san juan islands lighthouse

Want to discover the best things to do in San Juan Islands?

Nestled in the serene waters of the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands are a picturesque archipelago that offers a peaceful escape from the bustling mainland.

Located just north of Washington State, these islands are a haven for adventurers, nature lovers, and those seeking tranquility.

With their lush landscapes, vibrant wildlife, and rich cultural history, the San Juan Islands are not just a destination but an experience.

For those wondering what to explore in this enchanting region, there are countless activities to fill your itinerary.

Whether you’re planning a family vacation, a romantic getaway, or a solo adventure, finding the best things to do in San Juan Islands will lead you to unforgettable experiences that highlight the natural beauty and unique character of this special place.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the 10 best things to do in San Juan Islands:

1. Whale Watching


Whale watching is one of the most thrilling things to do in San Juan Islands, offering a chance to witness the majestic beauty of marine life in its natural habitat.

The islands are renowned as one of the premier whale-watching spots in the world, primarily for sightings of orcas, but also for the possibility of encountering humpback whales, minke whales, and gray whales.

Best Spots for Whale Watching

The waters surrounding the San Juan Islands are teeming with whales, especially from May through October.

Lime Kiln Point State Park, often referred to as “Whale Watch Park,” is one of the best land-based whale watching locations.

Here, visitors can watch orcas from a stunning lighthouse that overlooks the sea.

Another popular spot is the west side of San Juan Island, where the whales often come close to shore, offering spectacular viewing opportunities.

Best Times of Year to Go Whale Watching

The peak season for whale watching in the San Juan Islands is during the summer months, from June to September.

During this period, the orcas are most active and visible as they follow salmon runs through the channels.

However, for those looking to see different species, the spring and fall can also be rewarding.

Humpback and minke whales are often sighted in late spring and early fall, making these seasons a great time for a visit.

2. Kayaking and Paddleboarding

Kayaking san juan islands

Exploring the tranquil waters of the San Juan Islands by kayak or paddleboard is an enchanting way to discover the hidden nooks and crannies of the coastline.

This activity not only offers a serene experience but also positions you up close with the island’s diverse marine life and stunning landscapes.

It’s undoubtedly one of the top things to do in San Juan Islands for those who love a blend of adventure and tranquility.

Popular Locations for Kayaking and Paddleboarding

One of the most beloved areas for kayaking and paddleboarding is around Roche Harbor.

The sheltered bay provides calm waters perfect for beginners and those looking for a peaceful paddle.

Another excellent location is Griffin Bay, where the less trafficked waters allow for a quiet communion with nature.

For a more adventurous route, paddlers can take to the waters around Orcas Island, offering more challenging waves and the chance to explore secluded beaches and coves.

Rental Options and Guided Tours

The San Juan Islands are well-equipped to cater to both novice and experienced paddlers.

Numerous outfitters throughout the islands offer a wide range of rental options, from hourly rentals to full-day hires.

For those new to paddling or looking to learn more about the area, guided tours are available and highly recommended.

These tours not only provide all necessary equipment but also the guidance of experienced locals who can share their knowledge of the marine ecosystem and the best hidden spots to explore.

Whether you choose a sunset paddle, a full-day excursion, or a multi-day adventure, kayaking and paddleboarding in the San Juan Islands offer a unique perspective of this breathtaking region.

3. Hiking in Lime Kilin Point State Park

Hiking in Lime Kilin Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park, often simply referred to as “Whale Watch Park,” is not only a prime location for spotting orcas from the shore but also a spectacular place for hiking.

Nestled on the west side of San Juan Island, this 41-acre state park offers some of the most picturesque trails in the Pacific Northwest, making it a must-visit for anyone looking for things to do in San Juan Islands.

Description of the Park and Its Features

Lime Kiln Point State Park is renowned for its dramatic coastal cliffs, historic lighthouse, and the deep blue waters of the Haro Strait.

It’s a place where the natural world feels larger than life, with the sounds of the sea and the occasional breach of a whale nearby.

The park features several picnic areas, a historic lime kiln for which it was named, and the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, an iconic structure that has been guiding ships since 1919 and now serves as a center for whale research.

Trails and Scenic Views

The park offers a variety of trails that cater to all fitness levels.

The most popular trail is the easy, 0.4-mile Lime Kiln Trail that provides breathtaking views of the Haro Strait and the lighthouse.

This path is well-maintained and suitable for families, offering several viewing platforms where hikers can pause and scan the waters for marine life.

For a more secluded and natural experience, the West Side Trail extends north from the lighthouse, offering a 1.6-mile round trip through aromatic cedar forests and along rugged cliffside viewpoints.

Each trail in Lime Kilin Point State Park offers its own unique perspective of the San Juan Islands’ stunning landscapes and provides numerous opportunities for wildlife photography, bird watching, and simply enjoying the serene environment.

Whether you’re a seasoned hiker or just looking for a leisurely stroll with spectacular views, Lime Kilin Point State Park delivers an unforgettable outdoor adventure.

4. Visiting the San Juan Island National Historical Park

San Juan Island National Historical Park

San Juan Island National Historical Park is a site of profound historical significance and natural beauty, making it a pivotal destination for those interested in the rich past of the San Juan Islands.

Known as the location of the “Pig War” standoff, this park offers visitors a deep dive into the fascinating history of the islands while surrounded by scenic landscapes.

It’s a cornerstone attraction for anyone seeking things to do in San Juan Islands.

Historical Significance of the Park

The park commemorates the Pig War of 1859, a unique conflict between the United States and Great Britain over the sovereignty of the islands, triggered by the shooting of a pig.

This confrontation, which remarkably led to no human casualties, was pivotal in determining the ownership of the San Juan Islands.

The dispute was peacefully resolved through arbitration by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, setting a precedent for international arbitration.

Today, the park serves not only as a reminder of this unusual historical episode but also as a celebration of more than a century of peace between the two nations.

Key Attractions within the Park

San Juan Island National Historical Park is divided into two main units: American Camp and English Camp, each telling different sides of the historical narrative.

  • American Camp: Located on the southern tip of the island, American Camp features vast prairies, stunning sea cliffs, and extensive hiking trails. Visitors can explore the visitor center to learn about the American perspective of the Pig War and walk through historic structures that include the barracks and officers’ quarters.
  • English Camp: Situated in a sheltered bay on the northwestern coast, English Camp offers a contrasting lush, green landscape. This site includes beautifully maintained gardens, the remains of the British encampment, and a formal marine parade ground. The visitor center here provides insights into the British forces’ daily life during the standoff.

Both sites host reenactments and living history programs throughout the summer, offering interactive experiences that bring the 19th-century history to life.

Additionally, the park’s natural surroundings are perfect for leisurely walks, wildlife viewing, and picnicking, making it a comprehensive stop for both history enthusiasts and nature lovers alike.

5. Exploring Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor, the charming seaport town and the main entry point to the San Juan Islands, offers visitors a vibrant mix of history, culture, and local flavor.

This picturesque town is not just a hub for ferries and seaplanes but also the cultural heart of the islands.

Exploring Friday Harbor is undoubtedly one of the essential things to do in San Juan Islands for anyone looking to experience the local lifestyle and hospitality.

Introduction to Friday Harbor

Nestled on the east side of San Juan Island, Friday Harbor retains a quaint, small-town feel despite being the commercial center of the islands.

Its compact, walkable downtown area is lined with historic buildings, some of which date back to the late 19th century, housing an array of shops, galleries, and eateries.

The harbor itself is a bustling marina where visitors can watch boats come and go, including classic yachts and working fishing vessels.

Recommendations for Shopping, Dining, and Cultural Experiences

Shopping: Friday Harbor offers a variety of shopping options from boutique stores to art galleries. You can find local crafts, unique jewelry, handcrafted soaps, and much more. A visit to the San Juan Island Cheese shop for local and international cheeses is a must for food enthusiasts.

Dining: The dining scene in Friday Harbor caters to all tastes, featuring fresh local seafood, farm-to-table eateries, and cozy cafés. For a truly local experience, try the seafood at Downriggers, overlooking the harbor, or enjoy a meal at The Coho Restaurant, known for its organic and locally sourced ingredients.

Cultural Experiences: The San Juan Islands Museum of Art offers rotating exhibitions of contemporary art, emphasizing artists from the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor provides insights into the marine life of the region, particularly focusing on the orca whales. For theater lovers, the San Juan Community Theatre presents a range of performances, from local plays to international shows.

Exploring Friday Harbor allows visitors to immerse themselves in the rich tapestry of island life, where every corner and cobbled lane offers something new to discover.

Whether you’re looking for a relaxing day of shopping and dining or an enriching cultural experience, Friday Harbor has something to enchant every visitor.

6. Biking on Lopez Island

Biking on Lopez Island

Lopez Island, known affectionately as “the friendly isle,” offers a gentle landscape and a welcoming atmosphere that make it an ideal destination for cyclists.

With minimal traffic and a variety of scenic routes that weave through farms, forests, and along coastlines, biking here is one of the most enjoyable things to do in San Juan Islands.

Whether you’re a casual rider or an avid cyclist, Lopez Island provides a perfect blend of beauty and tranquility for your biking adventure.

Why Lopez Island is Ideal for Biking

Lopez Island is the flattest of the main San Juan Islands, which makes it particularly appealing for bikers of all skill levels.

The island features a network of quiet, rural roads where cyclists can ride comfortably without the stress of heavy traffic.

Its varied landscapes, from rolling fields and wooded areas to picturesque beach views, provide a constantly changing backdrop that keeps any bike ride interesting and enjoyable.

Suggested Routes and Bike Rental Information

Suggested Routes: One popular cycling route is the loop around the island, which covers approximately 30 miles and takes riders through some of the island’s most beautiful areas, including Spencer Spit State Park and Lopez Village.

Another enjoyable ride is the shorter loop from Lopez Village to Fisherman Bay, an easy 10-mile round trip that offers beautiful water views and opportunities to spot wildlife.

Bike Rental Information: Lopez Island offers several convenient options for bike rentals.

Lopez Bicycle Works and Village Cycles are well-known rental shops that provide a range of bikes suitable for different ages and experience levels.

These shops also offer maps and advice on the best routes, ensuring you can make the most of your cycling experience.

Additionally, many rental packages include helmets and other safety gear, so you can explore the island with confidence and ease.

Biking on Lopez Island not only allows you to explore the island at your own pace but also gives you a chance to connect with nature and the local community in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Whether you’re looking for a leisurely afternoon ride or an all-day exploration, Lopez Island’s friendly roads and stunning scenery are sure to make your biking experience unforgettable.

7. Enjoying the Local Cuisine

san juan islands food

One of the most delightful things to do in San Juan Islands is to indulge in the local cuisine, renowned for its emphasis on fresh, locally-sourced seafood.

The culinary scene here reflects the islands’ connection to both the sea and rich agricultural traditions.

Dining in the San Juan Islands offers a true taste of the Pacific Northwest, characterized by vibrant flavors and innovative dishes prepared with the freshest ingredients.

Discussion of the Local Food Scene

The San Juan Islands are a haven for food lovers, particularly those with a penchant for seafood.

Local menus boast a variety of seafood freshly caught from the surrounding waters, including salmon, halibut, and Dungeness crab.

Many chefs in the area also incorporate organic produce from local farms, ensuring that the ingredients are as fresh and sustainable as possible.

The commitment to farm-to-table and dock-to-dish dining is not just a trend but a way of life here, providing visitors with uniquely flavorful and nutritious meals.

Best Restaurants to Experience Local Flavors

The Willows Inn on Lummi Island: Known for its innovative cuisine and use of local ingredients, The Willows Inn offers a dining experience that is both unique and memorable. The restaurant’s tasting menu features a series of small, beautifully crafted dishes that highlight the best of what the region has to offer.

Duck Soup Inn: Located on San Juan Island, this cozy, rustic restaurant offers a warm, inviting atmosphere along with a menu that emphasizes local seafood and produce. Duck Soup Inn is perfect for those seeking a tranquil dining experience away from the bustle.

Vinny’s Ristorante: For those looking for a taste of local seafood with an Italian twist, Vinny’s in Friday Harbor is the go-to spot. The menu features fresh seafood pasta and exquisite risottos, along with a fine selection of wines.

Lopez Islander Resort in Fisherman Bay: Ideal for casual dining, this spot offers great views and a menu packed with fresh local seafood. It’s a fantastic place to relax after a day of exploring Lopez Island.

8. Sailing and Boat Tours

san juan islands sailing

Sailing and taking boat tours around the San Juan Islands is an essential experience, offering a new perspective on this stunning archipelago.

Whether you’re seeking a leisurely sail, a guided wildlife tour, or a private charter, the options are plentiful.

Exploring the islands from the water is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular things to do in San Juan Islands, providing opportunities to see the islands’ natural beauty and wildlife up close.

Options for Boat Tours and Private Charters

Guided Wildlife Tours: These tours are focused on the rich marine life surrounding the islands. Operators like San Juan Safaris and San Juan Excursions offer guided tours that seek out orcas, humpback whales, seals, and seabirds, with expert commentary on the ecosystem.

Sailing Charters: For those who dream of sailing the waters of the Salish Sea, charter companies such as Schooners North and San Juan Sailing offer a range of options from hands-on sailing experiences to fully crewed charters. These charters allow for a customizable itinerary, whether you’re interested in a day sail or a multi-day adventure.

Kayak Tours: Combining paddling and sailing, these tours, offered by companies like Outdoor Odysseys, allow participants to kayak around the smaller inlets and coves that are inaccessible to larger boats, offering a quiet and intimate encounter with nature.

What to Expect and See on These Tours

When embarking on a boat tour in the San Juan Islands, expect to be surrounded by scenic vistas that include deep blue waters, rugged coastlines, and lush forests.

Wildlife sightings are a major highlight, with the possibility of encountering orcas, minke whales, sea lions, and a variety of seabirds.

The experience of sailing through these islands also offers a peaceful escape from the everyday hustle, with the soothing sounds of the sea and the chance to witness breathtaking sunsets over the Pacific.

Many tours also include stops at remote islands, giving you the opportunity to explore hidden beaches and historic sites, enhancing your connection to this unique marine environment.

9. Art and Culture Exploration

WaterWorks Gallery

The San Juan Islands are not only a natural paradise but also a vibrant hub for art and culture.

Exploring the local art scene is one of the most enriching things to do in San Juan Islands, offering visitors a chance to delve into the creative spirit of the islands.

From galleries showcasing local artists to annual cultural events, the islands provide a wealth of artistic experiences that celebrate both the heritage and contemporary life of this unique community.

Galleries and Studios Showcasing Local Artists

WaterWorks Gallery: Located in Friday Harbor, WaterWorks Gallery is a premier venue for contemporary Northwest art. It features a range of media including paintings, sculpture, and jewelry, all crafted by local artists. The gallery is known for its dynamic exhibitions that reflect the vibrant artistic community of the islands.

Arctic Raven Gallery: This gallery specializes in fine art from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, with a particular focus on Native American art. Visitors can find exquisite carvings, basketry, and prints that are deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of the region.

San Juan Islands Museum of Art (SJIMA): Located in Friday Harbor, SJIMA offers rotating exhibitions that explore themes of environmental and social importance. The museum is committed to engaging the community with diverse and thought-provoking contemporary art from local and international artists.

Annual Cultural Events Worth Attending

San Juan Island Artists’ Studio Tour: Held annually in June, this tour allows visitors to step into the studios of local artists scattered throughout San Juan Island. It’s a unique opportunity to meet artists, see their work processes, and purchase original artwork directly from the creators.

Music on the Lawn at San Juan Historical Museum: Throughout the summer months, the San Juan Historical Museum hosts a series of free outdoor concerts featuring local and regional bands. It’s a perfect event for families and music lovers looking to enjoy live performances in a relaxed, scenic setting.

The Friday Harbor Film Festival: Held every fall, this film festival focuses on documentaries that inspire and illuminate. The festival showcases stories of the Pacific Rim and beyond, offering audiences insights into environmental, cultural, and historical issues through the lens of filmmakers from around the world.

10. Relaxing at Roche Harbor

Roche Harbor

Roche Harbor, once a historic lime kiln site, has transformed into a picturesque resort that epitomizes leisure and relaxation in the San Juan Islands.

This idyllic harbor, with its serene setting and array of amenities, offers a perfect retreat for those looking to unwind and indulge.

Visiting Roche Harbor is undoubtedly one of the most soothing things to do in San Juan Islands, blending natural beauty with upscale comfort.

The Appeal of Roche Harbor for Relaxation and Leisure

Roche Harbor possesses a tranquil charm that invites visitors to slow down and savor the moment.

The harbor is surrounded by beautifully landscaped grounds and offers stunning views of the marina, where yachts and sailboats gently bob in the calm waters.

The village’s architecture, with its historic buildings and quaint shops, adds to the serene atmosphere, making it a delightful place to stroll and relax.

Amenities and Activities Available in the Area

Accommodations: Roche Harbor offers a range of lodging options, from luxurious waterfront condos to charming historic hotel rooms. Each option provides comfort and style, ensuring a peaceful stay amidst the natural beauty of the islands.

Dining: The harbor features several dining venues, from the casual Lime Kiln Café, perfect for a quick bite or a morning coffee, to the fine dining experience at McMillin’s Dining Room, where you can enjoy gourmet meals with a view of the sunset over the harbor.

Spa Services: For those seeking ultimate relaxation, the Spa at Roche Harbor offers a variety of treatments designed to rejuvenate and refresh. From massages and facials to wellness consultations, the spa provides a tranquil space to unwind.

Outdoor Activities: Besides relaxation, Roche Harbor provides plenty of recreational activities. Visitors can enjoy kayaking, paddleboarding, and boating right from the marina. For a more land-based experience, there are tennis courts and scenic walking trails that explore the lush surroundings of the harbor.

Cultural and Historical Sites: Roche Harbor is not just about leisure; it also offers a touch of history. The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park and Nature Reserve near the harbor features over 150 sculptures in a unique outdoor setting, and the historic Hotel de Haro provides insights into the harbor’s past with its small museum.


Exploring the San Juan Islands offers a remarkable array of activities that cater to every interest and age group.

From the exhilarating whale watching and the serene experiences of kayaking and paddleboarding around untouched coves, to the rich historical insights found at San Juan Island National Historical Park and the cultural vibrancy of Friday Harbor, the islands serve as a perfect backdrop for countless adventures.

Whether it’s cycling through the gentle landscapes of Lopez Island, indulging in the fresh local cuisine, embarking on scenic boat tours, or diving into the arts and history, each activity provides a unique way to connect with this stunning region.

As we’ve journeyed through the top things to do in San Juan Islands, it’s clear that this destination is not just about the beauty of its natural landscapes but also about the depth of experiences available.

things to do in san juan islands

FAQ’s About San Juan Islands:

Why is San Juan Islands Famous?

The San Juan Islands are famous for their stunning natural beauty, rich wildlife including orcas, and a relaxed, peaceful lifestyle.

They offer a diverse range of activities such as kayaking, hiking, and whale watching, making them a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.

The islands also have a fascinating history, notably marked by the Pig War of 1859, which was a bloodless conflict over territory between the U.S. and Britain.

How do I get from Vancouver to the San Juan Islands?

From Vancouver, the most common way to reach the San Juan Islands is to drive to Anacortes, Washington, and take a ferry operated by Washington State Ferries.

Alternatively, you can take a direct passenger ferry service during the summer months or opt for a seaplane flight from Vancouver to several of the islands for a quicker and more scenic journey.

How long is the ferry from Seattle to San Juan Islands?

There is no direct ferry from Seattle to the San Juan Islands.

You must drive or take a shuttle bus to Anacortes, where you can catch a Washington State Ferry to several of the islands.

The ferry ride from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island typically takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes.

What country owns San Juan Island?

San Juan Island, like the rest of the San Juan Islands, is part of the United States.

The islands are located in the state of Washington.

What celebrities live in the San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands are known for their privacy and seclusion, which attracts various celebrities.

Actor Gene Hackman and author Tom Robbins have been known to reside in the San Juan Islands.

Other celebrities may have vacation homes there, but many residents value privacy, keeping such details discreet.

Do people live in the San Juan Islands?

Yes, people live year-round in the San Juan Islands.

The islands have a permanent population that enjoys the region’s natural beauty and quiet lifestyle.

The largest populations are on San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island.

Is it expensive to live on San Juan Island?

Living on San Juan Island can be more expensive than many places on the mainland.

Real estate prices are high due to the desirability of the location and limited availability.

Additionally, the cost of living is higher because many goods and services must be transported from the mainland.

Can you swim in the San Juan Islands?

Yes, you can swim in the San Juan Islands, though the water tends to be very cold even in summer.

Popular swimming spots include Cascade Lake on Orcas Island and Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. Some hardy souls enjoy the brisk waters, but it’s not for everyone.

Does it snow on San Juan Island?

Yes, it does snow on San Juan Island, but snowfall is typically light compared to the mainland.

The climate is generally mild, with snow occasionally occurring in the winter months.

How many days do you need in San Juan Islands?

A trip of three to five days is ideal to explore the San Juan Islands.

This allows you to visit the major islands—San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez—and enjoy activities such as hiking, whale watching, and visiting historical sites without rushing.

Is San Juan Island walkable?

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is quite walkable, with easy access to restaurants, shops, and attractions.

However, exploring the island’s wider area generally requires a bicycle or a car, especially if you want to visit parks and other sites that are spread out across the island.

Where should I live on the San Juan Islands?

Choosing where to live on the San Juan Islands depends on your lifestyle preferences.

Friday Harbor on San Juan Island offers more amenities and a busier social scene.

Orcas Island is great for those looking for arts, culture, and a slightly more rural setting.

Lopez Island is ideal if you prefer a quieter, more community-oriented lifestyle with flat terrain ideal for biking.

san juan island

(Island Expert)

Christian is a dynamic serial entrepreneur and a licensed real estate agent with a relentless passion for unlocking the potential of island real estate. Christian's expertise extends beyond entrepreneurship and property transactions. He possesses a profound expertise in crafting captivating content and persuasive copywriting tailored exclusively to the enchanting realm of island real estate.

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