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A Traveler’s Guide to the San Juan Islands: How to Plan Your Visit to This Pacific Northwest Paradise

For a unique getaway in the Pacific Northwest, consider a trip to the San Juan Islands. This archipelago is located off of the northwest most part of the state of Washington and is notably a great place for exploring the outdoors and seeing some incredible wildlife. It’s a picturesque location that exemplifies the beauty of the region.

If you’re planning a trip to the San Juan Islands, this handy travel guide will help you plan your itinerary. We’ll go over where you should stay, what you should do, and more. If you’re planning a wedding, elopement, or engagement when you’re in the area, I can help you capture the memories, and I can help you with the planning process! You can learn more about that here, but for now you can read on to learn how to plan a perfect trip to the San Juan Islands.

Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

The Best San Juan Islands to Visit

Out of the 172 total named islands that make up the San Juan Islands, there are three that typically see tourists: Orcas Island, Lopez Island and the San Juan Island. Shaws Island is also an option but the accommodations there are extremely limited. If you’re looking for a more isolated camping experience, you might find something that works for you there but otherwise Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and San Juan Island are your best bet for a vacation.

The Best Time to Visit the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are wonderful to visit throughout the year so no matter when you visit, you’ll be able to have a great time. That said, if you’re interested in more outdoor activities, especially those that involve the water in some way, you should visit during the summer when the temperature hovers around 70 degrees as opposed to the winter when it’s not uncommon for it to dip below 40.

The San Juan Islands Best Places to Stay

Snug Harbor Resort

Located on the serene Marshall Bay, the Snug Harbor Resort offers seventeen cabins and three suites that each feature a unique interior and stunning views. These are ideal for anyone traveling with a larger group as many offer multiple bedrooms and large kitchens and seating areas.

Earthbox Inn and Spa

For a vintage motel vibe, stay at the Earthbox Inn and Spa which is located just a few blocks from Friday Harbor Ferry terminal on San Juan Island. This cozy option also includes all the perks of a luxurious spa such as a heated pool, treatment rooms, saunas, and a fitness center.

Campgrounds

Each of the three main San Juan Islands offer campsites where you can get the full outdoors experience. Many are located along the water so you can start and end your day by sitting on the beach and enjoying the views.

The Tastes of the San Juan Islands: What to Eat and Drink

Buck Bay Shellfish Farm

One of the signature flavors of the San Juan Islands is definitely seafood, and shellfish is one of the best. You’ll get to taste fresh seafood when you visit Buck Bay Shellfish Farm and experience their Bistro and Wine and Oyster Bar.

Roses Bakery Cafe

The quaint Roses Bakery Cafe is a wonderful place to grab a quick bite to eat, a cup of coffee, and enjoy a meal during your stay. Everything at Roses is freshly made and delicious, but this local bakery is known for its fresh baked artisan bread.

Duck Soup

Duck Soup is often considered to be one of the best restaurants in the San Juan Islands and it features a sophisticated menu that celebrates the flavors of the Pacific Northwest. The food served here features local ingredients and foraged edibles as often as possible.

The Best Things to Do When You Visit the San Juan Islands

Whale Watching

Orca whales call the San Juan Islands home all year long which makes them a fantastic place for whale watching no matter when you visit. While they can’t guarantee exactly what you’ll see, guided whale watching excursions will give you a great chance at seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild.

Sea Kayaking

The ocean water that surrounds the San Juan Islands is home to a variety of marine life and there’s no better way to see them up close than a sea kayaking excursion. You can take off with a guide who will help you navigate the waters and see creatures such as sea otters up close!

Hiking

The San Juan Islands have plenty of hiking routes of varying difficulties that will take you through the stunning landscapes of the island to see lush foliage, wildlife, and stunning views of the ocean. Each of the three islands features a series of hikes, each with its own unique offerings.

Wellness Retreats

The San Juan Islands is also home to several spas and wellness retreats so whether you’re looking for a way to spend an afternoon or an immersive experience that lasts several days, you’ll be able to find something that suits you when you visit. Guided nature walks, meditation retreats, yoga sessions, and fresh healthy plant-based meals are just some of the perks of a retreat at Pebble Cove Farm. Massages, saunas, and other healing treatments are offered at many of the spas on the islands including Doe Bay Resort & Retreat and the Spa at Earthbook. 

The Whale Museum

The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor is just one of the museums that you can visit during your trip to the San Juan Islands but it’s a great option because you can learn a lot about the whaling history of the region and everything that ties into it. There are also programs that are specifically designed to help children learn about whales and the marine ecosystem of the region although the museum is great for people of all ages!

Historic Lopez Village

Lopez Island is home to many historic sites and landmarks so it’s a great place to go to learn about the history of the islands and what made it such an ideal place throughout thousands of years of history.

How to Get To the San Juan Islands

Ferry

Out of the two ways to get to the San Juan Islands, the ferry is the most common. The three islands we focused on in this guide (Orcas Island, Lopez Island, San Juan Island) are the three islands that are accessible by ferry. You can catch the ferry at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Anacortes, Washington which is about a two and a half hour drive north of Seattle. There is also a system of ferries that connect the islands so you can hop between the three without heading back to the mainland.

Plane

If you’re not interested in taking a ferry, you could charter a plane although that will take a bit more planning than taking the ferry. There are a variety of companies that offer flights to the islands and between them, and the big perk of chartering a plane is that it will save you a lot of time as you can take off from Seattle and get to San Juan Island in under an hour.

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The San Juan Islands are a magical place that is well worth visiting. You can head here for a long vacation or even take a day trip to experience the beauty and wonder of this Pacific Northwest destination. 

If you’re interested in capturing the magic, I can help! I’m an adventure elopement and engagement photographer based in the Seattle area and I love to plan elopements, weddings, and other photoshoots in a natural setting. If you’re interested in learning more, contact me here!

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