What Is There to Do in the San Juan Islands?
Our Top Ten Highlights in the San Juan Islands.
The San Juan Islands offer an opportunity to disconnect from your busy everyday life in small island towns, with delicious local food options, and with abundant outdoor activities. Surrounded by the glistening waters of the Salish Sea – the San Juan Islands are well-stocked with wildlife encounters, wine tastings, and plenty of photo opportunities and breathtaking views. Four of the islands offer regular ferry boat service for travelers (San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw Islands) – let’s check out your options on those four San Juan Islands:
- Bike the San Juan Islands
- Wine, Beer, and Cider Tastings
- Visit Lime Kiln State Park
- Hike a National Historic Park
- Sea Kayak on the Salish Sea
- Hike an Island Mountain
- Explore an Island Village
- Watch for Whales
- Go Sailing
- Book a Private Day Trip with Evergreen Escapes!
1. Bike the San Juan Islands
It doesn’t take much to make riding a bike fun – and most of us can do it! An open country road, rolling island fields, soaring coastal eagles, and the option to point the bars up a mountain mean we’re hauling our bikes (or renting one in the islands) every time we make the trip! If you’re a pro at cycling and love exploring new places – add the San Juan Islands to your bucket list; there are some grueling hills which make for the perfect country workout. If you don’t cycle that often, there are infinite gentle terrain options to ride along the water and through fields and forests (which means you can bring the little ones, too!). Looking for a longer cycling tour with bikes and gear included? Consider booking a guide service like Bicycle Adventures and their 6-day tour of the islands.
2. Wine, Beer, and Cider Tastings
You have lovely options for sipping and sampling: home to a good portion of the Puget Sound American Viticultural Area (AVA) – the San Juan Islands host a small-but-potent wine scene! San Juan Vineyards is an award-winning haven sitting on 30-acres and offering flavorful wines, a historic schoolhouse tasting room, and a quaint chapel; Madeleine Angevine and Siegerrebe grapes are grown on-site. Looking for a nice Riesling with serious bucolic cred? Check out the Orcas Island Winery tasting room (a barn vibe with outdoor seating!).
Prefer hops to grapes? Island Hoppin’ Brewery on Orcas Island or San Juan Island Brewing Company on San Juan Island are great places to start! Want to get even more micro? On a less-inhabited island? Track down Lopez Island Brewing for a pint!
If spirits and ciders are your jam, you won’t want to miss Roche Harbor’s (on the northern end of San Juan Island) San Juan Island Distillery & Westcott Bay Cider. Colorful local ingredients (think Thimbleberry, Madrone bark, and Salal berries) take your local tasting experiences to the next level.
3. Visit Lime Kiln State Park
Featuring an iconic lighthouse and trails along the rocky coast, Lime Kiln Point State Park is one of the most-recognized places in the world for whale watching from dry land. An Orca education center, picnic tables, and views of the mountains in Olympic National Park mean we’re bringing binoculars and a picnic basket and staying for a while.
4. Hike a National Historic Park
The little-known Pig War of 1859 pitted expanding American and English nations against one another for control of the islands north and west of the Washington mainland. After initial sorties, the two militaries retired to fortified camps on opposite sides of the island for years. Appropriately named ‘American Camp’ and ‘English Camp’ National Historic Parks preserve the period landscapes, buildings, and history for visitors.
5. Sea Kayak on the Salish Sea
For adventure enthusiasts, kayaking around San Juan Islands is a must. Choose to join a tour or try renting a tandem kayak and explore all the best spots on the island. If you keep your eyes peeled, you might get up-close-and-personal with Orcas, seals, Black Oystercatchers, cormorants, sea stars, and more!
6. Hike an Island Mountain
There is no shortage of hiking in the island archipelago – and there are a few good options for really gaining some altitude with big payoffs from lofty vantage points. The obvious place to start is Mount Constitution in Moran State Park on Orcas Island. At 2,409′ high – Constitution is the highest point in the San Juan Island archipelago. Try Mount Constitution from Mountain Lake for a solid 6.7 mile round-trip hike with 1,500′ of elevation gain.
Your author loves the Turtleback Mountain hike near the Crow Valley (west side of Orcas Island) as it seems to get less traffic than Moran State Park does. Try the North trailhead (a small parking lot there), stop for a quick view from the Waldron overlook (a little overgrown but beautiful), and continue on to Turtleback (1,005′) for great views of the islands.
7. Explore an Island Village
There are great hamlets to explore on each ferry-served island (aside from tiny Shaw Island). On San Juan Island, walk Friday Harbor – the biggest little town in the islands – or stroll the tiny weekend summer market in Roche Harbor. On Orcas Island, Eastsound (and Brown Bear Bakery!) and the micro-village at Doe Bay are your best bets. Lopez Island Village (on Lopez Island, duh!) has some great restaurants and a lovely book store. Shaw Island is essentially without a town – seek it for the most pastoral and quiet trip; bring your bike and pick up picnic supplies from the market at the ferry landing before heading to Shaw County Park for a shoreline lunch.
8. Watch for Whales
This one is higher up on most traveler lists – but it’s a bit of a complicated environmental issue for us. We certainly understand the desire to get close to magnificent Orcas (killer whales), gray whales, seals, sea lions, and more! However, mounting scientific research tells us that standard wildlife watching boats might get too close and may be too noisy to go unnoticed by the species they study. Additionally, ballooning human populations are likely increasing pollutant levels in Northwestern waters which may be causing an extinction event for the southern resident Orca pods (families).
If you’re looking for a way to protect the remaining endangered Orcas – consider skipping the whale watching boat, visit the Whale Museum, take your binos to a good vantage point and watch from land, or donate time or money to a whale research or protection group like The Center for Whale Research, Save Our Wild Salmon, and the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. For more tips on sustaining wildlife in the Puget Sound, check out the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau article ‘How You Can Help the Southern Resident Orcas‘.
9. Go Sailing
Though your blog author isn’t a sailor – there are lots of folks in the islands that get out every chance they get. You can take a lesson, rent a boat, or join a day trip from several of the bigger towns in the islands.
10. Join Evergreen Escapes on a Private Day Tour to the San Juan Islands!
Of course we love this idea – join one of our guides on a full-day private trip exploring San Juan or Orcas Island! If you like, top off a special day with a Kenmore Air sea plane flight back to downtown Seattle in time for dinner.