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From the bow of the Washington State Ferry, the wind is strong and the skies are a clear, bright blue. The boat carves a path between several of the San Juan Islands; while the ferry only services four of them, there are over 400 islands in this archipelago. With so much to choose from, how on earth can you plan to spend just a weekend on the San Juan Islands?

After living in the Pacific Northwest for several years, I was fortunate to spend a weekend island hopping, whale watching, and immersed in the history of the San Juans. PNW locals love to visit these islands because there’s something for everyone: outdoor adventure, history, good food and wine, and wildlife, just to name a few!

In this post, I’ll share a ton of travel tips to help you plan a San Juan Islands weekend getaway. This won’t cover everything – in fact my suggested 3-day San Juan Islands weekend itinerary only visits two of the four main islands – but it will give you the guidance to sample what the San Juans have to offer. Don’t be surprised if you come home and immediately want to plan another trip!

This post was originally published in 2015, and was updated in May 2018 and in April 2020.


San Juan Islands Weekend Travel Tips

When it comes to planning a San Juan Islands weekend trip, there is so much to cover – ferry schedules and choosing islands and what to do on each… As such, I have to include a lot of travel tips to help you cover all the details!

How to Get to the San Juan Islands

Visiting the San Juan Islands - Picture of Washington State Ferries

It’s a little complicated to visit the San Juan Islands, but I promise it’s worth it! It’s a 90-minute drive north from Seattle to the town of Anacortes. From Anacortes, you have to board a Washington State Ferry to one of the four ferry terminals in the San Juan Islands: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, or Shaw islands.

There are several ferry routes to choose from, depending on which island(s) you want to stop at; the best way to plan your trip is by visiting the WSDOT website and consulting their timetables.

Pro-tip: Book reservations for the Washington State Ferry in advance if you plan to visit the San Juan Islands, especially in summer. Reservations are usually available two weeks and two days before sailing.

Which of the San Juan Islands Should You Visit?

San Juan Islands View

When you plan your trip to the San Juan Islands, it’s important to consider which island(s) you want to visit. 

  • San Juan Island – San Juan Island is the second largest island by size, but the most populated by far. On San Juan Island, you’ll be able to choose almost any activity: food and wine tasting, outdoor experiences, whale watching tours, or just strolling and shopping in towns like Friday Harbor.
  • Orcas Island – Orcas Island is the largest island in the San Juan archipelago, but is less populated and developed than San Juan Island. With a slower pace of life than its smaller sibling, Orcas is perfect if you want to go camping, hiking, or cycling across a surprisingly diverse landscape.
  • Lopez Island – Lopez is the third island you can visit from the ferry system. Cycling is especially popular, as is wine tasting from local vineyards.
  • Shaw Island – Shaw is the least developed of the four islands you can visit by ferry; there isn’t even a gas station on this island! Shaw is good for a day trip if you can time the ferries right, or camping overnight in one of the island’s state parks.

What to Pack for a San Juans Weekend Trip

The San Juan Islands have some of the best weather in all of Western Washington, thanks to the geography of the Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound. As such, pretty much everything on my Seattle packing list will work for a weekend on the San Juans – it never hurts to bring a rain jacket in case of unseasonably damp weather, or just as an extra layer.

How to Go Whale Watching in the San Juan Islands

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 which live in the waters around the San Juan Islands year-round. 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.

As I mentioned, these whales are all part of pods that are classified as “residents” to 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.

There are several providers of whale watching tours from Friday Harbor. Tours with San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours start from $99 for adults and $79 for children.

San Juan Island Travel Guide

San Juan Island - Roche Harbor

As the second-largest but most populous of the San Juan Islands, the namesake San Juan Island is where most travelers visit. San Juan Island has the largest tourism base, historic sites across the island, and plenty of different experiences to enjoy, from museums and old military forts to whale-watching tours and wine tastings.

On San Juan Island, there are two primary communities: Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor.

  • Friday Harbor: Where most tourist amenities can be found, including hotels, restaurants, and tour providers. From Friday Harbor, you can set out on a whale-watching tour, drive to see some of the historic and cultural sites on San Juan Island, or just relax in your waterfront hotel room and eat at some of the delicious restaurants.
  • Roche Harbor: A private community, though there are still a few things to do by way of shops and restaurants, and one main hotel, the Hotel de Haro. Roche Harbor has a slightly more posh feeling than Friday Harbor and is a great escape if you’re just looking for a luxury getaway without planning to see much of the island.

Things to Do on San Juan Island

The first stop for any visitor on 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 $6, 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. There are plenty of other service providers in the area. Most ask for reservations in advance, but you’ll probably be fine just turning up.

For those who love more physical adventures, there are plenty of great activities to try:

  • There are plenty of hiking throughout the state parks. The most popular is Lime Kiln State Park, where you can also watch for whales off the shore.
  • Cycling is a common activity along the winding country roads.
  • Kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding are also popular options if you love water sports.
Visit San Juan Island - English Camp

You can also learn the history of the San Juans on San Juan Island. Visit either or both English Camp and American Camp to learn about “the pig war.” No battles were fought and no lives were lost (other than the pig), but you can still explore both English Camp and American Camp on San Juan Island. Perfect for History Buffs.

Where to Stay on San Juan Island

From hotels to Airbnbs and traditional bed and breakfast options to camping, you can find almost any kind of accommodation on San Juan Island. Here are a couple 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 which share common areas.
  • If you’re looking for something smaller or more private, Bird Rock Hotel or Earthbox Inn & Spa are good options.
  • I use Airbnb to find good budget-friendly and/or unique options, such as the Churchill Suite #1Etta’s Place, and Cannery Inn. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking by clicking this link before starting your reservation.)
  • If you want to camp, there are four campsites on San Juan Island: The Fairground, Lakedale Resort, County Parks, and Free Horse Farm.

Where to Eat on San Juan Island

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 exploration.
  • 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.
  • For a fancier option, try The Bluff Restaurant in Friday Harbor House. Enjoy Pacific Manila Clams or the Butcher’s Cut while overlooking the harbor; watch the lights twinkle on boats as you enjoy cobbler made with berries picked right on San Juan Island.

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.

Orcas Island Travel Guide

Visit the San Juan Islands - Orcas Island

Though Orcas Island is bigger in size than San Juan Island, it is smaller in attitude and draws a totally different crowd of locals and visitors. From the moment you disembark the ferry, you’ll see why locals call Orcas “the gem of the San Juans.”

  • The largest town on Orcas is Eastsound, home to 3,700 people. Located ‘in the bend’ of horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island, it’s also the perfect place to base yourself for exploring the whole of the island. You can reach either end of the island within a 30-minute drive.
  • Other small communities you can pass through include Westsound, Olga, and Deer Harbor, where I stayed at the Blue Heron Bed & Breakfast.

Things to Do on Orcas Island

On Orcas Island, the main attractions are all provided courtesy of mother nature. If you want to experience nature, Orcas is the place to do it.

Moran State Park is the main attraction, home to 38 miles of hiking trails and the 2,398-foot Mount Constitution. Whether you hike, bike, or drive to the top, you can enjoy stunning views from the top of the mountain – the highest point in the San Juan Islands.

Kayakingwhale-watching, and sailing are the other main physical activities to choose from on Orcas Island. As you’ll find on all of the San Juans, cycling along Orcas’ winding roads is another popular activity for those who love to combine fitness with sightseeing.

Where to Stay on Orcas Island

Most accommodation on Orcas Island is rustic and local. I consider that a plus since you’re looking to actually experience the San Juan Islands.

Based on that, here are some of my favorite properties:

  • For a guesthouse option, the Orcas Hotel is a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal. In Eastsound, the Outlook Inn is a well-located option with stunning waterfront views.
  • If you want to experience nature without sacrificing comfort, Orcas Island is a surprising glamping hotspot. Leanto has beautiful glamping options in Moran State Park.
  • The Blue Heron B&B has changed a lot since my stay – they now offer traditional bed & breakfast rooms, glamping, a trailer, and even the option to sleep aboard a 74-foot schooner.
  • On Airbnb, a couple of options catch my eye: this gorgeous modern home has plenty of space, this cozy cottage with breathtaking water views, and – let’s just call it what it is – this hobbit house that I might literally never leave. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking by clicking this link before starting your reservation.)

Lopez Island Travel Guide

Visit the San Juan Islands - Spencer Spit on Lopez Island

For most travelers, visiting San Juan and/or Orcas island is enough for a San Juan Islands weekend trip. Lopez Island is less visited and thus more local, and as you’ll see first hand. You can wander through Lopez Village or cycle along Lopez’s easy, flat roads to one of the wineries and farms for a tasting tour.

Things to Do on Lopez Island

As mentioned, one of the most popular activities on Lopez Island is cycling. It’s best “paired with a destination: Lopez Island Vineyard & Winery has delicious local wines, in search of a geocaching spot, or through historic Lopez Village.

Where to Stay on Lopez Island

Like Orcas Island, accommodation on Lopez is more rustic and cozy – but you won’t sacrifice comfort in the process.

  • Edenwild Boutique Inn is one of the most modern options, with beautiful rooms and easy access to the heart of Lopez Village.
  • If you’d prefer an Airbnb all to yourself, you could rent a rustic cabin, take over a boathouse, or a circular cottage. (Get $40 off your first Airbnb booking by clicking this link before starting your reservation.)
  • There are also a few camping options on Lopez Island, including Odlin County Park and Spencer Spit State Park – as well as Lopez Islander Resort.

Shaw Island Travel Guide

Visit San Juan Islands - Shaw Island

Shaw Island is the smallest of the four ferry-serviced San Juan Islands. It’s a mere 10 square miles in size. This makes it perfect for a day trip: you can catch a ferry from one of the other islands in the morning, spend the day walking or cycling around, have a picnic, or enjoy the scenery, then catch the ferry back.

There are no restaurants, hotels, or markets, so be sure to bring anything you need with you for a day trip to Shaw Island. If you forget something, the small general store and deli might have it, but it’s best to bring what you want to know you have it.

A Perfect Itinerary for a San Juan Islands Weekend Trip

San Juan Islands Water View

With all that to choose from, you might wonder how to actually plan a San Juan Islands weekend trip. Don’t worry – I can help with that too! If you only have a weekend to visit the San Juan Islands, I recommend spending one day on Orcas Island and one day on San Juan Island. That plus travel time will take up the whole weekend – and you can always plan a trip back to visit Lopez and/or Shaw.

Day 1 – Arrive & Relax (Orcas)

Visit the San Juan Islands - Lopez Island Ferry

For a weekend on the San Juan Islands, I recommend you set out on a Friday in mid-afternoon to beat the rush hour traffic in Seattle. You’ll arrive in time for an early dinner in Anacortes; my weekend guide has suggestions on where to stay and how to spend a short time in the town.

Since you have a ferry reservation, you’ll be able to drive right on, park your car, and get out to stretch your legs during the ride to Orcas Island. Once you arrive, it will probably be getting late, so head to your accommodation for the night. There’s plenty of time for adventure tomorrow!

Day 2 – Seeing Sights & Ferry Rides (Orcas/San Juan)

Rise and shine early to make the most of this full day! On Orcas Island, start by traveling to Eastsound, the largest community on the island, for breakfast. Afterward you can make a quick visit to Moran State Park for a hike before heading to the ferry terminal.

Catch a midday ferry from Orcas to San Juan Island, where you’ll spend the rest of the weekend.

On San Juan Island, disembark the ferry and stop in Friday Harbor for lunch. Then it’s time to head out to explore the island! You can head straight to Lime Kiln State Park, or make your way to American Camp or English Camp for a history lesson. For dinner, consider your options: you could start with an appetizer and drink up in Roche Harbor before heading back to Friday Harbor for the main part of the meal.

In the evening, take a short stroll through Friday Harbor to enjoy the twinkling lights on the water and cozy storefronts and restaurant windows. If you love pubs, end with a nightcap at Cask & Schooner Public House before calling it a night.

Day 3 – Whale Watching & Return Home (San Juan)

Visit the San Juan Islands - Whale Watching

On your final day in the San Juan Islands, you could rise early to rent a stand-up paddleboard and get your heart pumping before brunch. Then it’s time to board a boat for a whale watching tour, which usually takes 3-4 hours.

After your tour ends, you can enjoy lunch in Friday Harbor before either boarding the ferry home or doing one last expedition on San Juan Island. The ferry from San Juan Island to Anacortes takes about an hour. You could either grab dinner in Anacortes again (and maybe stay a night to explore more!) or head back to Seattle.

And that’s it! What else could you possibly need to know about the San Juan Islands? If you have questions, let me know in the comments.


15 comments

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I hope you email me back. My husband and I are seniors, planning on coming to the San Juan islands end of Aug 2019. We do not want to keep changing hotels, since we also will stay in Seattle a few days. After reading your article, it looks like you are saying orcas is the best island as a base hotel.. If so, can we walk onto the ferry and spend the day at San Juan island or Shaw island for the day? Is the ferry expensive to take it to the islands for the day and back to orcas our base hotel? Having never been here, it is confusing to plan this trip. I appreciate any advice about lodging and shuttling the ferry between islands.

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Thanks for your comment, Kathy! I recommend basing yourself on San Juan Island, in Friday Harbor. If you’re just walking onto the ferry, it should be very affordable to walk-on for day trips to the other islands. The ferry pricing can be found on their website: https://www.wsdot.com/ferries/schedule/scheduledetailbyroute.aspx?route=ana-sj-sid

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Hello, My husband and I are planning a trip to the San Juan Islands from Seattle, flying in to SEA-TAC and renting a car . Do you have information on how to get back to Seattle after the trip? Is it the same to take the ferry and drive 90 miles to Seattle from Anacortes? Thank you!

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Thanks for your comment, Karen! Yep – you’ve got it exactly right – you take the ferry back to Anacortes and drive home from there. Have a great trip!

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We visited on San Juan Island for a few days in June of 2018. We had lunch at a really nice and fancy restaurant on the Main Street in Friday Harbor. Our son lives in Friday Harbor and works at Roche Harbor. We ate dinner at McMiilins where our son works. Our son and a friend showed us around the island. We spent two nights at Roche Harbor. We ate breakfast and lunch at Roche Harbor restaurants. We very much enjoyed our visit to San Juan Island. Our son is still working and living on the island.

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Hi Valerie,

Thanks for your great article! I see you’ve had quite a few questions about the ferry from your readers. It’s free to walk on the ferry in any direction. Folks can find answers to questions at http://www.visitsanjuans.com on “how to get here” questions or they can call our toll free number 888.468.3701.

One thing: San Juan Whales and Wildlife Tours, is no longer doing tours, but there are many other great whale and wildlife tour companies operating out of Friday Harbor. Thanks again!

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Oops I meant to say in my comment above that walk-ons on the inter-island ferry are free. If you are coming from Anacortes then there is a walk on charge.

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Thanks for all the extra info, Barbara! I’ll point people to your comment if I get any more questions about these topics.

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Hi Valerie, thank you for the article. Is it also posssible to get get to Anacortes ferry by public transport from Seattle?

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Great question, Kitty! Yep, you can. Here are some details from Visit San Juans: https://www.visitsanjuans.com/transportation/all-san-juan-islands/travel-train

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Hi thanks for the great information. I found that most of the Air Bnb links do not take you to a listing. One of them took me to Italy! How lovely, but that’s for another time. 🙂

L

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Lindsey, I’m so sorry about that! I just went in and checked/fixed all of those links – I hope they work better and you find one you want to book.

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We are heading to Lopez Island to pick up a boat we purchased. We’ll be arriving around September 15, 2020. We plan on cruising the San Juans for 2-3 weeks, weather permitting. Any tips for marina and island hopping, grocery shopping? We’ll be sleeping aboard. We want to cruise to visit friends in Bellingham and Port Townsend too ~ before trailering our boat home to Santa Barbara. Many thanks!

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Hi Judy! Mr. V here. I am SO excited for you, the San Juans are easily one of my favorite places – and seeing by boat just makes it that much better. I did this exact cruise on a 30′ sloop a number of years ago and would easily do it again given the chance.

When you pick up in Lopez, make sure to spend a little time on the island exploring all they have to offer. Lopez Island is home to some of the most interesting vineyards in Washington (In my humble opinion), Lopez Island Vineyards being my favorite. They also have a great state park called Spencer Spit that is worth a walk around. For provisioning, make sure to swing by Lopez Village on the West side of the island. That is the main village on the island and also worth walking around in its own right.

From there, I’d suggest cruising over to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. This is one of the largest towns in the archipelago and will be your best place for some great restaurants (and more provisioning). Head’s up though! The ferry docks here and seaplanes take off from here, so make sure to check your charts and keep an eye out for that traffic. For moorage, there are a few marinas here if you want convenience. Otherwise, there is a small half-moon cove just to the north of the main harbor where a lot of cruisers like to anchor up (I don’t remember if there are mooring balls here or not). It’s a short dinghy ride into the harbor, so it’s still fairly convenient. There is also a little stretch to the W/SW side of Brown Island right next to Friday Harbor where some folks will tie up for the night, but the current comes through the channel pretty quick and there’s a lot of traffic. I’d recommend either staying in the Harbor itself or mooring up in that little cove to the north.

Departing Friday Harbor, you have two choices and I’d suggest checking the weather and tide report to determine which one to take. The first option is to head North, following the San Juan Channel along the West side of Shaw Island. This will be more protected from weather and a shorter day of cruising, but that current can get pretty strong between the islands so time it so the tides work in your favor if possible. The other option is a much longer day of sailing and that is to head South out the channel and around Cattle Pt. The current can really get going here as its a narrow passage and Salmon Bank just outside the mouth gets pretty shallow. But once you clear the point, head NW to follow the Western side of San Juan Island. This whole coast line up to Lime Kiln State Park is the regular cruising grounds for the local Orca pods and are usually your best chances for seeing whales (though they do range all over the islands, so keep an eye out!). Beware that False Bay is aptly named and not a good place to hole up as it is a tidal mud flat at low tide! Whichever route you take, Roche Harbor at the North end of the island is where I’d suggest aiming to reach. This harbor is more fancy and you’re just as likely to see a superyacht there as a trailer-sailor. The main reason for heading up here is to have a meal at the famous Haro Hotel. If you want a night to splurge a little, this is the place. Fun fact – Spieden Island just across the way was once a private game reserve for African animals and you can still see some exotic animals living there from a distance!

From here, I’d stock up at “The Company Store” in Roche Harbor and head NE through President Channel along the back side of Orcas Island with my favorite island, Sucia, as your target. This island is 100% off-grid and you can only access it by private boat, no public tours come here. Head into Echo Bay on the East side of the island for a nice, protected anchorage. There are numerous State Park mooring buoys here as well. This is a great place to relax and really ‘get away’. You will likely have other folks around in the bay, but it’s big enough and usually people are pretty responsible, so there shouldn’t be any problems. You can also dinghy into shore and hike around. The island is criss-crossed with trails that go all over, picnic shelters, and the beach is a great place for beach fires at sunset. It’s also a safe place to swim if you’re feeling so inclined.

Once you’ve had your fill of Sucia, I’d suggest heading South and following the coastline of Orcas island down and around into East Sound. This village is another one that you can reprovision at and have some of the comforts of home (or not!). Orcas Island is much bigger and thus more difficult to get around on without a vehicle, but there are some amazing hiking trails in Moran State Park. At this point you can either keep exploring Orcas by heading over into the next bay to the West, Westsound, or you can head East and over into Bellingham Bay.

I hope that helps give you some ideas for sailing the San Juan Islands! This is my personal favorite route, but there are lots of little nooks and crannys that you can explore around the islands and create your own favorite route. Just make sure to be checking those weather and tide charts daily, and definitely have a working VHS radio just in case anything should happen.

Fair winds and following seas,
Mr. V

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OH! An PS – Pick up this chart if you don’t already have it: https://www.charts.noaa.gov/OnLineViewer/18421.shtml

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