line in pristine waters, endless options await on and beneath the surface.

Sea Kayaking

Glide through sheltered bays and alongside rugged shorelines, keeping watch for orcas, playful seals, and soaring eagles. Rentals and guided tours cater to all experience levels.

Whale Watching

Witness the majesty of orcas and other whales in their natural habitat. Choose responsible tours or enjoy shore-based viewing spots like Lime Kiln Point State Park. 


If you have your own vessel or want to charter one, the San Juans are a boater’s paradise. Explore hidden coves, drop anchor at secluded beaches, and soak in the stunning scenery from a whole new perspective.


Anglers can try their luck at reeling in salmon, halibut, rockfish, and other species. Guided fishing charters provide expertise and equipment.

Scuba Diving

While the cold waters require proper gear, experienced divers can discover the fascinating underwater world of kelp forests, colorful marine life, and even occasional octopus sightings within the Salish Sea!

Can you swim in the San Juan Islands?

The Salish Sea is no tropical paradise, so while you can swim in it on days when the sea is calm, it will be cold, even in the height of summer. Temperatures rarely rise above 50-55°F (10-13°C) so you won’t want to stay in long without some protection.

In addition to that there are not many accessible beaches that I would consider swimmable. Most are too rocky and the surf too rough for recreational swimming. 

Better swimming options on the San Juans are some of the lakes on the interiors of the islands. Islands like Orcas Island have freshwater lakes that warm up more in summer, making swimming more comfortable.

Crescent Lake on Orcas Island

Can you swim with orcas in San Juan Islands?

Purposely going swimming with orcas in the San Juan Islands is not allowed and is strongly discouraged for several important reasons:

  • Wildlife Protection: Orcas are wild animals and need their space. Approaching them too closely can disrupt their natural behavior, feeding, and social interactions. Regulations exist to protect both whales and humans.

  • Safety: Orcas are powerful predators. While attacks on humans are extremely rare, their size and unpredictable behavior in close encounters pose a risk. You don’t want to be the star of the next viral ‘wildlife attacks’ video!

  • Ethical Viewing: Responsible whale-watching emphasizes observing these magnificent creatures from a safe and respectful distance. Boat operators in the San Juans follow guidelines to minimize disturbance to whales.

Trails and Scenic Vistas

From leisurely coastal rambles to challenging mountain climbs, the San Juan Islands cater to hikers and cyclists of all levels. Explore fragrant forests, discover breathtaking viewpoints, and immerse yourself in the natural splendor of this island paradise.

Hiking Variety

  • Scenic Strolls: Stroll sandy beaches at sunset, explore tidepools, or wander through wildflower meadows. Many short and easy trails are family-friendly.

  • Forest Immersion: Venture into lush forests of Douglas fir and Western red cedar, alive with birdsong. Parks like Moran State Park on Orcas Island offer miles of trails ranging from moderate to strenuous.
  • Mountain Ascents: Challenge yourself with climbs like Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, rewarding you with sweeping panoramic vistas of the archipelago and beyond.
  • Must-Visit Parks: Don’t miss Lime Kiln Point State Park (fantastic for whale watching), American Camp National Historical Park, and Spencer Spit State Park for diverse trails and coastal beauty.


  • Terrain for Everyone: Enjoy rolling hills on Lopez Island, the ideal laid-back cycling destination, or test your endurance on the more challenging routes found on Orcas Island.

  • Bike-Friendly Logistics: The Washington State Ferries accommodate bikes, allowing for multi-island adventures. Rentals are available on the larger islands. (Add your future cycling guide link here)

Trail Tips:

  • Check Park Websites: Find trail maps and descriptions before you go. Cell phone signal is not always the best, so download or printout your maps ahead of time. 
  • Be Prepared: Carry water, layers, and appropriate footwear.
  • Leave No Trace: Pack out all trash and respect the environment.

Island Life and Delights

The San Juan Islands offer a captivating blend of small-town charm, culinary delights, and a vibrant arts scene. Discover the unique flavors and creative spirit that make each island so special.

  • Charming Towns: Explore the bustling heart of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, filled with shops, cafes, and a welcoming seaside atmosphere. Stroll the quaint streets of Eastsound on Orcas Island, and discover Lopez Island’s relaxed pace and friendly locals.

  • Farm-to-Table Delights: Savor the island’s bounty, from fresh seafood to produce picked at its peak. Farmers’ markets, farm stands, and restaurants showcase the commitment to local, seasonal ingredients. Do remember that the farmers’ markets only run on certain days during the growing season. 
  • Arts & Culture: Galleries and studios showcase the work of talented island artists inspired by the natural surroundings. Discover unique pottery, blown glass, jewelry, paintings, and more. Lively festivals throughout the year celebrate music, arts, and local culture.

The view from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island
The view from the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island

Exploring Salish Sea History

The San Juan Islands hold a fascinating past, from indigenous settlements to territorial disputes, preparations for WW2, and the rise of island communities. History buffs will find plenty of intriguing places to step back in time and explore:

  • Indigenous Heritage: Learn about the Coast Salish people, the original inhabitants of the islands. Visit ancient village sites, or museums showcasing their culture and traditions. Places like the San Juan Island National Historical Park offer insights into this rich history.

  • The Pig War: Explore sites related to the unusual 1859 conflict between the U.S. and Britain over ownership of the San Juans. Both American Camp and English Camp within the San Juan Island National Historical Park offer a glimpse into the events and military life of the era.

  • Lighthouses and Maritime Life: Visit historic lighthouses like Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island, or Patos Island Lighthouse, testaments to the islands’ seafaring history with beautiful settings.
  • Island Museums: Delve deeper into specific aspects of island life at museums showcasing local communities, like the Orcas Island Historical Museum or the Lopez Island Historical Society and Museum.

  • Self-Guided Exploration: Many charming towns have preserved historic buildings with plaques highlighting their significance. A leisurely stroll through Friday Harbor or Eastsound reveals architectural gems and whispers of the past.

Start Your San Juan Islands Adventure

Are you hearing the call of the islands? The San Juan Islands offer an escape where adventure intertwines with tranquility. Whether you envision yourself paddling through emerald waters, hiking to panoramic viewpoints, strolling through charming towns, or savoring the freshest flavors, this archipelago has something special in store.

Ready to make your island dream a reality? Start by diving into our in-depth island guides, packed with tips on where to stay, what to do, and how to immerse yourself in the unique charms of San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and beyond. Explore our activity-specific sections for inspiration on kayaking, hiking, cycling, and all the ways to embrace the San Juans’ natural wonders.

Your unforgettable San Juan Islands adventure begins here

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