The San Juan Islands are majestic islands located off the coast of Washington State. From camping, hiking, and whale watching to eating local cuisine and visiting museums, they have a little something for everyone. Here’s my ultimate travel guide to the San Juan Islands.
How to get to the San Juan Islands
The voyage to the San Juan islands is freaking gorgeous! That being said you definitely want to plan ahead. And know that it might take half a day to get there.
From Dallas, I took a four hour flight to Seattle Tacoma airport. Then I rented a car and drove to the ferry in Anacostas, Washington. It’s about a 2.5 hr drive from SEA to Anacostas. From there, we took the ferry (about 1.5 hours) to the island.
I highly recommend that you make reservations for the ferry ahead of time. I was told they often fill up and it can be a few hours before the next one comes. You’ll also want to arrive about an hour ahead of time if you can. We arrived right on time and as we were pulling up, the ferry was taking off.
While it may take some time to get on the actual ferry, it is hands-down the most beautiful part of this voyage. The water is stunning and surrounded by mountainous islands. If you can time it around sunset, do it! The views are incredible. I’ll never forget that ride.
Quick heads up: make sure that you bring some food and drinks on the ferry. While they do have a couple basic vending machines, the restaurant is closed due to COVID. There was a food truck at the ferry gate, but it can get pretty crowded.
How to pack
No matter when you’re visiting the San Juan Islands, it’s probably best to bring layers. From what I’ve heard, it can get pretty warm in the Summer, but the average is still around 67.
If you’re visiting the San Juan islands in the fall like I did, be prepared for cooler weather. We visited in October and the island was pretty windy. While not unbearably cold, it was a bit chilly. It can get pretty wet too, which is to be expected in the PNW, so make sure you pack an umbrella. Luckily, you’ll surrounded by beautiful autumn scenery, with multicolor leaves and foggy ponds, so you won’t mind it much.
Fall weather in the San Juan Islands is pretty chilly, windy, and wet. Luckily, you’ll surrounded by beautiful autumn scenery, with multicolor leaves and foggy ponds, so you won’t mind it much. I would recommend packing a warm coat, a raincoat, some hiking boots or rain boots, an umbrella, and lots of layers. If you’re going to wear a hat, make sure it fits securely because the wind can be pretty strong.
Pack a comfortable pair of hiking boots or rain boots. You’ll of course want a rain jacket and maybe a good beanie.
Hair, Toiletries + Beauty Supplies
Sis, if you’re thinking about getting a sew in or wearing a wig during your trip please reconsider. The rain will have you out here looking like a poodle and you’ll hate that you waisted your money. Instead, go for the braids! I was SO glad I had them while I was there. Instead of worrying about my hair, I could save that energy trying to stay warm.
The air, while rainy, is still pretty dry so definitely bring some lotion and Vaseline! I found myself applying chapstick pretty often too. My recommendation is right out of the shower, while you’re still damp, apply the lotion (to your lips too) and then add the vaseline + chapstick. That way you can seal in the moisture and stay soft for your entire trip.
The good thing about the air being dry is that your makeup stays pretty well. Feel free to do whatever you want there, so long as you have an umbrella for when it rains.
Make sure to pack binoculars! The islands are known for their whale watching after all.
Personally, I’m weird about germs so I’d also recommend bringing some lysol wipes for the ferry.
Where to stay
There are SO many options for places to stay on San Juan Island. No matter what your budget, you’re sure to find a comfy spot that fits your needs. The two major “neighborhoods” on the island are Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Friday Harbor is where the fairy pulls into and is by far the most popular area on the island. Roche Harbor is about a 20 minute drive away but feels a little more fancy – maybe it’s the million dollar yachts. Idk 🤷🏾♀️.
If Anthropology and William Sonoma decided to partner together to create a hotel, I feel like a Roche Harbor Resort would be the result. The area feels like it has some history to it but everything is super updated, elevated, and still somehow quaint. The resort sits on a very fancy marina and houses a spa, some dining options, a few shops, a sculpture park, outdoor sports and some trails. There are 6 different accommodation options from quaint hotel rooms to massive homes you can rent out.
We stayed at the Hotel de Haro and had a good experience. While we did have to call someone to help us figure out the air conditioning, the suite we stayed in was exactly what I expected! A mostly white room with a sitting and dining area, fully tiled walk in shower, and a wall of vintage windows.
Inn to the Woods
Into the woods was the cutest bread and breakfast I’ve visited in a while. The property includes two houses that have 4 rooms total. We stayed in The Arbor Room which was incredible – it has a jacuzzi, views of the lake, and it’s own private entrance! There are also private trails on property that I enjoyed hitting in the morning to start my day. The breakfast is delicious and the people are friendly. I would definitely stay here again.
The Island Inn at 123 West
We walked by this inn on our way to dinner one night and were instantly drawn to it’s modern exterior and views of the harbor and surrounding islands. From some of the rooms you can literally watch the ferries pull in. I liked that it was right downtown, meaning you can walk to all of the Friday Harbor attractions.
Friday Harbor House
This place is so stinking cute! It has a restaurant, a raw bar, and incredible views! Each of it’s 24 rooms has a king bed, fireplace, and jetted tub-for-two.
Where to Eat
Listen, the food on the island was all fantastic. The service everywhere we went was also great. People in general are super friendly and happy to share their suggestions. I really don’t think there are any bad choices, but here are some of my favorites.
You know when you visit a new restaurant, take a look at the menu, and immediately know you’re going to order everything? That was us at Downriggers. Almost everything we had was incredible. The only thing I’d probably skip out on was the steak. Which makes sense really. We’re on an island – order allll the seafood.
Cask & Schooner
If you’re looking for some pub food, and maybe some mussels and clams, this is the place to go! They’re great for lunch and dinner.
Coho’s menu can be defined as PNW cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. They have a tasting menu which I will always opt for in restaurants so I can try all of the things!
Duck Soup Restaurant
I’ve never been so sad to miss a reservation as I was missing Duck Soup Restaurant. We had to leave the island early due to weather, but this place was SO HIGH on my list. It’s located on the windy road between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor so I passed it multiple times with anticipation. Their menu changes seasonally, and while I didn’t get to try it for myself, I can tell you exactly what I was going to order. (Yes, I did stalk their menu ahead of time).
Apps – Oysters and Puff Pastry Samosas
Entree – It would’ve been a toss up between the Carbonara, Scallops, and the Creamed Polenta. They do serve duck but I’m not a fan – unless we’re talking about duck fat fries.
Dessert – Earl Grey Creme Brûlée (I cried typing this. I was so excited.)
Friday Harbor House
The restaurant itself feels really fancy, but the food is so good that I almost forgot! I love that they have both indoor and outdoor seating. On the patio there are even fire pits so you can hang out there during the fall season!
San Juan Brewing Company
This place was hoppin’! (I couldn’t help myself.) It is clearly a local fav hangout because there were quite a few people there. But after trying their brews, I see why! Recommend for a cool, casual night in Friday Harbor.
Tops’l is a sustainable sushi bar with all of the things you’d expect to see on a bomb af sushi menu! I highly recommend sitting at the Sushi Bar near Christian the bartender. His recommendations do not miss!
Lime Kiln Cafe
Seriously solid breakfast with a view! It sits in Roche Harbor as the last stop before you reach the docks. Sit and have one of their world famous doughnuts (that are actually pretty darn good) while watching the million dollar boats come in.
Spring Street Deli
We stopped by here while waiting on our ferry off the island. Its a cute little sandwich shop with all the fixins’ you could want! They also sell local canned alcohol which we definitely took with us for our ferry ride.
What is there to do in the San Juan Islands?
The islands have so much to do – especially if you’re into nature/the great outdoors!
One of the most popular things to do on the island (or off the coast of it) is whale watching! We were supposed to take the San Juan Safaris Whale & Wildlife Tour, but the weather was pretty crazy that day. I will ABSOLUTELY be doing this tour the next time I’m in town.
Take A Ride Around The Island In Style
Susie’s Mopeds has the coolest little vehicle that you can rent and ride drive around the island. They have mopeds, scooters, and real cars. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them until our last day. It’s at the top of my list of things to do when I visit again.
- Also known as Whale Watch Park, this place is a great spot to watch whales from the land. I actually got a little teary eyed driving to the park because of how beautiful it all was. And while we didn’t see any whales (It was the end of October so off season), the view was truly majestic.
- This 20-acre outdoor park was super freakign cool. It has multiple trails you can follow and view sculptures along the way. Everything from small frogs to huge bears and dragonflies. The sculptures are primarily by artists from the Pacific Northwest. Some are quite well known and by artist names you may recognize. Make sure to bring some extra cash because while the park is free, donations are welcome and appreciated!
- Put your hiking boots on for this one. A steep one-mile loop hike will take you up Young Hill, past the graves of British Soldiers who died while stationed at English Camp. From the top of Young Hill you can see our northern neighbors, Canada! If you want an easier trail, take the flat loop around Bell Point along the waterfront. It connects to the Westcott Bay trail that leads to the Westcott Bay Shellfish Farm.
- Including American Camp and English Camp, the park was created in 1966 based upon an idea: that individuals and nations can solve their problems peacefully without resorting to violence. PRO TIP: Drive down Pickett’s Lane to South Beach and look for red foxes hunting in the prairie.
- The NRCA provides a diverse range of geologic features, plant communities and wildlife habitat. You’ll find grasslands, gravelly beach, dunes, a mature conifer forest and steep bluffs. There are incredible views of the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and the other islands.
San Juan Island Art
Arctic Raven Native Art Gallery
San Juan Island Sculpture Park
San Juan Island Museums
- The whale museum is the first in the world to promote the stewardship of whales through education and research. Their exhibits teach about the Salish Sea ecosystem and the marine mammals that inhabit it.
- The San Juan Islands Museum of Art offers rotating exhibitions of fine visual art, including paintings, drawings, sculpture, photography and more, from around the world.
Vineyards and Cellars
- I honestly could have spent all day here. I don”t know if it’s the vineyard rolling hills, the super friendly people, or the wine itself. But I didn’t want to leave this place.
Madrone Cellars & Cider
- I didn’t get to visit but next time I will definitely be stopping by their tasting room on First Street down the block from the Whale Museum.
Where to Shop
- Okay, yes. This place has cute knick knacks that would make great gifts for your friends and family. BUT ALSO, the cutest, most cuddly shop dog. I simply can’t stress it enough. He will make your entire day!
The Local Dispensary
- Driving here at night felt super sketch. There aren’t really street lights across the island so we were a little shook. But once we arrived we met the friendliest associate who let us know all about their supply. We’re talking all things marijuana. From CBD to THC to a mixture of the two. Plus they have a not-at-all friendly, but still fun to look at parrot.
- Literally lavender EVERTHING. Instant relaxation as soon as you walk in their doors. Stock up on everything and thank me later.
I love visiting a good thrift store/consignment shop when I travel. You just never know what you’re going to find or who you’re going to meet. Girlfriends was packed with clothes, jewelry, and accessories. My friend bought an adorable phone purse and I was thiiiis close to buying a coat to shield me from the wind.
Griffin Bay Bookstore
- This place is as cute on the inside as it is on the outside!
- Serendipity sales used books and has over 40,000 titles on hand at any given time.
As you can see, there is SO much to do on the island – and we only visited one of them. On my next trip I hope to make it out to Orca Island or Lopez Island to see what they’re working with. But if it’s your first time, you should def hit up the main island as they have the most diverse activities.