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The San Juan Islands Travel Guide

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  • Photo: Don Fink / Shutterstock

Plan Your San Juan Islands Vacation

The waters of the Pacific Northwest’s Salish Sea, between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island, contain hundreds of islands, some little more than rocky reefs, others rising to nearly 2,500 feet. Among these, the San Juans are considered by many to be the loveliest.

About 100 miles northwest of Seattle, these romantic islands abound with breathtaking rolling pastures, rocky shorelines,

and thickly forested ridges, and their quaint villages draw art lovers, foodies, and city folk seeking serenity. Inns are easygoing and well-appointed, and many restaurants are helmed by highly talented chefs emphasizing local ingredients.

Each of the San Juans maintains a distinct character, though all share in the archipelago's blessings of serene farmlands, unspoiled coves, blue-green or gray tidal waters, and radiant light. Offshore, seals haul out on sandbanks and orcas patrol the deep channels. Since the late 1990s, gray whales have begun to summer here, instead of heading north to their arctic breeding grounds; you may see the occasional minke or humpback whale frolicking in the kelp.

There are 176 named islands in the archipelago. Sixty are populated (though most have only a house or two), and 10 are state marine parks, some of which are accessible only to kayakers navigating the Cascadia Marine Trail.

The San Juan Islands have valleys and mountains where eagles soar, and forests and leafy glens where the tiny island deer browse. Even a species of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia fragilis) grows here. Beaches can be of sand or shingle (covered in small pebbles). The islands are home to ducks and swans, herons and hawks, otters and whales. The main draw is the great outdoors, but there's plenty to do once you've seen the whales or hiked. Each island, even tiny Lopez, has at least one commercial center, where you'll find shops, restaurants, and history museums. Not surprisingly, many artists take inspiration from the dramatic surroundings, and each island has a collection of galleries; Friday Harbor even has an impressive sculpture park and art museum. Lavender and alpaca farms, spas and yoga studios, whale museums and lighthouse tours—the San Juans have a little bit of everything.

Ferries stop at the four largest islands: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. Others, many privately owned, can be reached by water taxi from Bellingham and Port Townsend. Seaplanes regularly splash down near the public waterfronts and resort bays around San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez, while charters touch down in private waters away from the crowds.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. Whale watch Spot whales and other marine life from a tour boat or sea kayak.
  2. Taste local flavors Talented chefs have turned Orcas and San Juan Islands into hot spots for sophisticated, locavore-driven cuisine.
  3. Gallery hop Dozens of acclaimed artists live year-round or seasonally in the San Juans, and you can find their work in studio galleries and group cooperatives throughout the islands.
  4. Indulge in a spa day Work out the kayaking or hiking kinks with a massage at the lovely seaside Rosario Resort and Spa on Orcas Island.
  5. Bike beautiful terrain Rent a bike and cycle the scenic, sloping country roads—Lopez Island has the gentlest terrain for this activity.

When To Go

When to Go

This part of Washington has a mild, maritime climate. Winter temperatures average in the low 40s, while summer temps hover in the mid 70s. July...

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Check historic weather for your trip dates:

Travel Tips

The San Juan Islands Travel Tips

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