Thinking of a trip to the San Juan Islands in Washington?
It's an island vacation unlike any other. My 12-year-old son has visited a lot of great places like Paris, London, New York City, Orlando… He liked them all, but the San Juan Islands in Washington State rank highest on his list of favorite vacations.
My son is a nature lover. He would rather spot a whale or otter in the wild than see a famous landmark or wander a big museum any day. He also prefers the slower pace of a wild and remote destination like the San Juan Islands.
We have visited the San Juan Islands a couple of times. Once on a day trip from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. The next time, we spent four nights in the San Juan Islands – three on San Juan and one on Orcas. It wasn't enough.
Here are our favorite activities from our family vacation in the San Juan Islands, plus a few we would have done if we'd had more time.
Whale watching was our #1 priority in the San Juan Islands and we hit the jackpot on our last trip. We were lucky to see two pods of orcas meeting for the first time that year! We also spotted a minke whale and lots of sea lions and birds. It was an extraordinary day.
We have found that whale watching is a hit-and-miss adventure. Book your tour during peak whale season in the summer for best results. We booked our whale watching tour with San Juan Excursions at www.watchwhales.com.
You could get an even closer look at whales, sea lions, otters and other wildlife from a sea kayak. We took a half-day kayaking tour with Crystal Seas, and it was a lot of fun.
My son (then age 8), didn't trust the kayak when we paddled away from the perfectly calm waters of Snug Harbor. He was scared, so we turned around and spent the entire tour inside the harbor. We still had fun and learned a lot, but I recommend this activity for families with older kids.
San Juan Island National Historical Park
San Juan Island National Historical Park has two locations on opposite ends of San Juan Island. They are American Camp and English Camp.
This National Park preserves historic sites from the mid-1850's when both the United States and Great Britain claimed ownership of the San Juan Islands. The death of a pig nearly started a war here, but the matter was settled peacefully between the two camps.
San Juan Island National Historical Park is also a great place for hiking, tide pooling, spotting wildlife, stargazing and more. Kids can earn a souvenir Junior Ranger badge. There is no entrance fee for San Juan Island National Historical Park.
Related: 4 Ways to Save on National Park Fees
Lime Kiln Point State Park
We spent a morning at Lime Kiln Point State Park hiking, tide pooling and watching for whales. Lime Kiln has a lovely little lighthouse, which is a base for the scientists who study the whales that live and migrate just off the shore. You can see information about the latest sightings and ask questions.
Lime Kiln Point State Park also a great place for a picnic. We did not see whales in the two hours we spent here, but we really enjoyed spending time at this scenic state park.
Roche Harbor is a tiny village at the northern end of San Juan Island. It's as charming and as far away from the everyday cares of life as it could possibly be.
We ate lunch on the waterfront patio at Madrona Bar and Grill. Then we explored the shops, gardens and historic buildings nearby. If we return to San Juan Island, I would seriously consider booking something in at the Roche Harbor Resort – which has everything from small, historic hotel rooms with shared baths to 4-bedroom vacation homes.
Click the button below to see Roche Harbor Resort on TripAdvisor.
Moran State Park
Moran State Park on Orcas Island is the largest state park in the San Juans. Popular activities include hiking, bicycling, boating and camping.
Moran has more than a dozen hiking trails. Many visitors drive or hike to the top of Mt. Constitution for the view. It's the highest point in the San Juan Islands. This park also has two inland lakes for paddle boating and fishing. Rentals are available.
This park was on our wish list, but the ferry limited our time on Orcas Island. Be sure to plan your itinerary around the ferry schedule, and not the other way around.
Each of the San Juan Islands is small and relatively uncrowded. Bicycling is a great way to explore. Lopez Island is the smallest and flattest island for biking, so it's best for most visitors. Orcas Island is quite challenging, with bigger hills, narrow or no shoulders and heavier traffic on some roads.
You can rent regular and electric assist bicycles on San Juan Island, Lopez Island and Orcas Island. Get recommended bicycling routes and itineraries at www.visitsanjuans.com.
The San Juan Islands have miles of scenic beaches. However, they are not really sandy swimming beaches. The water will be chilly year-round.
Your kids may enjoy splashing in the water for a bit, but consider these other fun beach activities too. San Juan beaches are great places to find tide pools, watch for sea life, fly a kite, have a picnic, go kayaking, watch the sunset, dig in the sand or build forts with drift wood.
Farms in the San Juan Islands love visitors. There are many farm-to-table restaurants, farmers markets, vineyards, farm visit and farm stay opportunities.
We didn't have time to visit the lavender farm or the alpaca farm on San Juan Island, but enjoyed driving past these scenic locales and sampling some lavender shortbread cookies in Friday Harbor.
Visit the Farms page at www.visitsanjuans.com for more information.
Ride the Ferry
Taking the ferry to San Juan Island, Orcas Island or Lopez Island is half the fun. It's a long, scenic ride. We have seen orcas from the ferry on a day trip between Anacortes and Friday Harbor.
The ferry will have indoor seating with big windows and outdoor decks. Look for seating near an electrical outlet if you want to charge devices. Food and snacks will likely be available for sale. We have also seen a couple of arcade games. For most families, riding the ferry is a fun novelty.
You can drive on or walk on to Washington State Ferries. Make sure you plan your itinerary around the ferry schedule, not the other way around. If you drive on, consider reservations and arrive well in advance.
About the San Juan Islands
The San Juans are a group of islands in the northwest corner of Washington State. San Juan Island is the most populous island, and Friday Harbor is its largest city. It isn't actually large. All the islands have a remote, rural atmosphere.
The San Juan Islands can be reached by ferry or airplane. Some of the islands can only be reached by private boat, and that's how the residents like it.
Summer is the most popular time to visit the San Juan Islands. The weather is generally cool and clear in the summer. Off-season visitors will find discounted rates, light crowds and reduced services.
Most places you'll want to visit in Friday Harbor are within walking distance of the ferry. We drove our own car onto the ferry to explore San Juan and Orcas Islands. Rentals or a shuttle are also available. The San Juan Islands official website has a good list of all your transportation options.
Visiting the San Juan Islands is so much fun. You can pick an island and make it your home base for a relaxed, at-your-own-pace island vacation. Or, you can walk on the ferry for a day trip from Anacortes, Washington or Sidney, British Columbia. We have done it both ways.
No matter how you visit the San Juan Islands, there are lots of fun ways for families to fill their time. I hope this post has given you a few ideas that are a good fit for your family.