Category Archives: Washington

Orca Whale Kayaking Tour On San Juan Island

Orca Whale Kayaking Tour On San Juan Island
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Photo by Audrey Kirchner

Adventure Tourism: Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

San Juan Island is one of my favorite places on earth. I have been so blessed that every time we’ve gone to the island, we have been privileged to see my favorite of all wildlife – the magnificent Orca whales. To see them in their natural environment is breathtaking. 

That was the main reason for me signing up for a whale watching kayak tour on one extended visit to San Juan Island.

Adventure tourism doesn’t get any better than whale watching kayak tours.  It’s a great way to spend time on your vacation. 

In my humble opinion, it doesn’t get much better than the tours on San Juan Island.

Come with me on my personal adventure on the high seas and although my experience is in my typical activity-impaired fashion, let me be clear about the incredible adventure of these tours and the beauty for all to see on San Juan Island.

I have posted pictures as well of the Sea Quest Expeditions tour group.  I’m not sure what company we went through when we had our adventure years ago. However, these San Juan Islands Kayak tours are selected as a top 100 adventure!

Intex Challenger K1 Kayak
Amazon Price: $86.95
List Price: $146.99
Sevylor Fiji Travel Pack Kayak (Blue,2-Person)
Amazon Price: $106.99
List Price: $144.99

Kayaking Whale Watching Tour San Juan Island

As I mentioned, San Juan Island is one of my favorite places in all the
world. We have been there countless
times and have been fortunate to see the Orca whales in their natural habitat
every single time. However, our middle
son is legally blind and in my endeavors to always bring everything he can’t
see to him, I had one of my famous ‘brilliant’ ideas.

We were going on a camping trip as a family
to San Juan Island this particular summer and I had this dynamite idea that
just couldn’t miss. We would go on a
whale-watching tour by kayak and see if we could see the Orcas but this time
really, truly up close and personal. So
far I had failed at getting him to see them on a whale-watching boat tour, so I
truly needed to see if I could get this right – or so I thought.

I should point out at this point that I had never kayaked up to this point in my life. I asked Bob about
it and he said it was just like canoeing or row-boating so I figured how hard
could it be? I did some investigating
and began making calls to all the places that did kayak tours on San Juan
Island and once I’d figured out when and where, it seemed logical to book the

This of course was way before the
Internet and getting a birdseye view of something before you jump in with both

While I was talking to the tour company on the phone, I
asked a lot of questions because I wanted to find out first of all if it was
safe to do – even though Bob and I and our friend were certainly qualified as
adults – but my kids were high school age. I just needed to cover all the bases and make
sure I wasn’t leading them into a dangerous situation. Little did I realize it was myself I was

The fellow on the phone patiently answered all my questions
while giving me a lot of great information – how beautiful it was kayaking in
the Strait of Juan de Fuca, how many people had seen whales, how great it was
to be so up close and personal. I asked
repeatedly about my arms because I happen to have terrible ‘wear and tear’ syndrome on my
arms to the tune of carpal tunnel from my years as a transcriptionist.

I asked several times if I would have any
troubles at all rowing or paddling the kayak to which he answered emphatically
‘no’. It was something anyone could
do. (I should have known that the word
‘anyone’ precluded yours truly) He also
added that the best time to go was the evening cruise because that was when you
were most likely to see the whales. I
think he saw me coming a mile away.

When I told everyone about the added bonus outing to the
camping trip, needless to say, they were ecstatic. I was actually really looking forward to this
because I so love the Orca whales and the thought of seeing them so close was
just almost too much for me to comprehend. We ended up with 6 of us going – our 3 teenage children, Bob and I and a
friend of ours who had come with us on the camping trip.

The day of the trip dawned beautifully enough but by late
afternoon, the clouds had moved in and as my luck would have it, it started to
drizzle. Consequently, when we arrived
at the cove for the tour, we were all bundled in sweatshirts. Somehow the drizzle of the late afternoon
(about 5:00 p.m. or so) seemed amplified now that we were going out onto the

Our guide of course was young and svelt. Normally, I would look at this as a perk
because not only would I be getting a workout and be enjoying Mother Nature,
but I’d have eye candy to look at as well. (Hey – I’m old but I’m not dead)

I quickly changed my opinion though and decided this was not going to be a
trip that I’d be having a lot of time for ogling on. Mr. Buff quickly set about getting us paired
up and on this pairing, I have to wonder in retrospect the phrase “What was I thinking????”

Our middle boy may not be able to see but he is strong as the
proverbial ox. Our oldest boy was a
soccer star and in the prime shape of his life. Our daughter was a track star and again, in superb shape. Our friend is
older than Bob and has terrible arthritis in his hands so no help there; and then there’s Bob and I left.

As it turns out, our daughter Kate paired up
with our oldest son, Jon while Patrick got our friend Paul who took the back
seat and kindly gave Pat the front. (We
later learned that it was because he didn’t want Pat to know that he wasn’t
paddling – however, I have a feeling that Pat knew all along – but no worries there).

So who does that leave as the fearsome twosome – none other
than Bob and Audrey. About this time,
I’m really starting to get cold and looking out at the bay or cove that we were
in, I was beginning to think this was perhaps one of my stupidest ideas
yet. The instructor had assured me up
one side and down the other that people of ALL ages and capabilities could do
this but still that voice of ‘this is insane’ niggled at me.

Finally realizing that I was the only person
not in the kayak, I gave in and got in – thankfully without capsizing Bob.

Next came the tutorial on the capsize scenario (I have to
say that this kind of role playing does not enhance my eagerness to
participate). He basically told us to
spin around after we capsized and try to not drown under the kayak – very
reassuring – especially since I figured we had about 20 minutes tops before we
died of exposure in the water off San Juan Island.

Wow – with all that instruction, I could have kayaked around
the world! At this point, he told us the
plan – we would go out of the bay (darn) and into the Strait but we needed to
stay far enough away from the shore to avoid sharp rocks (again, I’m thrilled). We would go north along the west side of the
island to a certain point and then head back.

What he didn’t mention was that going up we were going against the
current. When we got out of the cove and
into the open water, it was like shoveling snow – it was that heavy to get the
oars up and out of the water and then rotate my wrist.

I had chosen to sit in the back of the kayak simply because
I didn’t want Bob to be sitting behind me making cracks. (I prefer to be the cracker) So off we went lickity split (more like
lickity stupid) as we discovered a very important moment in our married life
that day. We do not row well
together. Who knew?

Much as sometimes when we’re dancing, we cannot quite synchronize our steps because I think I’m trying to match the beat and lead, in this case, sort of the same thing happened. At least I
think that’s it. Instead of going straight as the other people in our party were doing, we were kayaking sideways.

As I said, we had been told that
we were going to this magical turnaround point (where I might add we would get
to partake of a really cool snack – live seaweed – Oh be still my heart!) It’s really not that bad – see the video below.

As I watched my children pull away from us
along with Mr. Buff, all easily cutting through the water like they’d been
kayaking their entire lives…..Bob and I began our sideways trek up the west
side of the island. I believe our ETA
was at least 15-30 minutes later than my kids’. They had eaten their fill of seaweed before we even got into port.

You Can Hear The Orcas Breathe

My pictures from shore next day

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Kayaking is Hard Work!

The trip was not all fun and games either. Bob was constantly turning around in the
kayak (as much as possible anyway) and asking me what the heck I was doing back

“Oh you know – doing my nails –
the usual. What do you THINK I’m doing
back here?”

I actually was soaked to the
skin before we left the cove because I was having a devil of a time with the
oars. Every time I put the oar thing
into the water and brought it through the water, when I lifted it, all the
water ran down the paddle/oar into my sweatshirt and by about 10 times of that,
I was soaked. The drizzle now felt like
icicles hitting my face, and I seriously was trying not to start crying. My wrists were killing me – some carpal
tunnel tour this was!!

As well, to put this into perspective, I suddenly became
very aware that we were in a HUGE body of water way far away from the shore –
and it was drizzling – and it was getting dark!! All hints of bravery long gone, I started to whine. “Why were we going crooked? When are we going to catch up with them? Why don’t you know how to paddle this thing?”

The only thing I couldn’t accuse him of was
not stopping and asking for directions. We could see the rats ahead of us parked at their
buffet of seaweed while we tried valiantly to get there.

Just before we approached the lunch counter, out of the
depths of the sea rose a great creature. A very huge head emerged right beside
our little ship in that massive sea. I
did what anyone else who had wanted a real wildlife experience would do – I
screamed – at the top of my bloody lungs.

I screamed so loud that Bob almost jumped out of the kayak. I honest to God thought we were going to die
right then and wondered how someone would find me at the bottom of the
Strait. Oh yeah, I had a life jacket on
so I’d probably float out to the Pacific where I’d be pecked to death by

Bob jerks around in the kayak of course almost capsizing us
to scream at me “What are you screaming for?” and all I could do was
point. I’m sure he was so excited that
he could barely contain himself when he followed the line to where I was
pointing – but alas it wasn’t a whale but a mere seal.

In my defense, when you are on the SAME LEVEL
pretty much (since your body is under water in the kayak – another thing I
wasn’t thrilled to learn) it looked really scary. I can’t help it if I thought it was some sea
monster or something. He was practically
looking me in the eye!

So after the lecture on how I should really stop screaming
because I’m giving him a heart attack (what about mine?), and my kids howling
hysterically as they watched their special ed parents try and ‘park’ the kayak
to get their meager bites of fresh seaweed, before I even had a chance to
recover, we were headed back. What about the recovery phase?

I have to
say though that I tried really, really hard to pick up the pace – I wanted out
of that blasted kayak so bad I could taste it. I no longer cared about the whales of San Juan Island. I no longer
even cared about having Patrick see them up close and personal. I vowed to buy him a video and be done with
this madness forever! Just get me outta

By now it is full on darkness – it is raining in earnest and
I am soaked to the skin. My arms are
aching and I can barely turn my wrist over. I finally quit paddling at all and pretended by making clunking sounds
on the side of the kayak sometimes if Bob acted like he was suspicious. Hey – if Patrick could row Paul all the way
up and back, I figured Bob could do it too, right?

I’m beginning to think about crying pretty
soon because I have this feeling that we are going to be out on the sea forever
and we are never going to get back in. I
was actually praying that no whales did come up because I have no doubt in my
mind that I would have had a bloody heart attack right there. At least though, I’d have been warm after the heart attack!

Finally the cove comes into view and tears of joy and relief
start to flow. All I can think of is
getting back to the campsite and going to take a $5 shower. I planned on
staying in there for a very long time. I
wanted out of the blasted kayak and I wanted out now.

We maneuvered the boat up to the shore and
Mr. Buff jumped out like he’d not done anything strenuous of course and pulled in his
kayak. I managed to throw myself out of
mine onto the shore and started to sprint for the van when I heard him yell
after me – ‘Hey – where are you going? You have to help carry the kayaks up – you can’t leave until
I’ve loaded them all.’

Again – I paid
for this outing from hell? Slowly I turned and stomped back to the kayak, glaring at
Bob the entire time. Why? If we didn’t have kids, would be probably be doing this? And I guess just
because! I was wet and cranky and I needed a hot shower not to mention
probably a hot toddy!

We hoisted up the
cursed kayak and muscled the stupid thing up the trail to where his kayak
trailer waited and I set my end down with a thunk.

Once in the car, I turned up the heat to full blast and
shivered myself to death on the way back to the campsite 30 minutes away.

All the way back though I have to say
everyone was recounting what a great trip it was and how awesome it was being out
on the sea and paddling against the current. Too bad I didn’t see this as a highlight of the day but rather looked at
the docking as the high point of my day.

Questions Answered

Whale Watching Kayak Tour on San Juan Island

I have to say it was a great experience once it was OVER in my case. I think I’d recommend that anyone thinking about this activity though do the smart thing and go during the day.

I’d also recommend being a silent nonparticipating passenger if you have any kind of arm or upper body issues – hook up with a good rower.

I also recommend reviewing techniques on what to do in a kayak such as safety precautions, rowing techniques, etc. Visit as a great website for tips on kayaking.

No matter what the folks on the tour tell you, this is a high risk activity and it is not for the weak-hearted. However, I think if I’d known more about what to expect, how to dress, and especially how to actually kayak appropriately, I would have done much better.

Also my advice – look out for seals. You can’t imagine how big their heads look if you are right next to them and on the same level – honestly! Anyone would have been scared!

If you are brave, I recommend the whale watching kayak tour. If you are a sissy like this old lady, I recommend going just south of Lime Kiln Point State Park and parking yourself on the wonderful expanse of rocks. Bring binoculars, a blanket or two, some food and just wait.

Every time I’ve gone to that place, I’ve seen the whales. As a matter of fact, after our whale watching kayak tour, we went to that spot several times over that weekend and saw the Orcas every time.

The problem for my family is getting me away from the spot because I will insist every time on staying there in case another pod happens by.

My whale pictures, though far away were all taken by me with a regular Nikon 35 mm camera pointed at the spots where I guessed they might emerge after they went under. I then clicked without looking the moment that they came up. I got lucky a few times.

Again, this was with regular film and way before digital cameras and my Flip video. (Thinking about the possibilities makes me think maybe I could do this tour again!)

All in all, you won’t find a more beautiful spot for a vacation than San Juan Island and you won’t find a more incredible moment in your life than spotting an Orca whale.

Even better, if you sit back and just listen, you can hear them breathe. It echoes in the stillness of the Strait and in that magical sound moment, you might think you have just glimpsed – or heard – a bit of heaven.

See the videos below for a real live up close and personal kayak whale watching tour of San Juan Island – incredible!

The photos above were taken by me as stated.

The photos below are from Sea Quest Expeditions. I obtained written permission from Martine Springer, Expedition Director to use for this hub.

These photos illustrate what it is possible to see on their wonderful whale watching kayak tours, and all kidding aside, it was a great adventure.

For more information, visit their website and book a tour for your next vacation adventure!

Photos courtesy Sea Quest Expeditions (via written permission)

See all 14 photos
What you can see
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Cliff fog off San Juan Island
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Pod passing by
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Eagles abound for salmon

Reasons to Sign Up for a Kayaking Tour

Sea Quest Expeditions is a great way to kayak in the San Juan islands – here are some of the reasons why they are so popular:

San Juan islands is a great killer whale zone and where most whale sightings occur in Washington and the Northwest although there are some unusual rare occurrences!
They are the lowest priced kayak tour in the Seattle area
Even if you don’t see the whales, you will see magnificent views of sea cliffs & lighthouses on the western side of the San Juan islands
You will see all different types of wildlife and bounty of the sea such as harbor seals, otters and bald eagles
This is the best route for kayaking with orca whales in the US with 85+ resident killer whales
There is abundant camping sites and hotels, resorts, private homes, and cabins to rent on the smaller, isolated islands and on San Juan Island – it is only a ferry trip away
They have conducted kayak tours in the San Juan Islands since 1989 and have a perfect safety record, the best trained guides, and the newest kayaks & paddling equipment

If I decide I want to do this again (and I’m seriously thinking about it now), I’m signing up with these folks!

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Friday Harbor San Juan Island –
Friday Harbor, WA, USA
[get directions]

Friday Harbor Ferry Stop – How you arrive on San Juan Island

Lime Kiln Point San Juan Island –
Lime Kiln Point State Park, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
[get directions]

State Park where you can see the whale pods passing by

Seattle Washington –
Seattle, WA, USA
[get directions]

Downtown Seattle for point of reference

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Kaying and Kelp Lunch

It Really Can Happen

Nikon COOLPIX AW100 16 MP CMOS Waterproof Digital Camera with GPS and Full HD 1080p Video (Orange)
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Kodak EasyShare Sport C123 12 MP Waterproof Digital Camera (Blue)
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Whale Watcher: A Global Guide to Watching Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises in the Wild
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Best Island Vacation In Washington On San Juan Island

Best Island Vacation In Washington On San Juan Island

The Seattle Puget Sound region of the country offers so many vacation
spots it’s hard to decide where to go and what to see first. However, if you want to experience the best vacation spot in the Seattle area, check out San Juan Island.

San Juan Island is one of the San Juan Islands located just west of Anacortes in the northern part of the state. There are more than 11 islands but the 11 largest are the ones most people talk about when speaking of the islands.

San Juan Island is only reachable by the Washington State Ferries system, private boat, charter boat, sea plane or plane but it is well worth the effort to take a
trip to this beautiful place.

San Juan is the second largest of
the San Juan Islands and the most populated but the other islands are well worth a vacation trip as well. San Juan Island offers unique recreational activities as well as many different tours.  There are also many other amenities for anyone to enjoy and if you’re looking for a relaxing and memorable vacation, a trip to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the ticket.

Let’s take a look at the island and the many things there are to do on San Juan Island.  We’ll also get a flavor of the other 10 larger islands as well just for future reference!

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Cruising to San Juan Island
Source: Audrey Kirchner
See all 15 photos
Boundaries of Pig War
Source: Wikipedia

San Juan Island History

San Juan Island was actually named after the expedition by Francisco de Eliza in 1791 but was named and renamed several times as several other explorers discovered and rediscovered it. The Spanish name finally became its permanent name as it was listed on the British charts as San Juan.

On San Juan Island, there are 2 abandoned military camps; the American Camp on the south side of the island and the English Camp on the north side of the island. These camps came to be as the result of the so-called Pig War.

There was a discrepancy in the English boundary for the San Juan Islands and the American version of that boundary. Tensions began to rise over the boundary and the 2 factions almost came to blows over it though the border dispute ended up being tabled while each country held its ground.

However, the incident came to a head when a US settler shot a pig that was raiding his garden. The pig happened to belong to the Hudson’s Bay Company and although the man offered to pay for the pig, this set off the infamous Pig War and lead to the establishment of the 2 camps in 1859.

Although there were the American and the English camps, nothing came of the conflict except a few skirmishes here and there (and the squabble over how much the pig was actually worth because he was of such good breeding stock). The British abandoned their camp in November 1872 while the Americans left theirs in July 1874.

The boundary was finally settled in October 1872 after the US and Britain signed the Treaty of Washington in 1871. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany ruled on the matter and decided in favor of the United States, establishing the boundary through Haro Strait. San Juan became an American territory and the boundary between Canada and the United States was set.

Now the American and English Camps are a US National Park, their history being that they were occupied for 12 years in the 1800s. The English Camp has formal gardens and is very well maintained while the American Camp at the south end of the island is beautifully open, more windswept and has more of a beach atmosphere.

Both camps have wonderful hiking trails and were designated national historic landmarks in 1961, listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966. Both are fascinating places to visit and ripe with history of the island. You can also occasionally find an archeological dig in progress as well.

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The San Juan Islands in the Distance
Source: Audrey Kirchner
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The San Juan Islands, Mark Gardner, Good Book
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Touring the Islands: Bicycling in the San Juan, Gulf, and Vancouver Islands, Pet
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Moon San Juan Islands : Including Victoria and the Southern Gulf Islands by…
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About the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are a group of many islands but 11 main islands make up most of what is known as the San Juan Islands.  Some of the tiniest of islands are named as well.

The San Juan Islands make up San Juan County which encompasses the very northwestern tip of Washington State. There are really 4 major islands that are vacation destinations, though you can visit the other islands by charter or private boat and some do have landing strips.

Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands at 147 square miles
San Juan Island is the second largest at 143 square miles
Lopez Island is the third largest and is roughly 29 square miles
Shaw Island is the smallest of the most traveled islands at almost 20 square miles

rest of the San Juan Islands can best be characterized as being mainly off the beaten track and not as popular when it comes to tourism, although some of these smaller, less traveled islands have their draw as

Stuart Island is generally reached only by charter or private boat and has no ferry service
Waldron Island is also reached by charter or by private boat and no ferry service
Island is part of an Indian reservation and has a small 22-car ferry that runs at scheduled times. It also has several bed and breakfast places, a cafe and a store
Cypress Island has no ferry service – it is a natural preserve but has 2 camping sites
Blakely Island likewise has no ferry service and is accessible also only by private boat
Island does have ferry service and a very rustic resort.  The population there is just over 500 and the island is mainly devoted to agriculture
Decatur Island is accessible only by boat or plane and boasts about 50 residents and a golf course

The Other Most Notable San Juan Islands

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Lopez Island Ferry Terminal –
Lopez Island, Lopez, WA, USA
[get directions]

Regular ferry service through Washington State Ferries system

Orcas Island Ferry Terminal –
Orcas Island, Orcas, WA 98280, USA
[get directions]

Regular ferry service through Washington State Ferries system

Lummi Island Ferry Terminal –
Lummi Island, WA, USA
[get directions]

Ferry service through Whatcom County Ferries system – 22 car ferry from dock on the Lummi Indian Reservation

Guemes Island Ferry Terminal –
Guemes Island, Anacortes, WA 98221, USA
[get directions]

Ferry service through Skagit County Ferries system from Anacortes

Shaw Island Ferry Terminal –
Shaw Island, Lopez, WA 98286, USA
[get directions]

Regular ferry services through Washington State Ferries system

Waldron Island –
Waldron island, Eastsound, WA 98245, USA
[get directions]

No ferry service – reachable by plane, private boat or charter

Stuart Island –
Stuart Island, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
[get directions]

No ferry service available – accessible by private boat, plane or charter

Cypress Island –
Cypress Island, Anacortes, WA 98221, USA
[get directions]

No ferry service available – limited development – accessible by boat or charter

Blakely Island WA –
Blakely Island, Olga, WA 98279, USA
[get directions]

No ferry service available – accessible by boat, plane or charter or 4-mile kayak trip

Decatur Island –
Decatur Island, Lopez Island, WA 98261, USA
[get directions]

No ferry service available – accessible by private boat or charter

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See all 15 photos
Ferry Sailing
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Getting There

In my opinion, getting to San Juan Island is half the fun. My entire family has always loved the fun of taking ferry rides and ferry rides in the Puget Sound region are some of the best around. The Washington State Ferries system is great about being on time and as many times as we’ve traveled on the ferries, we’ve never had any problem getting to and from our destination as planned.

That being said, it is important to note that the Washington State Ferries system advises that you arrive at the ferry dock and get in line one hour before the ferry is set to sail, especially in peak seasons such as summertime. We always took things like a Frisbee, balls, crafts or something to occupy the time while we were in line. Once you park your car in the ferry line, you can get out of the car and go inside to the terminal and eat, use the facilities, or just beach-comb while waiting for the ferry to dock.

I always look at the ferry ride as the prelude to my vacation or time away at the island. It’s a time to spend reflecting on what you want to do when you get to the island and it’s also a great time to start decompressing and lull yourself into ‘island time’ or relaxed mode.

Likewise, I’ve found the ferry ride itself to be very relaxing. The ferry from Anacortes is the usual ferry route to take to San Juan Island, although you can take an inter-land ferry from the other islands. You also can take a ferry from Sidney, British Columbia into Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.

The ferry trip from Anacortes is just over an hour but you won’t be bored. The views are spectacular and the pace so relaxed that you can’t help but be calm and serene when you reach the island. If you leave from Anacortes, your ticket is actually one-way but it includes your round trip passage back.

The Anacortes ferry terminal is about 80 miles from Seattle by way of I-5 or 405. Anacortes is a great little town to explore as well. There are multiple departures daily for San Juan Island and the place to check is Washington State Ferries.

A ferry ride isn’t the only way that you can get to the island though! You can fly in by booking with companies such as Kenmore Air, Northwest Sky Ferry or Westwind Aviation.

The Victoria Clipper also sails from downtown Seattle and is a great way to go. We traveled to Victoria, British Columbia on the Clipper and it was wonderfully relaxing with no worries about traffic or getting to the ferry terminal on time.

Amtrak also has passage available to Mt. Vernon which is the closest train station to Anacortes. You can arrange to take the train, grab a shuttle to the ferry terminal complete with tickets and off you go.

Even Greyhound Bus Lines goes from Seattle to Mt. Vernon. There, you can transfer to the Skagit Transit system and route yourself to the Anacortes ferry terminal.

For inter-island travel, there are also water taxis and charter planes or boats available for hire on the islands.

Last but not least, you can sail your own boat from just about anywhere and arrive at any of the island docks.

If you plan on seeing Canada as well (because they are just across the strait), make sure you travel with your passport. There is an international ferry and you can see 2 countries instead of one!

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Cabin at Lakedale
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Accommodations on San Juan Island

Accommodations on San Juan Island are a dream come true. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that it’s such a popular destination vacation spot. In peak seasons (from about May to September), it is recommended that you always have reservations booked ahead because it is sometimes tough to find ‘room at the inn’ even at the campgrounds as they can be booked up to months to a year in advance!

Luckily, though there are many ways to stay on San Juan Island and it’s simply a matter of finding what kind of accommodations most fit your budget and your lifestyle. You can go from the low end such as camping to the high end such as staying at Roche Harbor and other venues on San Juan Island or Rosario’s located on nearby Orcas Island.

Lakedale Campground is a great place to stay and they have just about every type of accommodation you can imagine available. Located on the east side of the island, we’ve camped at Lakedale Resort as well as spent many days at the 3 lakes contained on the property fishing and boating. The campsites are spacious and the shower facilities are wonderful.

Since we’ve been to Lakedale, they have also moved to the next level and now offer ‘glamping’ which is the latest rage in camping. Instead of using your own tents, you can rent a canvas tent that comes with a queen-sized bed and pull-out sofa sleeper along with other comforts of home such as more furniture!

There is also the Lodge which was rated as Best of Northwest Escapes in the Evening Magazine 2010 contest. You can also rent a 3-bedroom house if you have a large group coming and enjoy all the comforts of home with all the amenities.

We rented a cabin at Lakedale for my sister’s birthday and it was absolutely beautiful. It was right on the lake and had its own little veranda outside as well as a full kitchen, 2 separate bedrooms and baths and a pull-out in the living room. It was more than enough room for all of us and it was such a nice and cozy way to spend a weekend! The cabins are even dog friendly and they permit up to 2 dogs per cabin.

There is no restaurant on premises at Lakedale, however, so in-town is your best bet for dining out unless you have full cooking facilities such as in the cabins or the private house for rent. They do offer continental breakfasts though and in the cabins, you can have them delivered right to your door.

On our first trip to San Juan Island, we stayed at the Mar Vista Cabins which is on the west side of the island. It too had a full kitchen and 2 bedrooms with a pull-out in the living room. We stayed for a week and had a marvelous time being so close to the west side of the island where the Orcas most usually are seen. We also tried our hand at fishing though it was rather treacherous and would recommend sticking to the lake or a quieter beach! There was a marvelous path that went from the cabins right down to the beach and the week was one we’ll not soon forget.

Further up at the top of the island you will find Roche Harbor, which is a world unto itself. Roche Harbor is a sheltered harbor on the far northwest side of San Juan Island and is a beautiful resort. Roche Harbor even has its own small airport and the marina is a port of entry for pleasure boats. It is considered to be one of the best marinas in the Western United States.

Roche Harbor has all manner of accommodations from condos to the beautiful Hotel de Haro, which is the centerpiece of the resort. It was built in 1886, is listed on the National Register of Historical Sites, and is a must see even if you aren’t staying at the resort.  There are also cottages and units called Village Homes with fully equipped gourmet kitchens and lots of space for families.

For dining, check out McMillin’s, the Madrona Grill or the Lime Kiln Cafe all right at Roche Harbor. Again, worth a trip in just to have a snack, breakfast, lunch or dinner!

In addition to the above, there are countless B&B’s, private rental vacation homes on both sides of the island as well as mid island, and there are condos and suites available right at the ferry landing that are gorgeous and well appointed. You can pretty much stay anywhere your budget allows and find something that is topnotch and just what you need to enjoy your time on the island.

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Ferry Terminal Friday Harbor and a bit of downtown
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Shopping on San Juan Island

If you’re looking for chain stores, you won’t find any on the island. In fact, it’s always wise to think ahead as to what you need to bring though the island is not by any means lacking in places to buy supplies. You just won’t have as much variety probably as the island is a contained community and they can’t compete with large chain stores.

In town, there is a marvelous market with just about everything you could want or imagine called the Kings Market. That is usually where we do all of our shopping, even when we come over on a day trip. There are several other small markets and some markets on Orcas, Lopez and Shaw as well.

From May until October, check out the Farmer’s Market for the freshest in produce on San Juan Island as well as things like herbs, homemade goodies, etc. There is an herb farm outside of town on the island.

There are bakeries in town and you might want to stock up on goodies for a picnic or back at the campsite or cabin!

Many artists live on the San Juan Islands and all of the islands are famous for their wonderful artwork and crafts. There are plenty of little stores and shops to keep you busy for days browsing for those special mementos you want to take home.

We always leave San Juan Island with many whale mementos because we are all partial to the Orcas. You can buy things from tee shirts to carvings to artwork. A particular favorite of the kids on-island for a visit are the Orca whale stuffed animals. My daughter still has hers from a billion years ago.

You can buy toys and games at a couple of the local stores to keep the kids and yourself busy and you can also buy a kite to go fly on the beach.

There is also a pet store in town so if you have Fido with you and need supplies, you’re set.

Clothing and shoes are not a problem if you find yourself in need. There are plenty of stores in Friday Harbor to keep you outfitted for your trip.

Bookstores and video rental places are also abundant for such a small community. There is also one newspaper available called the San Juan Islander where you can read all the local news.

While San Juan Island is not a huge place and Friday Harbor is not exactly a metropolis, you’ll find all you could need in this little isolated vacation spot and not have to fight the crowds to do it.  

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Whale watching spot just south of Lime Kiln Point
Source: Audrey Kirchner

San Juan Island

show route and directionshide route and directions

Show driving directionswalking directionsbicycling directions with distances in mileskilometers

Friday Harbor Ferry Terminal –
Friday Harbor, WA, USA
[get directions]

Ferry service through Washington State Ferries system

Anacortes WA Ferry Terminal –
Ferry Terminal Rd, Anacortes, WA 98221, USA
[get directions]

Washington State Ferries system terminal

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See all 15 photos
Source: All pictures in collage by Audrey Kirchner

Things to Do on San Juan Island

There are so many things you can do on San Juan Island, it’s hard to list them all but I’ll give you some ideas.

Whale Watching

I only mention this first because it is one of the main reasons people flock to San Juan Island and why it is one of the most popular spots among the islands. San Juan Island is home to 3 pods of Orca and minke whales. They usually can predictably be seen with great regularity on the west side of San Juan Island from May through September.

You can view the whales many different ways. You can go out on guided boat tours that are available right in Friday Harbor or on one of the other islands or you can go out on a kayak tour. People go out in their own private boats and kayaks as well. Just have a care as I know from experience that a sea lion can look like a giant sea monster up close and not sure how I’d react if I had actually seen a whale while I was kayaking.

You can also take air tours and see the pods from an aerial perspective. There is also a wonderful park called Lime Kiln Point on the west side of the island which offers the best viewing of the Orcas, though my family and I discovered a place just south of that on a rocky outcrop and that is where we’ve gone for years to see our ‘friends’.

Wherever you go to see the Orcas, it is a life-changing experience. I think the combination of their beauty and magic is enhanced by the wide open strait that you see them in and if I think really hard, I can almost bring back that sound of their breathing into the ocean. It is mystical.

Some tours will even give you a coupon to return on another day if you didn’t get to see the whales! Make sure though that you read up on the protocol for whale watching as it has been documented that noise and activity does stress dolphins and whales.


There are several museums on the island and most notable is the Whale Museum. You can even adopt a whale here which we have done. It is chock full of information and exhibits and is a bargain to go visit.

There are also the great exhibits at the American Camp and the English Camp on the southern and northern ends of the islands respectively.


Although Mt. Constitution is the highest of the mountains on the San Juan Islands (located on Orcas Island), Mt. Young is a climb! We’ve taken that hike and it is well worth it for the gorgeous view from the top looking out over the islands.

As well as Mt. Young, you can hike on beautiful trails all over the island but some of the most notable are part of the American Camp and the English Camp. The American Camp trails will lead you down to a beautiful sandy beach where in nice warm weather, you can swim and then sit on the beach and just admire all that beauty.


Bicycling is a huge favorite on all the San Juan Islands because of the slow pace. You can rent bikes on any of the islands and go for hours on roads that take you through some of the most beautiful countryside around. You’ll see bald eagles swooping into freshly cut hay fields and you’ll see cows lazily ambling over to the fence to stare at you.  There is no end to the beauty on this island and the others.

Camping on San Juan Island, we’ve met lots of people who were doing biking tours of the San Juans and take several weeks to see everything. It’s a great way to see the islands.


Kayaking is a huge activity in the San Juan Islands. You can rent kayaks if you didn’t bring your own and if you need to rent them, you can get lessons and then go on tours to see the whales or just kayak between several of the islands. It’s a beautiful part of the country to see by kayak and the whale sightings are breathtaking.

Scuba Diving and Snorkeling

This is another super popular activity on the islands. The water off San Juan Island is roughly about 40-45 degrees so it is advised that you take precautions when diving around the islands when snorkeling or scuba diving and always dive with a partner.

San Juan Island has incredible underwater caves and reefs to explore and also boasts its resident The Pacific who is the World’s Largest Octopus!


Even in inclement weather (which usually is very short-lived on San Juan Island), the camping is a great experience. We’ve camped several times on San Juan and loved it. The nights are not too cold and the days are just perfect, usually hovering in the 70s to 80 degrees. There are many sites spread over the islands but our favorite has always been Lakedale Campground.

You can purchase camping equipment on the island as it is a very popular pastime on the islands but best to bring your own and have reservations if you plan on camping out. RV camping is also very popular on the island but again, reservations are always recommended.


You can pretty much do any kind of fishing you’d like on San Juan Island, from fishing on the beaches as we did while the salmon are running to fishing in the lakes that are on the island.

You can also go out on fishing tours or charters and learn all about fishing and most likely, you’ll be assured of catching something that way.


For the folks that just can’t get enough of golf, San Juan Island even has a golf course and a beautiful one at that. It’s a 9-hole links style golf course that is set in the beauty that is San Juan Island. It doesn’t get much better than this! It has a new clubhouse and is a great way to spend a few hours on a sunny day.

Tennis and Picnics

There are tennis courts for public use at the high school and there are lots of great areas for picnics throughout the island. Some of the best are at Lakedale and some are at the local parks and beaches such as Cattle Point, Jackson Beach, Sportsman Lake and Eagle Cove Beach.

Movies and Performing Arts

San Juan Island even has its own movie theater. The Royal is a double screen theater.

The San Juan Community Theatre is the performing arts center for the island.

Many bars also have entertainment or karaoke.

Photography and Wildlife Viewing

The Orca whales are by far the most talked about wildlife on San Juan Island and even some of the other islands because occasionally they do make an appearance there. The San Juan Islands have the K pod of Orcas which has roughly 17 whales and they also have the L pod which boasts about 50 or so. There are at least 15 minke whales that are resident to the area and gray whales are also known to pass through.

Bald eagles are in great supply in San Juan County and in fact, there are estimated to be 89 pairs of them always in residence in the county, making it the most bald eagle populated county in the state. The state of Washington is also known for having the most bald eagles in the 48 states.

Besides Orcas and eagles, on any given day, you’ll see blue herons, rabbits, red foxes, deer, wild turkeys, golden eagles, ospreys, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans and more. There are dozens of species of birds all over the islands.  Out to sea, you’ll see seals, porpoises, sea lions and otters.

San Juan Island is a photographer’s paradise and a bird watcher’s dream come true. Don’t forget your binoculars, your cameras, and your wildlife guides!

Tours and Events

Check on line if you are looking to do special events or bike tours. REI for instance has a great whale watching, kayaking, hiking and biking tour that you won’t want to miss. The San Juan Islands are such a popular vacation/recreation spot that there are always special events springing up that are great to participate in while seeing one of the most beautiful scenery in the Northwest.

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More downtown Friday Harbor
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Services on San Juan Island

Dining and Food Services

You won’t go hungry on San Juan Island! Friday Harbor House is a great place to eat right in the heart of downtown Friday Harbor and The Place Bar and Grill.

Duck Soup Inn is a favorite of anyone who has ever eaten there and also a favorite of locals. The Front Street Cafe is a great stop-in experience and the Front Street Ale House is one of our favorites. There are many places to eat such as the restaurants at Roche Harbor and in-town.  For a quick fix, try the San Juan Donut Shop or Felicitations Bakery.

There are coffee shops and Internet cafes to choose from. There are Italian and Mexican restaurants if that suits your fancy. There are pizza and sub places if you’re thinking quick and easy and there are delicious seafood choices.

For an island, there are a tremendous number of dining and food services to please even the most discriminating palate!

Spa Services

If a spa date is what you think of when you think of vacation, while you’re enjoying the beauty that is San Juan Island, you will get your wish! The Afterglow Spa at Roche Harbor offers full spa services and there are also other local spas to meet your needs.

Lavendera Day Spa and Spa D Bune can be found in Friday Harbor and for something out of the ordinary, check out Earthbox Motel and Spa. This is where spa meets a quirky San Juan Islands Hotel. You can lounge in their heated indoor pool year round, book spa services, and schedule moped rentals, do yoga, and sign up for wildlife tours or sea kayaking. Kind of a multipurpose spa and hotel!

Pet Services

If you’ve brought Fido with you on your jaunt to San Juan Island, make sure that the accommodations are pet friendly, though many are on the island, including Earthbox. You can even take your well-mannered pet on the bus with you on San Juan Island. There are also many pet-friendly restaurants and cafes in town. Just always remember to check first.

If not, you can kennel man’s best friend at several of the local boarding facilities or dog sitting facilities such as Downtown Dog with its Bow Wow Bus (carrying dogs to a field on the other side of the island for a good romp). Or check out the Animal Inn which offers boarding including day boarding, grooming and medical care. Also for vet services, Islands Veterinary Clinic is a great place to take your pet.

Medical Services

You can obtain medical services (emergency or non-emergency) at the Inter Island Medical Center on San Juan Island and there is Air Flight service available to the nearest hospital which is in Anacortes.

There are also medical facilities available on Lopez and Orcas Islands.

Worship Services

There are churches of many faiths on San Juan Island from Baptist to Catholic to Jehovah’s Witness. Check the link above for listings and phone numbers.

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Source: All pictures in collage by Audrey Kirchner
See all 15 photos
Source: Audrey Kirchner
See all 15 photos
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Weather on San Juan Island

The San Juan Islands are part of the greater Seattle environs though
the San Juan Islands just like Whidbey Island, Sequim and
Port Townsend, Washington all enjoy this remarkable little enhancement to
their weather called a rain shadow.

You can bet on these
statistics while the folks in Seattle and surrounding area are
complaining about the rain.  The San Juan Islands have roughly twice as
many sunny days as Seattle and about half the amount of rainfall!

makes San Juan Islands an incredibly lucrative place to go on vacation just about any time of the year to get away from the constant rain if
you happen not to enjoy it and especially if you live in the Seattle area.

Daytime temperatures are usually in the 70s in the summertime and goes down to the 40s in the wintertime.

the San Juan Islands have been known to be hit by a couple of
incredible storms such as in 1996 where it snowed so bad that travelers
were stuck on the island, most often you can count on the San Juan
weather to be just what you need to enjoy a great vacation, that being warm and

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Orcas Hotel
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Things to Do Off San Juan Island

If you get a hankering to check out the other islands, great trips are adventures on Orcas, Lopez and Shaw islands.

Or you can charter a boat or plane trip to the other islands and do a bit of island hopping to see all that is out there to see.

No matter where you go on the islands though, you can’t help but enjoy the beauty of your surroundings and the peace and quiet of island life.

Orcas and the other 2 islands are very well known for their camping sites and also are popular spots for biking and hiking. Each of these 3 other islands has much to offer and are as wonderful to visit as San Juan Island.  

Many local artists have shops and things for sale on these other islands as well so it is well worth a jaunt to one of the other islands for at least a day trip.

There are also great places to eat on these islands and great places to stay like the Orcas Hotel and the Rosario Resort. 

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Sunset after a beautiful day
Source: Audrey Kirchner

Best Island Destination Vacation in Washington – San Juan Island

San Juan Island is a magical vacation destination. You won’t ever see the same thing twice and you’ll always feel like you had a truly relaxing and wonderfully peaceful vacation.

Some people like to stay at many places and see a lot of things when they go on vacation while many other people like to go to one place and just stay there for the duration of their vacation.

Whatever kind of vacation traveler you are, you won’t be disappointed in this fantastic part of the great Pacific Northwest. Whether you are looking for a quiet peaceful spot to spend a week or a weekend, or you’re looking to do a tour of Canada and a bit of the Pacific Northwest and you don’t mind picking up and moving every day, this is the spot you’ll want to visit. There is nothing quite like the San Juan Islands and San Juan Island has it all.

We have taken many day trips to San Juan Island and would do it in a heartbeat. Our drive was a bit further because we lived 45 minutes south of Seattle so we had a several hour drive, then a 1-hour ferry ride before we arrived on the island. We’ve taken everyone who has ever visited us to see the island and the Orcas because it is one of those experiences you just never forget!

Wishing you a wonderful trip to one of the most wonderful places the Northwest has to offer and hoping with all my heart you get to see my favorite creatures – the Orca whales!

See all 15 photos
Source: All pictures in collage by Audrey Kirchner

Tour of the San Juan Islands

Sailing the San Juan Islands

Orcas in the San Juans

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