The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in Washington State in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. Spending a weekend on San Juan Island, one of the larger islands in the archipelago, is a popular choice for both locals of Washington State as well as visitors. As San Juan Island is one of the larger islands it is more set up for activities for visitors than others. This makes it easier to get out and see the fantastic marine environment which surrounds these islands.
Here is our guide on how to get the most out of a weekend on San Juan Island in Washington.
How to get to San Juan Island
The best and most affordable way to get to San Juan Island is to take the ferry from Anacortes. You can book the ferries in advance online on the Washington State Department of Transport website. It’s possible to take the ferry as a foot passenger or with a vehicle. Once you are on the island however you won’t need a car so it is your choice whether to take one with you.
The ferry takes just over an hour and the views are spectacular. It gives you an idea of what you can look forward to during your weekend on San Juan Island. During the summer season the San Juan Islands typically get excellent sunny weather as they are sheltered mostly by the Olympic Peninsula.
Where to Stay on San Juan Island
Typically visitors to San Juan Island stay in one of the two main towns on the island, Friday Harbour or Roche Harbour. We much prefer Friday Harbour but it is a personal preference. Roche Harbour has a more resort feel we thought where Friday Harbour has a bit more of a seaside town kind of vibe going for it.
Roche Harbour and Friday Harbour are less than 10 miles apart, although San Juan Island is one of the bigger islands it is by no means a big island.
Getting around San Juan Island
There isn’t really much in the way of public transport when you get onto the island. However as it isn’t very big you can easily get around by bicycle. We recommend hiring an e-bike for the duration of your stay which will allow you to get around very easily. San Juan Island although compact is very hilly in places and if you’re not a very good regular cyclist on hilly terrain you will struggle with a regular bike
We can recommend Discovery Sea Kayaks for bike rentals, they have a good range of bikes that are well maintained with competitive pricing. You can find their shop in Friday Harbour not too far from where you will arrive on the ferry.
Day 1 – Bikes, Booze and the British
Try to arrive on San Juan Island as early as possible on your first day. Check into your hotel and go straight back out to start exploring. We recommend you collect a rental bike and head to the north of the island.
Heading north out of Friday Harbour your first stop should be San Juan Vineyard where you can have a tasting for around $5 each and if you choose to buy a bottle you get the price of the tasting knocked off the price of the bottle. They have a good selection so you’re sure to find a bottle you like.
Keep heading north towards Roche Harbour from San Juan Vineyard. Near Roche Harbour you can visit San Juan Island Distillery which offers free tastings on Saturday afternoons – so if your first day is a Saturday make sure you call in. They have a good range of spirits as well as a few of their own ciders.
Heading back towards Friday Harbour call in at English Camp to learn about the history of the island and how America and England nearly went to war over a pig! Some of the old buildings from the camp have been preserved and you can explore inside. Leaving the camp you will need to cycle up a steep hill which can’t be avoided – you’ll be glad of the e-bike at this point.
Plan to get back to Friday Harbour in time for dinner as there are plenty of choices for food and drinks there. Our top picks are the Cask & Schooner and the San Juan Island Brewing Co. You can get some great food and drinks at both these places, choose one to visit on your first night and the other on your second!
Day 2 – On the Water
The best sights on San Juan Island are actually off the island – you need to get out on the water. A visit to any of the San Juan Islands wouldn’t be complete without meeting some of their marine residents which include sea lions, hump back whales, orca as well as bald eagles!
We recommend both whale watching tours as well as sea kayaking tours for visitors to San Juan Island and with a packed day you can just about do both during the summer season.
Discovery Sea Kayaks have their first half day tour at around 8am. The tour takes approximately 4 hours and is suitable for beginners. It’s a great opportunity to get out on the water at a slower pace and see some wildlife. We went on a full day kayaking tour with Discovery Sea Kayaks and loved it, we even got followed by some steller sea lions who are very inquisitive.
A big draw for me visiting San Juan Island was the opportunity to see wild orca. This is one of the best locations in the world for seeing orca (killer whales) in the wild. So after you have finished your sea kayaking tour and are back in Friday Harbour we recommend you get back out on the water in the afternoon on a whale watching tour.
If you book your whale watching experience with Western Prince they work with Discovery Sea Kayaks and offer a 10% discount on your tour if you have been on a sea kayaking tour. We had a fantastic experience with Western Prince Whale & Wildlife Tours on their afternoon tour. The bonus of choosing the afternoon tour is that they have had chance to get an idea of where the whales might be that day as they will have already done a tour in the morning. We visited in early June and seen two orca pods as well as hump back whales! It is an experience I will never forget.
Day 3 – The History of San Juan Island
Get back on your bike this morning to explore the south of San Juan Island before you get the ferry back to Anacortes. There aren’t as many sights in the south of the island but there is one major one – American Camp.
American Camp is the American counter part to English Camp which we recommended exploring on day 1. American Camp has some spectacular views out to the Olympic Peninsula and takes around 30 minutes to cycle there on an e-bike. Expect to spend an hour or so at American Camp exploring the old buildings and hiking some of the trails.
A visit to American Camp should take up most of your last morning on San Juan Island. Drop your bike back in Friday Harbour before grabbing a quick lunch. We can recommend either Cheesecake Cafe & Bakery or Blue Water Bar & Grill for lunch and they are both within sighting distance of the ferry terminal for your return journey.
We hope you find our guide for a weekend on San Juan Island useful. Let us know if you plan on visiting San Juan Island in the comments!