San Juan Island is the most visited and “settled” of the three islands in the archipelago of islands just north of Seattle. While tiny Lopez Island feels rural and Orcas Island feels wilder, San Juan Island is full of rolling farmlands, history, and two picturesque upscale harbors. There are truly wonderful things to do on San Juan Island for every kind of visitor.
Things to do on San Juan Island, Washington
Outdoor adventurers will find plenty of scenic hikes, country backroads for cycling, and pristine spots to launch a kayak here.
History buffs will love exploring the American and English Camps to learn the back story on The Pig War. (Never heard of it? See #3 below.)
And then, for everybody else, there are picturesque lavender fields, tasty bakeries, a lively island foodie scene, and cute indie boutiques with dazzling colorful flower baskets.
How to Catch the Ferry
Most visitors catch the ferry from Anacortes, Washington although it’s also possible to ferry from Port Angeles up to Victoria, Canada and then over to the San Juan Islands.
The ride is typically 60 to 90 minutes depending on stops to other islands en route.
Whatever you do, don’t wait until the last minute to make a ferry reservation. You won’t get on without one.
You can get my best tips for taking the ferry to the San Juan islands here. Or make a ferry reservation directly here.
1. Explore Friday Harbor.
The colorful little hamlet of Friday Harbor is where your ferry will dock.
This is the main hub of the island…where you’ll find grocery stores, restaurants, an independent bookshop, and all manner of local boutiques.
King’s Market, located walking distance from the ferry, is the main grocery store in town and is well-stocked. Visitors in the know save money though by heading to Friday Harbor Market Place a short drive away.
(There’s no sign on the building weirdly, so use Google Maps to get you there. You’ll find fresh fish and a nice deli counter only at King’s though.)
You’ll find the whale museum, the art museum, and San Juan Brewing Company here in town. (Read more below.) The Farmer’s Market here is a lot fun on Saturday mornings.
Other must-visit stops include Café Demeter (best baked goods on the island), The Market Chef (creative and delicious sandwiches to go), and Salty Fox Coffee (which was closed when we were there but has a cool porch with a harbor view!).
2. Look for whales at Lime Kiln Point State Park
Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island is nicknamed “Whale Watch State Park” and is reported to be one of the best places in the world to watch majestic Orca whales spout, breech, and otherwise frolic just offshore.
That’s because its a favored place to gorge on Chinook salmon during the summer salmon run. The park butts up to the Haro Straight, one of the deepest channels around.
A park ranger told me it’s easier for whales to feed here as they can trap the salmon against the sheer steep cliffs. There’s a lovely historic lighthouse you can tour here as well.
I regret to say I saw no whales during three visits to Lime Kiln during our week on San Juan Island but several people I encountered before and after did.
Be sure to join the Facebook group for whale sightings in the San Juans to keep current on where the action is.
Where to stay on San Juan Island
Friday Harbor is the main hub with restaurants, groceries, and the ferry terminal. Stay here if you want to be close to the action. If you’re looking for an upscale stay or are boating in, consider Roche Harbor.
If you’re looking for fewer people and more wilderness, stay in any of the outlying areas. I recommend campers stay at San Juan County Park.
Book early! (Like…many months ahead.) Last minute summer stays here are nearly impossible as the island books up.
Check real-time prices and availability on both hotels and vacation rentals on San Juan Island on this map. Just add your dates to see what’s available.
3. Experience history at English Camp.
Have you ever heard of The Pig War?
English Camp, on the northwest edge of San Juan Island is what remains of the British occupation of San Juan Island during this “battle”.
It was a 15 year stand-off with the Americans during a territorial dispute that erupted—if you can call it that since no shots were ever fired—in 1889.
Basically, an American shot and killed a British pig that had wandered into his garden. He found him devouring his potato crop and put a quick end to him. And this hilarious little incident triggered a serious stand-off with the Canadians.
It’s the best known incident in island history.
Since the water boundary between the two nations ran through the middle of the channel between Vancouver Island and the Washington Territory, the dispute was eventually settled through negotiation and arbitration.
Today, you can walk through the historic buildings here (one of which is a one room museum) as well as a lovely coastal garden.
4. See killer whales on a boat tour.
If you’re unlucky seeing whales at Lime Kiln Point as I was—or just want to be certain you see these magnificent creatures—be sure to book a tour with local guides directly.
While the three resident pods of orcas come and go, there are many, many transient whales that move through these waters.
Follow along with the Facebook group for live sightings. (see #2 above).
What’s particularly fascinating to me is that individual orcas are tracked throughout their lives…which are long. In the wild, female orcas can live up to age 90!
Each whale has unique markings on his or her saddle patch.
If you join the Facebook group, you’ll see that locals identify not only where they’re seeing whales, but which specific whales they’re seeing. How cool is that?
Local boat tours promise whale sightings more than 90 percent of the time. And many fortunate visitors spend quite a while on these tours watching orcas hunt prey or cavort in the waves. Just read the reviews at the link below.
5. Check out False Bay.
False Bay is a serene marine preserve on the southwest side of San Juan Island.
We were fortunate to rent a cabin with private beach access and kayaks here for our week on the island and it was fantastic. (The cabin also came with a nearby nest of American bald eagles!)
Why is it called False Bay? Because even though it looks like a regular bay at high tide, this bay completely empties out to a muddy bottom and tide pools every low tide. I’ve never seen anything like it.
While I’m not sure there’s any public access directly to the beach here, you can drive scenic False Bay Road and see it emptied out at low tide.
Otherwise, I highly recommend kayaking into the bay via the ocean. You’ll wave to abundant geese, seals, and our host said he once encountered an orca! (I can’t decided if I’d be thrilled or terrified.)
6. Visit Roche Harbor.
Roche Harbor is the upscale and historic boating marina near English Camp.
Back in the 1850’s this was home to the whelaalk, a Salish community that still retains certain First People’s resource rights here due to a treaty.
After that, during The Pig War, the British Marines based here. You can still see the shadow of those years in the beautiful historic buildings that remain. But today, this is a thriving upscale marina.
And the main draw for visitors is the Roche Harbor Resort which offers small historic rooms in its main hotels or accommodation in its warren of colorful cottages.
Day visitors will enjoy window shopping here, walking the docks, and enjoying a meal or a drink on the expansive waterfront deck.
We enjoyed burgers and mojitos here that hit the spot during a sunny late afternoon.
The resort doesn’t accept dinner reservations so just show up and wander the village until your table’s ready.
7. Rent a bike.
Cycling is a popular activity on each of the San Juan Islands. While Orcas has more hills and Lopez is fairly flat, San Juan Island has a little of both.
You can rent right in Friday Harbor with Cycle San Juan. We brought our own e-bikes on our road trip here so don’t have direct experience with them, but they get top reviews from others.
You can cycle a loop around the island—with a few detours—in about 43 miles. So, if you’re not pressed for time, make a day of it.
With more time, break this up into a few separate legs on different days.
You could ride from Friday Harbor to San Juan Vineyards (see # 8 below), stopping for a glass of wine and on to Roche Harbor (see #6 above), with a stop to see the nearby Sculpture Garden.
The ride from Roche Harbor to English Camp (7.6 miles, see #3 ) is also easy and scenic.
Then stop at the Alpaca Farm. (See #18). Lime Point State Park is another 6.8 miles (see #2). Lock your bikes and walk through the forest to look for resident or transient orcas here!
8. Go wine tasting.
San Juan Vineyard has been making wine for 25 years here. Unlike the winery on Orcas, this winery actually grows grapes here on the island; they’re pioneers in making quality wines despite the cool temps here.
While grapes for their white wines are grown on the estate, grapes for their rosés and reds are procured on the mainland.
Unfortunately, they weren’t offering tastings the day we arrived but we did enjoy a lovely crisp white and a rosé on their cute patio.
The building used to be a historic schoolhouse. Your wine tasting experience also comes with lovely valley views!
9. Eat at Duck Soup.
Tucked back into the woods, Duck Soup has a simple, earthy vibe and a lovely patio. The chef here is all about local, quality ingredients.
We shared a beautiful roasted beet salad with chamomile yogurt, chicories, citrus, oil, and pepitas to start. Cocktails were on point here. We give the mango margarita and house Manhattan two thumbs up.
For mains, Steve raved over his duck breast with passionfruit chili sauce.
The lamb rack with chermoula marinade with tabbouleh and raita was a winner too. Secure a reservation well in advance or prepare to be disappointed!
Duck Soup also offers Noodle Bowl Mondays for take away.
Think Vietnamese rice noodles chilled with carrots, cilantro, dill, roasted peanuts and your choice of protein. These were also delish!
However, order ahead of time online or prepare to wait in the long line out the door…even if it’s lunchtime.
10. Go to the Saturday Farmer’s Market.
We were a bit disappointed by the Orcas Farmer’s Market but the one on San Juan Island was much better!
You’ll find it in the Bricksworks building—spilling into the courtyard behind—right in Friday Harbor.
It’s true that the guy allegedly selling paella was not in attendance which was seriously disappointing.
However, it’s where we had our first taste of the baked goods at Café Demeter which was amazing.
I have never in my life had a Danish as good as the one I tested here…restrained with the sugar to let the fresh fruit and flavor of cream come through.
Steve said the same about the apricot pie, which is high praise indeed since he’s a pie baker himself.
You’ll find local purveyors of arts and crafts here and farmers selling veggies but to be honest, of the three farmer’s markets we visited on the islands, the one on Lopez Island was the most robust and interesting.
11. Taste test pastries and pies.
A little more gushing about Café Demeter mentioned just above…They also donate earnings each week from their sales at Saturday Market to social justice causes on the island.
In fact, they told me they’d donated more than $31,000 by July of this year when we visited. This is definitely a great rationalization to plan on extra pastries, right?
Our experience at the farmer’s market with Demeter Café was so awesome that we made a second visit to their café around the corner and weren’t disappointed there either (although they don’t sell the same goodies that they offer at the farmer’s market there).
The more well-known bakery here, Bakery San Juan, is just outside of Friday Harbor.
I stopped in for cookies and sandwiches which I thought were mostly just standard fare. Lots of restaurants carry their breads here though so those would also be worth tasting.
12. Kayak San Juan County Park.
San Juan County Park on the west side of the island is pretty much the perfect campground on the island.
It’s so popular that you should book your camping reservation well ahead of time.
But even if you’re not camping, it makes a pefect spot to launch a kayak. Wildflowers frame the water views here directly into the Haro Strait.
I saw lots of kayaks here but no one to rent from so I’m not sure if this is an option without your own kayak.
If not, you have two other kayaking options: 1) You can rent a kayak at Roche Harbor instead.
2) You can take a kayak tour with an experienced guide, with stops here at San Juan County Park and also at Lime Kiln to hopefully see orcas.
You can check price and availability on a full day kayak tour here.
13. Visit the Whale Museum.
The Whale Museum makes a great first stop in Friday Harbor after you arrive by ferry.
In fact, you can just walk over. Plan to spend an hour or so in this small museum learning about the incredible whales here.
You’ll learn about the differences between the transient or “Biggs” whales (named after a scientist who pioneered whale research here) and the three resident pods in the islands.
Your museum experience is the perfect appetizer before the main course…seeing killer whales in the wild with your own eyes!
14. Climb Mount Young.
Full disclosure: We were so busy cycling and kayaking during our stay on San Juan Island that we didn’t fit in this hike.
It’s a favorite on the island though so I’m including it here for you.
It’s a moderate trail—just 2.2 miles round trip with a gain of 587 feet in total—that leads to an expansive view of the bay with plenty of islands in the distance
It’s perfect combined with a visit to English Camp as you’ll find the trail directly from the parking lot there. In fact, you can do a side trip to the English Camp cemetery from the trail.
15. Take a selfie at Pelindaba Lavender Farm.
I felt like I was in the south of France walking the lavender fields at Pelindaba Lavender Farm. It was stunning!
You’ll find all kinds of lavender varieties here and they all smell heavenly.
You can play croquet on the lawn or sample lavender shortbread and lavender iced tea. (I reccommend an Arnold Palmer approach: half lavender lemonade, half lavender iced tea.)
The shop’s a great place to pick up lavender gifts as well.
16. Relax into a scenic drive.
The San Juan Islands Scenic Byway, designated in 2009, identifies scenic drives on each of the islands here.
On San Juan Island, there are two scenic drives…which more or less seem to be the same sights just traveling opposite directions.
In fact, you’ll drive past most of the points identified in this post…past scenic farms with grazing horses, cows, and sheep and all kinds of island charm.
There’s something about the air in the San Juans…Its scent is sweet, like a combination of fresh cut grass with an occasional waft of cinnamon. I’m not sure I’ve noticed it anywhere else. Unforgettable. Sigh.
17. Picnic at South Beach.
You’ll find scenic South Beach at American Camp, where the Americans based during The Pig War while the Brits were up at Roche Harbor.
There’s more history to explore at English Camp but there are a few historic buildings and placards to read here, too. The best part is the long beach here though.
Formerly known as Salmon Banks Beach, South Beach is the longest stretch of public shoreline in the islands here.
It makes a great place for a picnic or a chilly dip in the water. (We met a local who said she’d been taking a dip here daily since January. Yes!)
The expansive views as you head towards the beach from the road are beautiful. We watched a red fox skedaddle across. (Tiny fox photo below. No time for my camera and telephoto lens.)
18. Meet alpacas.
Alpacas on San Juan Island? WHAT? Yes, you can visit these adorable alpacas at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. You’ll find more than 50 of them serenly grazing here.
On a hot summer day, they all came running for a quick rinse when they saw their owner spraying the garden hose. It was the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.
While you’e here, be sure to stop into the store. There’s a wide selection of absolutely unique and beautiful Alpaca sweaters for sale here. And yarn for your favorite knitter!
19. Have a beer at San Juan Brewing.
This place was BUSY at Happy Hour on a Friday afternoon. And with good reason.
San Juan Brewing makes some great beers. And they make 100 percent of their award-winning brews on-site.
It’s a brewery built for the island community by the island community. And that’s refreshing (pun intended) in a world where corporate America seems to be running the show.
Plus, the food here is also quite good. I can’t say enough about their delicious burger.
20. See indigenous art.
Unfortunately, San Juan Islands Art Museum was closed both times I tried to go.
In fact, it’s important to know that hours of businesses and restaurants on all the San Juan Islands are pretty irregular.
I thought it was maybe a COVID thing but a local tells me it’s just an island thing. So check hours before you go!
This sweet little museum really lives its mission championing local artists and arts programming to nurture authenticity of expression, place, and connections.
While admission is $10, Mondays are “pay what you can” days. The museum also funds local art education in schools.
Exhibitions change frequently. You’ll find artists featured here from the Salish Sea as well as inspired pieces ranging from African to Norwegian art.
21. Learn how to shuck oysters.
Westcott Bay Shellfish Co. is an aquafarm run by locals on San Juan Island. Oysters, clams, and mussels are all hand-raised in the tidelands here on Westcott Bay.
I was eager to visit after our amazing feast at Buck Bay Shellfish on Orcas.
Unfortunately, the recent and unseasonable heatwave made eating freshly harvested oysters iffy and the place was closed down while we were visiting.
Hopefully, that won’t be the case for you! You can buy freshly harvested shellfish (oysters, clams, and mussels) here to take home or shuck and slurp your oysters on site.
Just grab a spot at a picnic table overlooking the bay as you watch herons, eagles, and seals frolicking nearby.
San Juan Island, Washington will restore your spirit.
Listen to the birds call on the breeze and the gentle waves lap at your feet. Bring a good book and feel your cares melt away.
However you decide to spend your days on San Juan Island, you’ll leave refreshed and rejuvenated.