Summer in the San Juan Islands, Washington

For years I've wanted to venture up to the San Juan Islands just a few hours northwest of Seattle. The summers in the Pacific Northwest are undoubtedly the best around, which makes them the most desirable time of the year to visit. You really have to plan ahead if you want to visit the San Juans {a year is best if you are going in the summer}, and planning ahead isn't my forte, I'm more of a last-minute Lucy. But this year, I put it on my list and this year, we made the plans and scheduled the trip. I learned a lot by visiting San Juan Island and I'm here to share all the things you wouldn't read in the guidebooks and on other websites.

summer san juan islands, wa

Summer in the San Juan Islands, Washington


The San Juan Islands are an archipelago between Washington and Vancouver Island, BC. There was a bit of a border dispute back in the day, resulting in the Pig War in 1859, and there were a lot of questions as to who had claim to the series of Islands, but it was ultimately decided to be part of the US based on an invisible line that was drawn between Canada and the United States.

The body of water surrounding the area is known as the Salish Sea and it includes the Puget Sound and the straights of Georgia and Juan de Fuca. 

The islands are known for their three resident pods of Orcas as well as Humpback and Gray whales. As you can imagine, whale watching charters are a huge thing to do on the islands.

There are 172 named islands and reefs in San Juan county, but there are only four ferry-served islands that will give you the most lodging and tourist activities with the easiest accessibility. 

lime kiln lighthouse

The Four Main San Juan Islands

Orcas Island, San Juan Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island are the four main San Juan Islands that are most easily accessible and will give you the best taste of the area. We stayed on San Juan Island so this post will focus on that particular area.

san juan islands

Why we Chose San Juan Island

People wonder which island is best, but I think it really depends on what you want out of your visit. Every island is just a little bit different I'm told, what it came down to for us, was lodging, dining, and activities options.

There is an interisland ferry, so you can always take a day trip to any of the islands. In fact, many people take day trips to the islands, but to get the best feel for the area, I'd suggest staying at least two nights on one island.

How to Get To the San Juan Islands

san juan island travel information

If you want to be bougie, you can take a seaplane or charter plane from the Seattle area into the islands. Most people use Kenmore Air. This is a great way to get onto the island, especially if you just want to go for a quick day trip, but not a great way to explore the whole island because, as you'd imagine, car rentals and Uber's are, shall we say, lacking.

san juan float plane

The most popular way to get to the San Juans is by Washington State Ferry. You can drive your car right onto the boat or the cheaper alternative is to be a walk-on passenger, but then again, you run into the transportation issue while on the island. All San Juan ferries depart from Anacortes so make sure to give yourself enough travel time to arrive at the ferry terminal. The Anacortes terminal actually has some beautiful walking trails with paths down to the beach as well as food trucks and picnic tables so you can make the most of your wait.



I can't express this enough, you need to make reservations for the ferry to the San Juans for your departure and your arrival. If you don't have reservations, you may not be able to make it to the islands. Reservations often get full, especially in the summer. Most ferries in Washington are first come first serve, but not the ferry to the San Juans. 

Reservations are not enough either. You need to check in to the terminal at least 30 minutes before the sailing to make sure your spot isn't given away to a stand-by passenger. Not going to lie, this stressed my husband out! Once you are checked in and waiting in the ferry line, you can wander around and leave your vehicle. There will be announcements to call you back as they get ready to load you on.

The ferry ride is about an hour-long ride to the islands and it's a beautiful scenic ride. Don't forget to bring a sweatshirt or coat if you want to stand up on the ferry decks. It gets cold even on the warmest of days. The back of the ferry is always less windy and cold and usually less crowded. Keep your eyes peeled for whales as you sail along!

Where to Stay in the San Juans

where to stay san juans

There are a few options for lodging on the San Juan Islands. The whole island is just 48 miles from tip to tip and you can pretty much get anywhere on the island in 15 minutes. 

We stayed at Lakedale Resort in the lodge and it was lovely. The lodge is for guests 16 and older, so it's more of an adults-only option. They also have camping, yurts, airstream rentals, cabins, and glamping tents across three lakes on the property. Some of the lodging options allow dogs, but not all of them. 

The downside to the lodge is that it didn't have air conditioning and I wish it had a refrigerator so that we could store food and drinks. It did have beautiful views, private patio spaces, and an unbelievably delicious made-to-order omelet breakfast that was included in the room rate.

Lakedale Resort gave off a summer camp vibe. There were complimentary bikes to borrow for a ride around the property, kayaks, rowboats, paddleboards, and big-wheeled trikes to rent on the water. You could also borrow fishing supplies, though I didn't see a single person catch a thing so maybe skip that activity or find a different lake!

lakedale resort

There was an area for swimming but if you don't like things touching your feet on the bottom, this lake would not be your favorite. I wish I had brought my floatie because I would have happily sat in a tube and floated around. 

FYI, this will forever be my favorite sit n float for forever. It's the only one I will buy!

I loved that the resort was nestled between both Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor, both hot spots on the island. I'd totally come back to Lakedale Resort again and would definitely recommend it.

hotel de haro roche harbor

Speaking of Roche Harbor, Hotel de Haro is the state's oldest continuously working hotel, but there are only 20 rooms. There are a lot of other lodging options in Roche Harbor from village homes to condos to historic cottages. If I were to come back with my family, I'd look into renting a front-row historic cottage. Each one has two bedrooms, a kitchen, and amazing views of the harbor for sunsets. There is beach access and a pool and tennis courts guests have access to. 

Nearby are beautiful walking trails {I saw a resident fox and a black-tailed deer}, and a sculpture garden as well as bocce ball courts and plenty of outdoor areas to explore. 

There are a few options in Friday Harbor for lodging, but if I'm honest, since it was where the ferry terminal is, this harbor was too busy for me. If you walk onto the ferry or take a floatplane and don't really have any other options for transportation to other parts of the island, this is probably your best bet for lodging. It wouldn't be my first choice for places to stay, but maybe if I spent more time here it would be. I don't know.

What to Do on San Juan Island


We were quite adventurous during our stay and just in case it takes me another 21 years to get back to the island, I wanted to do everything I could! 

Kayaking on the San Juans

We took a kayaking tour from Discovery Sea Kayak tours. It was fine. The guide was great and the scenery was beautiful but maybe I just feel meh about it because I kayak in the Pacific Northwest on the regular. If we had encountered an orca {which our guide says happens about every two weeks on the tours}, I'd probably feel differently. We paddled for six miles and it felt like work. A lot of work. And we had to carry down the kayaks to the water {but not back because another group came paise God!} and they were heavy. Cry me a river, but I was on vacation and I wasn't expecting a strenuous activity to start my morning. For what it's worth, I'm in pretty decent shape so this little adventure might be a bit strenuous for the average crowd.

Whale Watching

The San Juan Islands are known for their resident orcas so I thought for sure I'd just be seeing them pop up every which way. I even follow a Facebook group {join the whale sightings in the San Juan Islands group before you go} and paid close attention to where the whales were just in case I could spot them from the shore.

whale watching san juan island

Literally, the day before we went on our tour, we were basically being followed around the island by three different groups of whales, none of which we saw. I kept seeing the updates on the Facebook group and saying "we were just there!". Knowing we had a whale watching tour scheduled, we didn't go out to try to watch them from the shore {more than 30 whales were spotted from shore that day!} and I regret that. Moving on...

We took the Western Prince whale watching tour on the Western Explorer II. It was a 3-hour tour and from numerous e-mails and texts from the company as we prepared for the trip, we were told to wear warm clothes, but this was something incredibly hard to comprehend on an unseasonably warm day {it was 80 degrees!}, but boy are we glad we sweated it out in the cruiser suits they provided. It is cold out on that open water! 

Speaking of open water, there is an encrypted walkie-talkie system that the boats can gather information from on where to spot the whales. On our particular tour, there were no orcas spotted, but a humpback named Big Mama was out frolicking basically out in a shipping lane a 45-minute boat ride away. No other whale watching boats went out that far {smart???} but we did and we managed to see Big Mama a few times and another humpback who surfaced another time or two. But because it took us so long to get out there and back, we had limited time to actually view the whales. But I think that's just part of whale watching. 

I'd definitely go on this tour again. The driver {shoutout to JB} was great and so was the guide. I wish we didn't have to drive out so far to get to see some action, but this isn't Sea World, so I know it's all part of the adventure. I'm grateful to have seen some whales on our trip, especially humpbacks, so I'll take it! 


We also saw a pair of bald eagles, some harbor porpoises {like dolphins but smaller}, jumping pink salmon, seals, and Steller's sea lions {look those up!}.

Susie's Scoot-Coup

This was, without question, the highlight of the trip! These two-person mopeds were the perfect way to see the island. You can rent them by the hour, or by the day. I'd fully recommend a day rental. After talking to a local, we were told they weren't well-received or liked, so we were a little concerned about getting out on the open road, but we shouldn't have been.


What a blast! The rental period was from 9-6 and with a map of the island in hand, we beep beeped our little horn, and started driving. These things had some get up and go, and despite lacking a reverse or any sort of turning radius, they sure were a fun way to see the island.

We could easily stop, park, and explore every nook and cranny of the island so much easier than we could have had we had our car. Sunglasses {or glasses} and closed-toed shoes are required, so don't forget those when you pack. 

Here are some stops we made while we rode our scoot-coup around the island:

Shop in Friday Harbor-there are lots of sweet little shops in Friday Harbor, just remember that they are on island time, and many close on random weekdays, and most close by 5 each evening. You can return your scoot-coup early and enjoy the town for a bit.


Wander Roche Harbor-come back for the colors ceremony where just before sunset, they lower the flags for Roche Harbor, Canada, the US, and Washington State while playing the national anthems. A cannon boom finishes it off followed by every yacht and dingy in the harbor sounding their horns in collective applause.

Lime Kiln Point State Park for Whale Watching-you will need a Discover pass {$10 for the day}, but it's a great place that's notorious for whale watching and other sea life viewing. There's also a beautiful lighthouse here.


Pelindaba Lavender Farm-stroll the farm, smell the lavender, eat some lavender ice cream, lemonade or tea and enjoy the stop at this local favorite.

Deadman's Bay was my favorite beach stop. You'll find the best tide pools for exploring at low tide and the rocks in this bay are beautiful if you have a little beachcomber! {I'm the little beachcomber!} I'm also told this is the best place to look for sea glass, which is a fun treasure to find on our beaches.

South Beach is full of driftwood and if you aren't familiar with Pacific Northwest beaches, a favorite pastime is to create structures on the beach using the fallen logs. You never know what you're going to find there!


Cattle Point Lighthouse is another of the island's lighthouses that are worth stopping at. If you park just before the curve in the road, you can pull onto the side of the road and avoid paying the park fee. You'll find plenty of trails to walk around and can easily manage a walk down to the water. Keep your eyes open for wildlife. We spotted a pair of bald eagles that were just massive!

Where to Eat on San Juan Island

the best places to eat on san juan island

There aren't an abundant amount of options for dining on the island. I will start by saying that we are not the fine dining type. There are a few fine dining options that get rave reviews {Duck Soup, Coho restaurant and McMillin's}, but I don't have personal experience at any of them, though the family group of 5 on our kayak trip {with three adult children} all raved about their meal at Duck Soup from the night before. 

I'd highly recommend the Madrona Bar & Grill in Roche Harbor. Drop off  your name and then wander around the harbor {we made the mistake of wandering and then putting our reservation in only to find an hour wait}. I had delicious fresh-caught fish tacos. Another evening, we grabbed some salad and sandwiches from Roche Harbor grocery store and ate on the pier before the colors ceremony. Also a lovely meal, but I'm a cheap date.

The Westcott Shelling Company gets rave reviews! You can stop and shell your own oysters and enjoy the view. This stop is LUNCH only.

salty fox coffee san juan islands

Another lunch-only stop is the Lime Kiln Cafe with delicious sandwiches and the Salty Fox is lovely for a coffee stop. 

Some other dining options {rave reviews from others, but no personal experience}: Friday's Crab House, San Juan Brewing Co., Cask & Schooner, San Juan Bistro, and Vinny's. 

Don't miss trying Lopez Island ice cream while on the island.

lopez island ice cream

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visit san juan island, wa

I'm anxious to plan a trip back another time. Maybe you've been inspired to plan a trip too!

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