I was fortunate to grow up with a seafaring family, and my best memories were sailing through the San Juan Islands. Back in the day, my parents would turn us kids loose in the skiff and not expect us back until dinner, usually caught and cleaned by yours truly. We’d poke around in little coves, make corrals in the shallows for our pet sea urchins, and pretend to be explorers discovering our own tiny islands.
When you’re ten years old, it’s pretty cool to claim a tree-covered rock no bigger than a bread truck as your very own continent. Apologies to my little brother, whom I repeatedly deported.
Now, as a so-called grownup, I’ve been back with friends to hike, paddle, and fish. I haven’t had the freedom to island-hop on a private boat, but the ferry system works just fine. I’ve been able to conquer the islands in a somewhat more civilized way: covering as much ground (and water) as possible during long weekend visits.
Here are your best rallying points for your first – or next – San Juan Island expedition.
San Juan Island
This is the second largest of the islands at 55.03 square miles, but it’s by far the busiest. Friday Harbor is San Juan Island’s metropolis, with just over 2,100 residents at last count. At the northern tip, picturesque Roche Harbor offers the best sunset views and, in my opinion, the best of the island’s paddling.
There are dozens of tour and outfitting companies on San Juan, mostly out of Friday Harbor. I suggest you check out TripAdvisor for reviews, because a lot of the local travel guides are advertising-driven.
You’ll have your choice of bike rentals in both towns, and the island itself has several loops. Earthbox Inn and Spa has the best online cycling tour guide, and San Juan Safaris’ downloadable map highlights all the cool places to camp, hike, bird watch, and beach comb. Some of the routes require a bit of oomph, but nothing most weekend warriors can’t handle.
Young Hill on the northwestern end of the island is where hikers go to enjoy spectacular views. History buffs go there to learn about the Pig War, a kerfuffle between Britain and the United States back in 1859 when both countries were squabbling over their territorial rights to the archipelago.
Sport fishing charters
Word is the peak season for saltwater fishing is July through November. I’ve caught coho, chinook, and lingcod around here, and you’ll have a shot at halibut, rock cod, and red snapper, too. You might even be able to set out crab pots. My advice? If it’s in your budget, go with a private charter. You’ll have a more finely-tailored trip, and a far better chance at catching fish.
Sea kayaking tours
I’m at a loss. I just don’t know how to put a label on this new trend in which kayak outfitters join up with Washington wineries, breweries, and world-class chefs to offer gourmet kayak fuel. Maybe I need to shell out the bucks and do some research. Or, maybe I should encourage you, dear readers, to fall on your swords, investigate these trips, and report back.
Fancy cuisine aside, find a tour led by a wildlife biologist or environmental scientist—several companies hire them—for a better appreciation of the local ecology, and consider the food and adult beverages to be the icing on the cake.
If you didn’t see a bunch of whales and wildlife on your sport fishing and sea kayaking tours, you can throw a hail mary with a whale watching excursion. There are three pods (J, K, and L) in the 75-member Southern Residents orca group, and knowledgeable, responsible guides know to give them a wide berth. But they also keep track of the pods’ most recent sightings.
Orcas aren’t the only local marine mammal rocks stars. Humpbacks are very common, and you’ll likely see porpoises, sea lions, seals, and otter. And, of course, plenty of bald eagles.
What, you haven’t seen enough marine life yet? The San Juan Islands have some of the best tide pools in the states, but go a little deeper with a dive master, and you’ll see tons of different starfish species, nudibranchs, sea cucumbers, wolf eels, and rockfish.. I did a lot of snorkeling when I was there and saw plenty of amazing marine life, but it’s worth getting certified for the sole purpose of diving here.
At 57.3 square miles, Orcas Island is the largest ferry-serviced island in the San Juan archipelago, but with fewer residents and tourists. It’s a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts, offering the same excursions as San Juan. Moran and Obstruction State Parks surround Mount Constitution, the San Juans’ highest peak with an elevation gain of 1,833 feet. Here, a vast network of intermediate-to-difficult trails, a cool, maritime climate, and stunning views for miles around lure in hikers and mountain bikers.
“There was a quiet peacefulness that spoke without words; it communicated an ancient sacredness, a serenity only found in nature.” — Trail Report: Mount Constitution Lookout Tower by Pacific North Wanderers
Five lakes offer alternate paddling opportunities for those who aren’t up for navigating the ocean tides, but there are multiple launching sites if you want to explore nearby islands and inlets. Moran State Park operates several campgrounds on the shores of Mountain and Cascade Lakes. I recommend picking up your fishing licenses and supplies in quaint Eastsound Village. The local hardware and sporting goods shops sell two-day permits, and you can go online to the Washington State Parks’ boating site to find out if your craft requires the $7 boat launch fee.
Hose the mud off your bike and explore the island’s road cycling routes, with winery and orchard stops along the way. Swap your adventure gear and outdoor wear for golf clubs and spikes, and ditch your tent in favor of full-service glamping or charming B&Bs. No matter your style, everyone gets to enjoy the world-famous sunsets, free of charge.
The third largest of the four ferry-serviced San Juan Islands is Lopez, at just shy of 30 square miles. It’s best known for its hiking and cycling opportunities, particularly on ecologically diverse Lopez Hill.
The island’s flush with publicly-owned hidden beaches, coves, and deep inlets. Bring your kayak, your bike, and your fishing gear. There’s 80-acre Hummel Lake (no swimming allowed) and numerous launching spots around the island. Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce put together downloadable maps specific to cyclists and beachcombers, and a directory for public access parks and campgrounds.
Lopez Island has a pretty slow, easygoing pace, and it’s appropriately nicknamed the Friendly Isle. Wander around San Juan Island Village (often called San Juan Village), and you’ll feel at home.
Just shy of 7.7 square miles and nestled between Lopes, San Juan, and Orcas Islands, Shaw is the smallest and least populated of the four. It has a single seasonal store, and only one official hotel, a charming two-bedroom cottage built in the early 1900s. The cottage requires far-in-advance reservations, but you can book your primitive camping spot at Shaw County Park with a slightly shorter lead time.
One place on Shaw that’s certainly worth visiting is Our Lady of the Rock Monastery, operated by a handful of nuns. Together, and often with the help of guests of all faiths, they manage a 300-acre flower, organic vegetable, and heritage-breed livestock farm. There are no formal fees for the delicious meals or overnight stays at their retreat house, but the sisters do welcome donations. It’s also the custom to help out with the chores.
Four Down, 168 to Go
The San Juan archipelago includes a total of 172 islands and reefs. San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw are the only ones accessible by the Washington State Ferry system, but otherwise, you’re only limited by weather, tides, commercial tours, and your own sense of adventure. There’s no conquering the San Juans—there’s just too much to do—but you can certainly paddle around and claim your own rocky fiefdom.
Just not the islet off the shore of Pearl Island in Roche Harbor. That one’s all mine.