The San Juan Islands are a nature lover's paradise, with seemingly endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. Kids adore looking for whales, seals, bald eagles, and other wildlife, and never tire of finding ways to take advantage of the area's top-notch hiking trails, campgrounds, boating, and fishing spots. When it's time for a change of pace, charming harbor towns offer plenty of ice cream shops, stores with fun toys and souvenirs, and play areas for kids, plus unique dining, shopping, and world-class spas for parents. It's island life at its best!
A winter trip to the San Juan Islands can be incredibly atmospheric, especially along the rocky shoreline. Most tourists, though, visit during whale-watching season, from late spring through early fall. Although the killer whales are the stars of the show, you'll see plenty of other wildlife as well, including porpoises, seals, otters, and eagles. Prime travel time is July and August, when the islands are hopping with unique fairs and festivals and the weather is perfect for hiking, kayaking, camping, and other outdoor fun.
Although the Pacific Northwest has a wet reputation, the San Juan Islands enjoy an average of 247 sunny days each year and -- with about 29 inches of rain annually -- less than half the rain of nearby Seattle, thanks to a "rain shadow" from the Olympic Mountains. While the western mountains keep the islands dry, the Pacific Ocean currents keep them temperate -- an average of 45 degrees in December and January, and 70 degrees in July and August. Wear layers no matter when you go, since island temperatures can vary significantly from inland to the shore, and evenings can be cool.
Getting to the San Juan Islands requires travel by boat or plane.
If you're traveling by water and won't need your car on the islands, take the Victoria Clipper passenger ferry from Victoria or Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Oregon; or Seattle, Washington to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island proper. Packages include day trips, whale searching trips, and multi-day island exploration, and kids ride free all summer. If your schedule is tight, avoid the excursion packages, since the boat slows down or stops for viewing all kinds of marine life and birds; on the other hand, if your schedule allows for a more leisurely journey, the excursions can be a terrifically fun way to see nature.
If you do plan to use your car on the islands, take a Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. Ferries serve San Juan Island proper, as well as Shaw, Lopez, and Orcas islands. Check the website for the current schedule and to buy your ferry ticket beforehand. Although you cannot reserve space on a specific ferry, buying a ticket ahead of time lets you bypass the passenger toll booth, where the lines can be extremely long (especially on weekends and in peak tourist season). Try to get to the ferry at least an hour before departure time.
You can also take incredibly scenic flights to the San Juan Islands with San Juan Airlines, Westwind Aviation or a Island Air. Or for a truly unique experience, take a Kenmore Air Seaplane and land in the harbor itself. If you're flying into Seattle's SeaTac Airport from points farther afield, leave plenty of time to make connecting flights (especially on your return from the islands), since all three airlines arrive and depart from Boeing Field, about five miles away from SeaTac. Ground transportation is available, but you may need to reserve space on an airline shuttle in advance of your trip, or be prepared to arrange your own taxi.
If you're staying only on San Juan Island proper, the easiest way to travel is by car. You can also take San Juan Transit to many attractions on the main island, including whale watch and kayak tours, plus many hiking trails and most of the hotels and inns. Shuttles leave the ferry landing every hour on the hour. You can buy tickets or day passes from the shuttle driver, but be sure to have exact change ready (see the website for current fares and schedules).
Traveling between islands is as simple as hopping a ferry. Washington State Ferries service San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw islands. Reservations are not accepted, so get to the ferry dock at least an hour early. Car drivers pay a fee for west-bound travel only, and foot passengers and bicycle riders travel for free (it's a great way to see the islands). You can also take the San Juan Water Taxi to many of the islands, as well as to the mainland U.S. and Canada.
Biking is also a popular way to get around, especially during summer. If you'd like to rent bikes, check out Island Bicycles for adult bikes, child trailers, and even dog trailers. Keep in mind that the roads on San Juan Island proper don't have shoulders or bike lanes. If that's a concern, try Lopez Island instead, which is flat and scenic -- perfect for young or novice riders.
The San Juan Islands come alive in summer, with several annual fairs and festivals plus farmer's markets, open artist studios, concerts, and other performances. Each of the events below are held outdoors and are great fun for kids.
Guide to San Juans is the official visitors' site and includes information, specials, and packages for San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez islands, as well as the mainland. Keep your Visa or MasterCard handy, since American Express isn't widely accepted.
If you're taking the Victoria Clipper to the islands, check the website beforehand for island discounts or package deals.
It's also worth checking the websites for individual hotels, inns, and campgrounds. Many offer packages with whale-watching, sea kayaking, or other activities included.
The San Juan Islands consist of between 428 to 743 islands, depending on the tides, but only 172 of them have names. Eighty-three islands are designated as National Wildlife Refuges.
There isn't a single traffic light on any of the islands.
About 130 pairs of bald eagles nest in the San Juan Islands, more than anywhere else in the United States.
Three pods of killer whales (J, K, and L) call the Strait of Juan de Fuca home. They're easy to spot from late spring through early fall, as is their cousin, the dall porpoise.
Camping in the San Juan Islands is nothing short of paradise. In the morning, wake to the calls of bald eagles, hawks, and songbirds as the sun rises over the Cascade mountains. At night, drift to sleep lulled by the crackle of a campfire and the roar of the ocean surf. The San Juan Islands are rich with wildlife and outdoor adventure, and camping is a great way to fully experience them.