Have you heard of the San Juan Islands in Washington state?
This spectacular area just off the Washington coast is a must-see if you’re heading to the Seattle area.
What Are the San Juan Islands?
There are over 170 named islands and reefs part of this archipelago off of the Washington coast near the Canada border. These islands are known best for their landscape, scenery, and stunning wildlife. We’re talking orca whales, foxes, and so much more!
However, there are four main islands that are inhabited and are accessible to travelers via plane or ferry: San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island. Each offers a similar view, but with different amenities and charm.
Which Island Should I Visit?
What to Do on San Juan Island
San Juan Island is the largest of the major islands. It is home to the historic Friday Harbor: this is the center of all the action, with plenty of restaurants, cafes, and ice cream shops. Grab a bite to eat at one of the harbor-side restaurants: we enjoyed the fresh seafood at Downriggers.
After exploring the main area around Friday Harbor, head out on the Scenic Byway. You can easily rent a car, moped, e-bike, or bike to get around while on the island.
There are a handful of e-bike rental shops you can rent from in the main area near the harbor. We rented some high-powered e-bikes from Gilligan’s Island Style E-Bike Rentals for $69 for a full day. Get a lower rate if you’re biking for three hours or less. We used the e-bikes as our main mode of transportation for our full day exploring the island.
These things are serious: we hardly had to work for some major speed! While the island is relatively small, it’s best to choose one direction to tackle. Head north to see the Roche Harbor or south to San Juan Island National Historic Park.
We opted to head south and make some scenic stops along the way. We were rewarded with this epic view at the park!
Don’t miss Cattle Point Lighthouse if you head to the south point of the island.
You can also head to the west coast of San Juan Island on an e-bike, though it’d be more comfortable of a drive on the cross-island roads in a car. One of the top sights to see on the island is Lime Kiln Point State Park and Lighthouse, located on the west side.
Lime Kiln is known to be one of the best areas to spot orca whales in the United States.
You can also visit a lavender, alpaca, or shellfish farm on San Juan Island. Or, head to San Juan Island Brewery or San Juan Island Distillery for a beverage after a day of exploring!
This island is best for: travelers who want to see a little bit of everything, want easy access to e-bike rentals and want amenities such as multiple restaurants and shops and a downtown area.
What to do on Orcas Island
Orcas Island is known as the “Gem of the San Juans”, and for good reason.
Orcas is quieter and less populated, but you can still do island activities like rent kayaks or bikes, fish or sail, do a whale-watching tour, go hiking, and check out local art.
There is a small marina where the ferry picks up and drops off passengers. There are a handful of restaurants across the island, but fewer options compared to San Juan Island.
This large island is the shape of a horseshoe, with Turtleback Mountain Preserve on one side and Moran State Park on the other. Hike to the top of Mount Constitution for an awesome view of the harbor.
This island is best for: travelers looking for some peace and quiet, ready to hike and explore on their own.
What to do on Lopez Island
This “friendly isle” is 15 miles long and home to just 2,500 year-round residents.
Like Orcas Island, Lopez Island has a handful of bike and kayak rental companies and restaurants. Use whatever mode of transportation you’ve got to check out Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve and Iceberg Point.
Explore the farms! Produce like wine grapes, apples, pears, and kiwi are grown here.
Note that with a small island comes smaller offerings: you won’t find any rental cars here (and no Ubers or Lyfts on any of the islands!). Be ready to bike or walk – or bring your own car via ferry.
What to Do on Shaw Island
Shaw Island is the smallest of the four islands serviced by the ferry. It’s a quiet, residential island with a small number of part-time residents (and a convent of nuns!).
Here, get epic views of the surrounding islands and Blind Island Marine State Park. Check out Squaw Bay, Indian Cove, Picnic Cove, and Canoe Island from Shaw County Park.
There is a general store on the island, but don’t count on much else for restaurants, entertainment, or tourist services.
This island is best for returning visitors who are looking for a peaceful, quiet experience with fewer attractions and activities.
How to Get to the San Juan Islands from Seattle
Whether you’re flying or ferrying to the San Juan Islands, most travelers start from the town of Anacortes. The drive from Seattle to Anacortes will take you roughly 1 hour and 30 minutes.
From the Port of Anacortes, you can catch a ferry or take a seaplane. From the nearby small-planes airport, you can take a small plane. Both have their perks and unique views.
Plane to the San Juan Islands
One of the coolest ways to get to the San Juan Islands is by plane. A few local airlines offer flight options: we flew with San Juan Airlines but other options include Friday Harbor Seaplanes, Kenmore Air, Point to Point Air, and Westwind Aviation.
These airlines typically offer a few options:
- Book a flight at a scheduled flight time for the cheapest option.
- For a more spendy option, you can charter a plane. However, you likely won’t need to charter your own for privacy: there are only a few seats on these rides.
- Most of these airlines also offer plane tours. These cost quite a bit more and offer a more extensive tour of the islands from above.
We opted to fly San Juan Airlines from Anacortes to San Juan Island at their scheduled 8:50 am flight on a Friday for $96 one way. They do offer even cheaper times as low as $75 one way.
The address for the Anacortes airport is:
4000 Airport Rd
Anacortes, WA 98221
We arrived 20 minutes before our flight time and waiting in the office for our pilot. Nope, no security, no tickets, no nothing! The staff just weighed our carry-ons for weight.
Our pilot arrived 5 minutes before the flight. We hopped in the 4-seater, the pilot did a short safety walk-through, and we were off! The pilot also provided earplugs, as the propellor can be a bit noisy.
The flight from Anacortes to San Juan Island was a total of 15 minutes. Though you’d get more time in the air with a full plane tour, we enjoyed the time we did have in the air for the cheaper price.
We had our noses to the window the entire time: it was so beautiful! This flight was by far the highlight of our entire trip.
Once we landed on San Juan Island, we walked the short distance from the small airport to the main street.
Ferry to the San Juan Islands
You can also take a ferry from Anacortes to the main San Juan Islands: San Juan Island, Lopez Island, Orcas Island, and Shaw Island. A one-way ticket will cost you $14.50 for the standard adult single-ride fare. There are discounts available for passengers under 18 (all passengers under 6 are free), over 65, and passengers with disabilities.
If you’re bringing a motorcycle, your ticket will cost $29.75. If you’re bringing a car, your ticket will cost $70.90. If you’re planning to rent a car or other form of transportation on the island, do the math to see if it makes more sense to just bring your own car on the ferry.
The address for the Anacortes ferry terminal is:
2100 Ferry Terminal Road
Anacortes, WA 98221
We opted to take the ferry back from our day on the island. The ride from San Juan Island – the furthest serviced island – back to Anacortes takes a little over an hour. The ferry stops at the other islands in between to pick up and drop off passengers.
While you won’t get the birds-eye views you get on a plane, the ferry views are pretty epic, too.
When you book a ticket, it’s valid for any one-way trip within 90 days of purchase. Be sure to check the schedule to find a time that gets you to your next destination – and don’t be late!
Once you’ve boarded the ferry, head to the watch deck for some sweet views as you embark. If you get chilly from the wind, head inside and opt for a spot next to the windows on the front and sides of the ferry.
The San Juan Islands in Washington state have a lot to offer. If you are looking to get out of the city on your next trip to Seattle, give them a look! You won’t be disappointed.