For as long as we can remember, we’ve always had the desire to see orcas in their natural habitat, and as such, San Juan Island Washington has been high on our list of places to visit for quite some time! While our trip to the islands was a dream come true in that regard, we also had many other memorable experiences on the island. It was late September. The summer crowds had begun to dissipate, as the crispness of fall set in. Sunny days led to clear night skies. Whether or not this was typical for late September, we don’t know, but we couldn’t have been more pleased with the weather. We spent 3 wonderful days on San Juan Island before moving on to Orcas Island, just a quick ferry ride away. You can read more about our visit to Orcas Island in a separate post, but for now, we want to share with you what we consider to be the…
Top 10 Experiences on San Juan Island Washington
Ride the San Juan Island Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor
They say “getting to San Juan Island is half the fun”, and after enjoying several rides to/from the mainland and between the islands, we’d have to agree! Your journey to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island begins in Anacortes (just a 2 hour drive from Seattle). When transferring between Anacortes and the islands (especially May-September), it is strongly recommended for you to make a reservation if traveling with a vehicle, as space is limited. If you arrive late for your reservation, you will travel standby as space is available and may lose your spot, so make sure you don’t miss the boat! You can walk on as a foot passenger or cyclist without a reservation, and reservations are not required, even for vehicles, for ferry service just between the islands. (Allow us to clarify: A round-trip ticket includes inter-island transportation, so long as you are traveling east back in the direction of Anacortes.)
The journey from Anacortes to Friday Harbor makes up the first 1/3 of the San Juan Scenic Byway and takes just over an hour. So, now that you’re on-board, it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy the scenic views! For more information about transportation with Washington State Ferries, including routes, schedules, and making a reservation, visit TakeAFerry.com. Other methods of transportation to San Juan Island in Washington include a 30-minute seaplane ride and passenger-only boats from Seattle, Bellingham, and Port Townsend (summer months only). If you decide to visit the island without your car, you can rent a car, moped, or bike once on the island, or utilize the island shuttle (summer months).
Since our visit fell outside of the summer months, we personally found that it was super convenient to explore the island by car. With our super-sleek 2016 Mazda CX-5 we could go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. Equipped with navigation, satellite radio, and Bose speakers, we always knew where we were going and had the perfect tunes to accompany our journey. It was the ultimate vehicle for cruising around the island, so with the sunroof open and windows rolled down, we drove the second 1/3 of the San Juan Scenic Byway. Twizzlers are a road trip tradition for us, so it was pretty nifty to have our snack match our ride!
There are no stop lights on San Juan Island and we didn’t hear a single car horn the entire time we were on the island. Sometimes we had a destination in mind, other times, we just drove! Long stretches on hilly roads run along the coast and through the interior of the island. On West Valley Road we passed Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, which was a pleasant surprise. Also, during a drive down West Side Road, we came upon the quirky, unconventional work of local artist Kevin Roth. Kevin’s work utilizes re-purposed materials to create unique metal sculptures which he prominently displays at West Side’s intersection with Pleasant Valley Road.
If you’re really into sculptures, you may also want to consider a stop at the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park on Rouche Harbor Road. Here you will find over 150 unique creations, 5 marked trails, and a gorgeous natural pond on 19-acres of land. The art is rotated as existing pieces are sold and new pieces become available. The goal of this outdoor museum is to offer visitors a quality experience of nature and art working in harmony. Donations are appreciated ($5 per person is recommended). It’s a great place to enjoy a leisurely stroll and a picnic lunch.
Friday Harbor is San Juan Island’s most populated seaport village. At only one-square mile, it is easily walkable and offers a large selection of museums, galleries, shops, and restaurants. We had the pleasure of trying out one of its newest restaurants – Black Fish Bistro (opened August 2016). Serving locally grown and sourced Pacific Northwest cuisine with a rustic French flair, its menu boasts several seafood options, bistro salads, gourmet sandwiches, delicious wines, local and regional beer, creative cocktails, delectable desserts, and more! Update: Sadly Black Fish Bistro has since closed it doors. However, there are still plenty of great restaurants in Friday Harbor.
Just 15 minutes from Friday Harbor is South Beach, the longest public beach in all of the San Juan Islands, offering views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. Sun-bleached driftwood lines the shore of the beach where we had our very first orcas-in-the-wild sighting! They were pretty far from shore, but we got a decent look with our 400mm telephoto lens. This was just the beginning of our experiences whale watching on San Juan Island Washington!
Just a short drive (or lengthy walk) from South Beach is San Juan Island’s most southern point – Cattle Point. Though the first navigational aid on Cattle Point was a lens lantern first lit on October 1, 1888, the modern thirty-four-foot, octagonal, concrete lighthouse wasn’t erected until 1935. Located adjacent to the lighthouse is the Cattle Point Natural Resources Conservation Area where we parked and made our way to the rocky shoreline and calm cove below.
George Jakle was the first Cattle Point Lighthouse caretaker, so it’s safe to assume that Jakle’s lagoon was honorably named after him. There’s a small parking lot with an option of splitting off in 3 different directions on 2 separate trails (Lagoon Trail or Mount Finlayson Trail). We started out on Mt. Finlayson Trail but after a short distance, turned back. We did not prefer how exposed the trail was (at least at the very beginning), along with its close proximity to Cattle Point Road, so we retraced our steps and ended up back at the trailhead for Lagoon Trail. This took us along a mostly even-leveled forested path lined with Douglas firs and Western red cedars. After about a mile, we turned left, walked a few hundred feet and stepped out onto the serene Jakle’s Lagoon.
The area around Cattle Point and Jakle’s Lagoon is teeming with wildlife! Within a mile’s distance, we saw deer, a fox, a majestic bald eagle, and a barred owl (on the Lagoon Trail). So, while San Juan Island may be best known for its resident orcas, there is plenty of other wildlife for you to discover!
From May-September, the road to the summit of Mount Grant is open on designated Sundays (noon-6 pm). Otherwise, you’ll need to hike to the top, like we did! The hike is just under 2 miles round-trip, with a 500-foot elevation gain. It gets a little steep in parts, but the payoff at the end is totally worth it! You’ll have unrivaled views of the surrounding San Juan Islands… and sunset is the perfect time to visit!
To get to Mt Grant Preserve, take Guard Street out of Friday Harbor, where it turns in Beaverton Valley Rd and eventually turns into West Valley Rd. After about 5 miles (total from Friday Harbor), you’ll turn left (there is currently a Save Mt Grant sign at the turn). There’s a small parking lot where you will park, then walk past the gate, onto the trail, and up to the summit!
Lakedale Resort, less than 5 miles from the heart of Friday Harbor, offers an array of accommodation types to satisfy a variety of travel styles. ->Check Availability<- From luxurious lodge rooms to private log cabins, and from a fully renovated 1978 Excella Airstream Trailer to over-the-top Glamping Tents, Lakedale Resort has something for everyone! Set on 82-acres and containing 3 spring water lakes, it’s the perfect place to relax and unwind after a day of exploring the island. There are plenty of (seasonal) activities in which you can partake while on property, such as swimming, fishing, boating, nature walks, and hands-on crafts (tie-dye shirts, birdhouses, jewelry, etc.). Start each morning off with their delicious (gluten-free friendly) breakfast. There are also plenty of ‘gluten-full’ options as well, including toast, bagels, and pancakes! (Breakfast in the lodge is available to lodge guests only. Those who are ‘glamping’ at Lakedale will dine in the mess tent.)
So, what exactly is ‘glamping’? Glamping=Glamorous Camping and Lakedale Resort has taken it to a whole new level! They offer a few different glamping options, depending on your party size and budget. Their Canvas Cabins (225 sq ft) have no electricity or running water and sleep 2, whereas the lake-front Canvas Cottages (350 sq ft), where we stayed, are complete with electricity and full bathroom, and can sleep up to 4. (Canvas Cabin guests are only steps away from coin-operated showers and restrooms.) Lakedale also has one Duplex Canvas Cabin (no electricity) ideal for two families vacationing together and one Canvas Bunkhouse (has electricity) that can sleep up to 6 people. We can honestly say the Canvas Cottage at Lakedale Resort was the MOST GLAMOROUS tent we’ve ever stayed in, complete with electric heater, shower, and even a chandelier! The lake view, literally from our bed, was a sight to remember for sure! ->Check Prices<- Book your stay early to avoid disappointment!
Enjoy the Clear, Dark Night Sky on San Juan Island
Another perk to staying at Lakedale Resort (being slightly removed from downtown Friday Harbor) was the lack of light pollution, making for some spectacular night sky viewing! The Milky Way could be seen with the naked eye. Just one more reason to visit San Juan Island Washington!
But wait! You read this entire post because we mentioned that we were very fortunate regarding our desire to see orcas in the wild. And while this definitely counted as our #1 experience on San Juan Island Washington, we figured it needed more attention, so we put together an entirely separate post. So, not only did we spot a few resident orcas way off shore at South Beach, we had an unforgettable experience at Lime Kiln State Park, one of the best places in the world to see orcas from land. In addition, we got up close and personal while on a whale watching tour (your best bet for seeing orcas during your time on San Juan Island). So, if you’re dying to get to the Pacific Northwest with the intention of seeing orcas in their natural habitat, like we were, you’ll want to check out our post Orcas in the Wild: Whale Watching on San Juan Island.
Though the resident orcas are only in the area May-September, San Juan Island is a year-round destination! If you choose to visit when the whales have migrated south for the winter months, you’ll skip the crowds and find that there is still plenty to do on the island! For example, Savor the San Juans is a fall feast for the senses (late September-mid November). This 6-week event focuses on everything from wine tasting to harvest dinners, farmers’ markets to farm tours, and even film festivals. No matter the time of year, there are always plenty of things to do on San Juan Island!
We’d like to thank the San Juan Island Visitors Bureau & Lakedale Resort for providing us with support and accommodation during our time on San Juan Island. As always, all write-ups are an accurate reflection of the experiences we had. This post contains affiliate links, which simply means if you click on one of our links, we may receive a small fee, at no additional cost to you.