Various Places in the Islands - in Outline Format
There are some 220 islands in the San Juan Islands, but only about 180 of them carry names. There are several dozen tiny communities scattered through the Islands, plus state parks, and a national park that is divided into two segments.
Considering all this, it seemed best to try to provide an outline of all the communities and a basic idea of the arrangements:
The San Juan Islands:
+ San Juan Island is the most populated of these islands, and is also the furthest west that is easily accessible.
+ + Friday Harbor is the most populated of the communities on the island, and in fact is the only incorporated city anywhere on the islands. It faces east, towards the mainland and has a ferry terminal. This is where many of the whale watch trips depart.
+ + Lime Kiln State Park is tiny but famous for whale sightings. It is on the west side of the island, facing Canada.
+ + San Juan Island National Historical Park is the remains of the old military dispute about who owned the islands. There are two sections: American Camp and English Camp.
+ + Roche Harbor was once a center of the lime mining industry on San Juan Island. Today it is an attractive resort community.
+ Orcas Island is the recreational soul of the islands, and is nearly as large as San Juan Island. However, it doesn't have as large a population.
+ + The tiny community of Orcas is where the ferry terminal is. There are two hotels, two restaurants, a small grocery store, and a shop that also rents cars, mopeds and bicycles. Other than these, there isn't too much to this community.
+ + Eastsound is the community that is closest to a city on Orcas Island. There is a large grocery store here, plus several places to stay, a number of restaurants, and even streets laid out in an actual street grid.
+ + Moran State Park was created when a wealthy ship builder contributed land to form the park. It contains the highest point in the San Juan Islands. Mount Constitution is the highest point in the San Juan Islands and offers spectacular views in almost all directions.
+ + Rosario was a private retreat built by the same wealthy ship builder. Today it has been turned into a resort community. Some things are open to the public without being a guest.
The Nearby Places:
In addition to all these separate locations, there are some things that are relevant to all of the San Juan Islands, or at leas the major ones. These are the tips that I have written elsewhere on the San Juan Islands pages, but include such things as:
+ Several tips on getting to and from the islands, including By Water (float plane or boat) and Transit as well as Airporter Bus.
+ Several tips on getting around in the islands, including Seasonal Bus Service and Interisland Ferry.
There are also places to see on your way to the San Juan Islands, depending on what direction and how you are arriving here:
+ Anacortes is the town with the main ferry terminal where most people coming to the islands get on the ferry to come here. It's a pleasant small town and has a few attractions of its own.
+ Deception Pass State Park is just south of Anacortes and is an extremely scenic place.
+ Port Townsend is an attractive city with a downtown mostly dating from the 1880s to 1910s. If you are not driving to the islands, there is a walk-on boat service that connects Port Townsend to Friday Harbor during the summer season. By bus, there are several options for getting from Seattle to Port Townsend. Another option would be if you are driving the Olympic Peninsula route you could park your car at the park and ride lot south of Port Townsend and spend a day at Friday Harbor and San Juan Island by taking this boat to Friday Harbor and getting around on San Juan Island by seasonal bus service.
Over the Border:
Once a day during the spring and fall, and twice a day during summer (but generally never during the winter) Washington State Ferries operates a service extending from Anacortes to Friday Harbor and then to Sidney, British Columbia. Sidney itself is on the far north end of the peninsula north of Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Regular bus service that connects Sidney to Victoria is available there, and the closest big tourist attraction to Sidney is the famous Buchardt Gardens. However, due to the ferry schedule if you plan an outing across the border by ferry you should plan on it being an overnight trip.
The State Parks on the Islands
There are quite a number of state parks on the San Juan Islands. Only a few of these are accessible by auto. The rest require the use of a water taxi boat service (generally fairly expensive), or your own watercraft, in order to get to them. If you do drive to any of the state parks, keep in mind that they require the use of a Discover Pass or a day use pass. The Discover Pass is by far the better deal as it is $30 for a year.
The two most popular State Parks in the San Juan Islands are:
Lime Kiln Point Stat Park - this is a very small park, but it is popular due to its location on Haro Strait, and the resident Orca Whale population that sometimes passes by. There are also the remains of the old Lime Kilns and mines here. See my Lime Kiln Point State Park page as the park has its own entry as a location in the VirtualTourist database.
Moran State Park - this park includes the highest point in the San Juan Islands, and over 30 miles of trails. See my Moran State Park page as the park has a number of features and its own entry as a destination on the VirtualTourist database.
An additional state park is located at Spencer Spit on Lopez Island. It is much less often visited than the other two.
The various state parks located on islands that can only be reached by boat, kayak or airplane include:
Stuart Island State Park: this is the farthest northwest island before the Canadian border, an is reasonably good sized. There is a small air strip on the island for serving the needs of the few residents as not all of the island is a state park.
Jones Island State Park: this is located just west of Orcas Island, and is a fairly tiny park.
Patos Island State Park
Sucia Island State Park
Matia Island State Park, and
Clark Island State Park: These islands are north of Orcas Island, and there are water taxis (which are quite expensive) that go to them out of the North Beach area of Orcas Island.
Turn Island State Park: located just east of the farthest east reaches of San Juan Island, this is a tiny park that is really best accessed by kayak for San Juan Island.
James Island State Park: just east of Decatur Island, this is about as far east as the state parks can go and still be in the San Juan Islands.
Doe Island State Park: located just off the coast of Orcas Island, this tiny park is best reached by kayak from Orcas Island.
Posey Island State Park: located just off the northwest corner of San Juan Island, this is best reached by boat from Roche Harbor.
- Road Trip
- National/State Park
- Hiking and Walking
Public Postings: Where to Find Out about Events
Finding things to do in the San Juan Islands can be an interesting experience, and not necessarily easy for those who are used to finding out about everything online.
Here in the San Juan Islands, news tends to travel along traditional routes.
If you want to find out what is going on around the islands, check the local bulletin boards. In the main photo from this tip, you will see the densely packed bulletin board of people, events, service, and other items posted on the public bulletin board at the corner of the hardware store (there is only one) in Friday Harbor. However, various other public posting locations are available. This includes store windows, hidden corner spots in restaurants, and dozens of other locations.
Available in hotel lobbies, as well as public literature racks on the ferries and in various other locations, you will find freely available travel guides. These include the San Juanderer and the Springtide (see photo 2). These are published by local newspapers, with the San Juanderer coming from the Anacortes American and the Springtide coming from the Journal of the San Juan Islands. Of the two guides, I have a slight preference for the Springtide as it is a slightly larger publication and has a map in the centerfold. Each of the ferry served islands has its own segment in this guide, and certain activities are given special sections. Towards the rear of the publication there is a community calendar, again split out by island, of the various events. Anacortes has a chapter in the publication as well.
The San Juanderer is slightly smaller (28 pages as opposed to 44) and naturally has somewhat less information in it. However, it is still useful, and it does have a bit more about Anacortes and surrounding attractions in it. It has a good introduction to each area.
I would grab a copy of each considering each has their strengths, but if only one of the two must be chosen I would take the Springtide.
Free tourist maps are also available of San Juan Island and Orcas Island in hotels and a number of other locations. (see photo 3). As with most free tourist maps, the maps are full of advertisements, but they are also very useful for finding things in the various communities on the islands. The San Juan Island map includes both a map of San Juan Island and a detail map of the streets in Friday Harbor. The Orcas Island map has details of Eastsound, and a small graphic illustrating the several streets in Deer Harbor.
The frustrating thing is that there is no general clearinghouse of central information. No one public bulletin board location seems to outshine the rest as being a central location of events. Restaurant employees or the San Juan Transit bus drivers or some of the hotel employees are also good sources of information about what is going on around the islands, but generally their knowledge only goes as far as the island on which they live.
Kayak Trips: Dozens are Available
There are perhaps a dozen different places offering kayak trips in Friday Harbor alone. Pretty much all of the other communities of any significance, even as small as they are, have at least one kayak tour operator. As I was staying in Friday Harbor I went with Discovery Sea Kayaks, which operates a sunset kayak trip on the west side of San Juan Island.
However, there are dozens of different operators, so just because I had a great trip with these people doesn't mean that you won't have a good time with someone else.
Also, as living on the islands has become extremely expensive, many of those that work in the kayak shops have trouble. So, there is a lot of staff turnover and many of them are only here for the summer anyway since the colder months experience vastly fewer visitors. Thus, due to staff turnover, a good experience or bad experience with one company doesn't mean a thing as a general rule for the next year.
You will find kayak tours listed in just about any of the tourist publications for the San Juan Islands. They are everywhere. However, I have listed my experience under the Friday Harbor section of this web site, so please see my Discovery Sea Kayaks tip in Friday Harbor if you want to read that one.
I was somewhat lucky: as a single traveler, I was put in a two person kayak with one of their guides, and so I got a lot of extra encouragement.
Free Sunset Cruise?
Washington State Ferries is in fact supposed to be transportation. Due to the nature of the fare system, it is easier of they don't charge people when they travel from one island to another, and instead simply charge everyone when going westward out of Anacortes.
Cars and other vehicles are heavy and take a lot of space. Those are charged from one island to another, but walk on passengers are different. It is much cheaper to just simply not charge anyone than try to maintain a series of fare selling booths at each island.
This means that as a walk on passenger you can travel between islands free of charge.
It also means that you can take the boat as a recreational trip free of charge, get off whenever you feel the need, and get back on when you want to return to whatever island you started from.
The Washington State Ferries really is both "Transportation" and something that can be treated as a "thing to do".
Friday Harbor has the most restaurants within walking distance of the ferry terminal. The little community of Orcas Village on Orcas Island only has a few places (perhaps two or three). Lopez and Shaw have next to nothing at their ferry terminals.
Therefore, if you are starting on one island and wanting to make an excursion to another on the boat, you need to take into account what is available at the other end. Also, you must watch the timetable carefully. As a walk-on passenger you can take any boat, get off, and then re-board any boat. So you could, for example, take a Friday Harbor to Lopez to Anacortes boat only between Friday Harbor and Lopez, and then take an inter-island boat from Lopez to Orcas. You must check the timetable carefully as not all trips stop at all locations! Be careful of the Friday Harbor to Anacrotes direct trips!
All of the boats have some sort of outdoor area on their upper decks. On those used for the inter-island trips typically this may only be the protrusion at the four corners for boarding the boats at locations with overhead walkways. The larger boats have upper decks with much larger outdoor sections.
It is VERY cold once you are out on the water - take the land temperature and drop it by 20 or so degrees F and you will then get an idea of what to expect the weather on the water to feel like, depending on where and how hard the wind is blowing.
Small boat whale watching tour
I HIGHLY recommend a small boat whale watching tour. As I stated in the kayaking tip, there were very few tourists in Mid-May so my hubby and I were the only ones on the boat with the captian. Not within 10 minutes did we encounter Orca whales( J pod) and the alpha male Ruffles. Ruffles is named for his unique apperance of his dorsal fin. This experience was truly moving.....Highlight of the trip. You will not get the same expertise and attention from the captian on those huge boat tours.
make sure to check out all four of the islands, San Juan, Lopez, Orcas, and the fourth one I forgot what the name of it was. Lopez island is run completely by nuns. Orcas island, although it is small has lots of spots to sit and go whale watching.
- Whale Watching
- Sailing and Boating
Orcas and Eagles!
We used Maya's Whale Watching which is highly recommended on the internet. We saw 8 whales on our morning trip which was out of this world to see those giants(Orcas) performing in the ocean. Captain Jim is very knowledgeable and takes only 6 people on his boat unlike most who carried up to 16 people. Kayaking was done with Outdoor Odysseys and highly recommend them. This is one of the prime kayaking areas in the U.S.