If you spend much time in the Pacific Northwest – and especially in the Seattle/Puget Sound area –, there’s one destination that is universally beloved: the San Juan Islands. Located just a dozen or so miles off the mainland and just 90 miles north of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are a perfect weekend getaway from Seattle or add-on to your PNW itinerary. Most people spend the majority of their time on San Juan Island, the largest of the four main islands connected to the Washington State Ferry system.
Admittedly, it’s been a few years since my last visit to San Juan Island – but that’s a great thing about the San Juan Islands: while they certainly change and grow, they also feel a bit set aside from time, and the best things to do on San Juan Island are the same as they have been in years past and will be for years to come.
So if you’re planning a San Juan Islands itinerary, you’ve come to the right place in terms of figuring out what to do with your time on the biggest island in this 400-island archipelago. Below you’ll find 11 of my personal favorite things to do on San Juan Island, based on my trips to the islands over the years. If you have any questions or suggestions for other activities I should add, please let me know in the comments.
Ready to explore all that San Juan Island has to offer visitors? Let’s go!
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Semiahmoo, S’Klallam, Á,LEṈENEȻ ȽTE (W̱SÁNEĆ), Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group, Lhaq’temish (Lummi), Samish, Tulalip peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Ride the Washington State Ferry
Hey, whaddya know: the first thing to do on San Juan Island is something you have to do in order to reach San Juan Island! I love riding the Washington State Ferries; I’ve taken adventures to all kinds of destinations as a result of easily boarding and disembarking from Seattle.
The ferry to San Juan Island departs from (and returns to) Anacortes several times daily. You can grab a seat inside if the weather is foul, but I love being out on the bow on nice days to enjoy the view and rare PNW sunshine.
The Whale Museum
There are loads of things to do on San Juan Island; in my opinion, the first stop for any visitor to San Juan Island should be The Whale Museum. This small museum highlights the cultural and historical significance of Orca whales in the area.
For just $10, you can spend an hour exploring and learning about many different species of whale. You can even adopt one of the resident orcas through their Adopt-An-Orca program.
Once you’ve learned about whales, it’s a good time to head out on the water with a whale-watching tour. Whale watching is one of the main experiences in the San Juan Islands, which is perfect as there are waterways all around!
There are several resident pods of orca whales that live in the waters around the San Juan Islands year-round. These whales are all part of pods that are classified as “residents” of the waters around the San Juan Islands. They don’t migrate away throughout the year, and this gives scientists a chance to really study them.
The best place to set out for a tour is from Friday Harbor; it’s the closest to the places you can usually see whales. There are several providers of whale-watching tours from Friday Harbor. Tours with San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours start from $125 for adults and $115 for children.
Explore Historic Sites
San Juan Island has an important history, thanks to its geographic peninsula at the mouth of several inland waterways in the Pacific Northwest: the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the Strait of Georgia to the north and Puget Sound to the south and both Rosario and Haro Straits surround the islands. As you might expect, this means the San Juan Islands are strategically important, and have been contested even in modern history.
Visit either English Camp or American Camp – or both – to learn about “the pig war;” this is one of the only wars in human history where no battles were fought and no lives were lost… other than the pig! Visiting some of these sites is a good activity for either history buffs or families who want to get a bit active and keep travel educational too.
Aside from whale watching, hiking is hands down the next most popular thing to do on San Juan Island. There are several great trails, ranging from the easy and mostly flat 2.2-mile trail at Lime Kiln State Park to the slightly more challenging 1.6-mile Young Hill Trail that gives you what little elevation can be found on the island.
The San Juan Islands visitor bureau has a nice page about the hikes they recommend, and I always suggest checking AllTrails too, as they list a number of trails and have handy maps of elevation to help you choose.
Cycling is another popular activity for those who want to work a bit harder and see more of the island than by hiking alone. There are a handful of bicycle shops in Friday Harbor that appear to do rentals (I say appear as I haven’t done this myself – cycling isn’t my style!):
- Meat Machine offers a range of standard bikes to rent
- Gilligan’s Island Style E-Bike Rentals has e-bikes, which will make it easier to explore with less effort
- Discovery Adventure Tours also offers bike rentals, as well as tours if you want a guide to show you the island too.
Speaking of cycling tours, CycleSanJuan also offers those. Maybe I’ll give this a try on my next visit, since having a guide to point out the sites and adjust the route for my ability sounds much more enjoyable.
For one last physical activity, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding are an option for things to do on San Juan Island too. Obviously these are best for people who love watersports, and it’s worth packing the right gear if you plan to do these since there’s always a chance you’ll get wet if you do spend time on the water.
The San Juan Islands visitor bureau has a great list of all the companies that offer kayak rentals, kayak tours, and SUP rentals on the island. Rather than listing them all, you should check out that list; the “gourmet kayaking tours” caught my eye as this sounds like a cool way to combine activities I enjoy.
Visit the Lavender Farm
If you want to delight your senses, one of the most popular things to do on San Juan Island is to visit the Pelindaba Lavender Farm. This farm is a marvelous experience where you can learn about the different types of lavender – yes, there’s more than one type! You can also rent little scooters and little cars and take them for rides around the farm, and buy a lavender plant to take with you or cut your own bouquet for less than $10.
Make sure to stop by their store, which, as you would expect, smells like lavender! The linalool fragrance is instantly calming. The store has all kinds of lavender goodies, from essential oils and sprays to locally-made jewelry and even treats for dogs!
Meet the Local Alpacas
Even though whale-watching is the top activity in terms of animal experiences in San Juan Island, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm is home to one of the cutest animals on this planet: Alpacas!
The farm has large enclosures with tons of Alpaca herds. It is a fun experience to feed the Alpacas and hang out with them. They only come up when they think you have food, but they are super cute and you’ll have fun just watching them roam around the grounds. The farm also has quite a variety of colors in their Alpaca residents and is home to babies as well as quite elderly ones. Before you leave, pay a visit to the store. It sells a huge array of Alpaca goods, gifts, and snacks.
If you’re not visiting Lopez Island on your San Juan Islands itinerary, fear not. You can still have a sip of delicious wine on San Juan Island at San Juan Vineyard. This winery has a small yet nice assortment of local wines. Plus, a setting that will make your jaw drop. Sit down on the patio and enjoy a glass of red, rosé, or light white while a sommelier tells you about the Vineyard, the grapes, and the winery’s history. Nothing beats enjoying good wine on a sunny patio in the San Juans!
Sample Local Spirits
Sticking to the drinking theme, San Juan Island Distillery is a must-visit for anyone who loves cocktails or wants to learn about the botanical bounty of the Islands. The distiller makes 12 different gins amongst other delicious libations. They have a stunning variety of liqueurs and flavored brandies that are just delicious.
On the “academic” side, the distillery is deeply knowledgeable and brews with a craft like few other distilleries in the country. You’ll come away with an appreciation for the local flavors of this area as well as a newly stocked liquor cabinet.
Y’all know I love to try new foods and restaurants when traveling; it’s also a good idea if you’ve visited the winery and/or the distillery! You’ll find the most restaurant choices on San Juan Island in Friday Harbor:
- Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I usually skip it in favor of brunch. For that, try Cynthia’s on Nicolas Street. Delicious, savory, and filling, the tomato skillet-baked eggs was a perfect dish for a day of exploring the rest of the island..
- If you’re a no-breakfast-just-give-me-coffee kind of person, sip a lavender latte at The Bean Cafe, which uses lavender products from Pelindaba Lavender.
- For lunch, enjoy a made-to-order sandwich from The Market Chef, which you can take away with you to keep exploring, or enjoy with a bottle of wine on their patio.
- Cask & Schooner Public House & Restaurant is located right on the main street in Friday Harbor. This English-style pub is great for a casual dinner. If you want to really enjoy the British vibe, opt for bangers and mash or sticky toffee pudding.
Outside Friday Harbor, here are some good options:
- Duck Soup is located on the shores of Dream Lake on inland San Juan Island. They’re known for delicious local ingredients and seasonal dishes.
- In Roche Harbor, Lime Kiln Cafe offers a casual, waterfront dining option along the main pier.
- Similarly, McMillin’s waterfront restaurant and dining room is a more upscale option that usually draws a crowd for dinner each day.
Visit Roche Harbor
There’s something about the way “Roche Harbor” rolls off your tongue that just sounds fancy, right? This is the nicest community on San Juan Island, and it’s a good spot to spend an evening before a nice dinner overlooking the water.
After strolling around and having dinner at one of the places I recommended (above), head Madrona’s Bar & Grill at Roche Harbor Resort to try the Blended Fluffy Duck or “Pig War Martini” as a nightcap.
Where to Stay on San Juan Island
From hotels to vacation rentals and traditional bed and breakfast options to camping, you can find almost any kind of accommodation on San Juan Island. Here are a couple of choices:
- If you want a hotel with a view, Friday Harbor House or the Hotel de Haro in Roche Harbor are your best options. Be prepared for the cost that comes with stunning waterfront views!
- The Island Inn at 123 West is an interesting blend of accommodation styles, with both private suites and private rooms that share common areas.
- If you’re looking for something smaller or more private, Bird Rock Hotel or Earthbox Inn & Spa are good options.
- For vacation rentals that are more unique, consider Churchill Plaza #1, this Artist’s Suite, or at the Cannery Inn (Room 1, 2, 3, 4).
- If you want to camp, there are four campsites on San Juan Island: The Fairground, Lakedale Resort, County Parks, and Free Horse Farm.