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The San Juan Islands Travel Guide

Places To Explore In The San Juan Islands

The coastal waters of the Pacific Northwest, between mainland Washington and Vancouver Island, contain hundreds of islands, some little more than sandbars, others rising 3,000 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.

Seattleites often escape to the San Juans in the course of a soggy, gray Northwest winter. 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), but all are scenic and invite beachcombers and kayakers to explore them. The islands are visited by 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 commuter ferries from Bellingham and Port Townsend. Seaplanes owned by local airlines 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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