Up until very recently, I was basically a Friday Harbor/San Juan Island virgin. When my husband and I first moved to Washington in 2012, we went on a whale watching cruise with a 2-hour stop in Friday Harbor for lunch. That was it for my experience. My best friend, Janine, has visited me once a year from the Washington, DC area since I moved out here and every time she visits, we go and explore somewhere neither of us are familiar with. Two years ago we traveled to Vancouver, BC. Last year we explored Victoria, BC. This trip, San Juan Island! You can check out her travel blog here!
I am a planner at heart and I Googled everything I could about San Juan Island (I even wrote out the itinerary and laminated it!). I also contacted the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau for help with planning the trip (which I highly recommend doing for any city you are planning on visiting).
I originally wanted to spend four nights on the island, but due to the increasing costs (it’s what I get for planning it the weekend after the Fourth of July!), I had to slim it down to two nights. While I did have to cut my trip in half, I did manage to keep almost everything from my four-day itinerary with some creative time management! Still, with all my magic, I was unable to visit all the places I wished this time, but that just means I have to go back! If you are interested in seeing how Janine and I saw as much square mileage as we could to help plan your own trip, keep on reading!
Hotel and Transportation
Trying to find cost-effective lodging was proving to be difficult for my budget. I spent weeks searching through Air BnB’s, VRBO’s and hotels. Summer is condensed this far north and peak season is a busy time on the island. Tourists, whale watchers, nature enthusiasts and those looking for a break, flock to the island in the summer (and during the holidays), making hotel hunting a sport in and of itself. Hotels can get fairly pricey, and this was one of the reasons why I had to cut my trip by two nights. I ended up finding a great deal at the Orca Inn for less than $100 per night. Janine and I would have to share a queen bed in a small room, but the price was on point and I knew we would really just use the room to sleep.
About two weeks prior to the trip, I reserved a vehicle spot on the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor, which I highly recommend. The Washington State Ferry website is filled with good information, including to arrive about one hour before the ferry is scheduled to leave. The round trip cost with Janine as my passenger was around $77, which you pay at the ticket booth in Anacortes.
Day One: Ferry Ride, South Beach, Lagoons, American Camp, Whale Watching
I live about 30 minutes south of Seattle and we left the house at 5:45 a.m. on a Sunday and drove up to Anacortes. As stated before, the Washington State Ferry website recommends arriving (at minimum) an hour before the ferry is scheduled to leave. I wanted to catch the 9:05 a.m. ferry, and we arrived around 7:30 a.m. There were cars in line already that early, so I am thankful we arrived when we did (make sure to keep an eye on the Washington State Ferry website for delays or ferry issues!). I was also a driving-vehicle-onto-ferry virgin, and completed that with no incident (happy dance!).
The ferry ride was cold, windy and GORGEOUS! Sometimes I have to pinch myself when I remember I live in such a beautiful part of the country. The ferry ride is about an hour, and we arrived at Friday Harbor a little after 10 a.m.
Salty Fox Coffee is one of the first places you see getting off the ferry, and that is where Janine and I had some breakfast with Tom Murphy, the owner of Outdoor Odysseys, a kayak tour company. I was able to find a parking spot nearby fairly quickly and was surprised at how much ample parking was available. I had their breakfast sandwich, Janine had a breakfast bagel and we sat outside in the sunshine, taking in the sights before us! One of the adventures I unfortunately had to drop was a day of kayaking with Outdoor Odysseys, but Tom was still willing to meet up to chat, so that was very kind of him! Next time!!
After a hearty breakfast and some coffee, we said goodbye to Tom and our first stop was South Beach, per his suggestion. The Visitor’s Center describes South Beach as, “the longest public beach in the islands, with views over the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains. All along this pristine two-mile pebble-and-sand beach, a wide swath of massive driftwood has washed up and been bleached in the sun for decades.” South Beach is everything as described. Fellow beach-goers made interesting and fascinating structures out of the driftwood and we had fun hiking around on the beach, admiring the views. This is a great area you could have a family picnic, or literally just sit back on some of the driftwood and just listen to the small waves roll in and out.
Jakle’s Lagoon Trailhead
After admiring South Beach, we stopped at the Jakle’s Lagoon Trailhead to go on a hike. What was originally planned as a .5-mile hike ended up becoming a 4-mile hike as Janine and I somehow either read the trail map wrong and/or missed a trail to go directly to Jakle’s Lagoon. Walking on the glacier scorched earth of the Mt. Finlayson trail, we knew we had walked too far when we hit the Third Lagoon, which was a good half mile south of Jakle’s! Too far or not, we were rewarded with some beautiful lagoon views as we looped our way back to the parking lot, this time on the Lagoon Trail, which is deep in the island’s rain forest. Fun fact, if you are wondering why one part of the island is almost a barren desert, glaciers scraped almost everything off the south side of the island, leaving just a thin layer of top soil! And I just want to throw in there how much driftwood is on this island, it’s crazy! I also wanted to mention Leave No Trace – San Juan County as this is the first place in the country to be designated a voluntary Leave No Trace Area.
Because our hike took longer than expected, we did not have a chance to spend too much time at American Camp, but we did meet the great National Park Service volunteers and we watched a fun video about the history of American Camp versus English Camp and how the shooting of a pig almost started a war. The history of this small island is incredibly fascinating, and you can read about American Camp here. The Brits definitely had the better part of the island (more on that in day three!).
Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching
About a month before our trip, I randomly booked a whale watching tour with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. We booked for Sunday night at 5:30 p.m. per the suggestion of Captain Jeff. Upon arriving at the dock location, we found out right away that the staff of Maya’s Legacy were incredibly friendly, accommodating and they knew their stuff! They even waited for a couple who had booked a tour with them but had missed the ferry and had to take a plane onto the island! We all cheered for them when they arrived. The wait did not impact our trip at all as the boat that Maya’s Legacy uses is custom designed for speed! The whole ride was slick, smooth and fast. As we traveled through the waters, we were treated to gorgeous scenery in the San Juan Islands, and our guides shared information about what we were seeing – the geology, geography and the ecology. Jeff and Spencer also talked to our small tour group about the whale behaviors and whale identification. Both Janine and I learned so much about orcas in the few hours we were on their boat! Spencer took the boat up to Trincomali Channel in Canadian waters, along the shoreline of Galiano Island, where we were able to watch five transient orcas for a good 30 minutes. It was so awe-inspiring to see them socialize and hunt. I highly recommend Maya’s Legacy for your San Juan Islands whale watching experience!
We got back from our whale watching experience a little before 9 p.m. and as you may have noticed, I did not mention where to eat lunch as we hadn’t eaten since the 10 a.m. breakfast at Salty Fox! As we discovered, most of the restaurants in Friday Harbor also close at 9. Luckily, we stumbled upon Haley’s Sports Bar & Grill, which closes at 10:30 p.m. and we grubbed on nachos and iced tea. I can definitely recommend Haley’s if you find yourself starving in downtown Friday Harbor after 9 p.m.! After dinner, we made it back into our hotel (which we had checked into and showered up before whale watching), and hit the sack! I travel quite a bit and I must have been exhausted as I normally don’t sleep well the first night in a hotel room, but that night I was out like a light!
Day Two: The Whale Museum, Pelindaba Lavender Farm, San Juan Islands Museum of Art, Lime Kiln Point State Park, Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm, Roche Harbor
Janine and I met up with Barbara Marrett, the Communications Manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau at Cynthia’s Bistro for breakfast on Monday morning. If you wanted to talk to Superwoman in the flesh, you need to meet Barbara. She knows everyone on the island, and has done it all. Sailing in the South Pacific with twelve women? Check. Author? Check. Elected Official? Check. Fine art expert? Check. We absolutely loved chatting with her about the island and the food is so good at Cynthia’s, we went back the following morning and actually met Cynthia herself (who also has done everything!!!). The food, the coffee, and the wait staff at Cynthia’s were just fantastic. I highly recommend going to Cynthia’s to eat and I cannot say enough about that bacon. Cynthia told us they were known for their bacon and you can taste why. I want her to come live with me and make my husband and I breakfast every day!
The Whale Museum
After breakfast, Janine and I met with Jenny Atkinson, the Executive Director of The Whale Museum for an interview and then spent some time touring the museum itself. The Whale Museum promotes stewardship of whales and the Salish Sea ecosystem through education and research. The museum is the first of its kind to be dedicated to one species and even offers an Orca Adoption Program (Janine adopted an orca for her niece)! Through programs like this, the museum tries to connect people in a way so they can teach others how the ecosystem around the world is connected and that whales are not just a photo opportunity. I cannot emphasize enough to visit The Whale Museum for the educational value alone. The museum does have some fossil and bone displays, but mostly the education you will receive about whales is phenomenal and life changing.
San Juan Islands Museum of Art
After the whale museum, we made a quick stop at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, which I had planned because Janine is a huge art addict. The museum is small compared to other art galleries but it contains historical art pieces, Native American art and pieces from some personal collections that have never before been displayed to the public. The exhibition currently being displayed now through September 4, 2017 is called, “Emergence: First Nation Legendary & Emerging Artists.” Each piece of art displayed has a code next to it that you can scan and your phone will pull up all of the information on the work, including the artist’s name, name of the piece and a description or the piece’s story or the inspiration behind it.
Pelindaba Lavender Farm
On our way to the other side of the island, we stopped at the Pelindaba Lavender Farm to see and smell all things purple. Pelindaba is a Zulu word meaning, “Place of Great Gatherings,” and you can see why as you stare off into the beautiful fields. The farm cultivates all of their flowers from their own organically certified fields and extracts the essential oils from their on-site distillery. The visitor’s center contains a store filled with products with personal care, foot soak, tea, honey and sauces, pet shampoo, cleaning products, ice cream and so much more! You can also harvest your own lavender when the cutting field is in bloom (just ask the Visitor Center for instructions). The field also provides a wide array of Instagram worthy photo opportunities! Janine bought a lavender treatment stick and we both tried some lavender ice cream.
Lime Kiln Point State Park
Smelling like lavender, we made it to Lime Kiln Point State Park. Lime Kiln is a magical place to say the least (don’t forget your Discover Pass before visiting!). The hiking trails weave through beautiful forests and the cliffs overlook what is known to be the best place on earth for whale watching. Not too far off the shore, the water depth quickly drops to 300+ feet, and a little further from that, it drops to 900+ feet. While we didn’t see any whales swimming through the channel (there really isn’t a better time of day to see them), we did visit the Lime Kiln Lighthouse and chatted with Professor Emeritus of Psychology Bob Otis, who is here studying orca behavior. The work Dr. Otis and his team are conducting have helped advance our knowledge about orcas. The Whale Museum, in partnership with Washington State Parks and the US Coast Guard, uses the lighthouse as a research station focusing mainly on underwater acoustics. The primary goal is to better characterize sound levels and to understand how they impact orcas. Dr. Otis said his team has over 20 years worth of data that they have collected; when the whales swim through the channel, they turn on the hydrophones. Park guests can listen to the live recordings at the Orca Listening Station located near the lighthouse or they can access SeaSound, a closed Wi-Fi system that broadcasts the hydrophones live. If you head to Lime Kiln and happen to see Dr. Otis, tell him you want to give him a hug. Jenny Atkinson from The Whale Museum told us he gives the best hugs, so when I found him, I asked him for a hug – and Jenny was right!
Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm
After hiking around Lime Kiln and learning more about Orcas, we stopped over at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm before heading back to the hotel to change and then have dinner. Krystal Acres is an 80 acre farm, owned by Kris and Albert Olson. They fell in love with alpacas and walking around the farm, so will you. Their faces, their eyes and the way they are shaved with the cute tufts of hair on their head will melt your heart! I wanted to hug all of them! The Country Store also has a wide selection of alpaca sweaters, coats, toys and what I loved, yarn with pictures of which animal of the herd the yarn came from!
While I was already planning to check out Friday Harbor House for dinner (you can check out my recent article on their renovation here), everyone we spoke to leading up to our dinner said we had to eat there. Everyone was right. Between the views, the service, the food and the drinks, you can’t go wrong. The outdoor patio views overlook Friday Harbor, and the food is just phenomenal. I highly recommend saving room in your stomach for the brioche donuts…..our wonderful waitress, Haley, mentioned that the dough is made with bacon fat. Unless you are against bacon fat, the donuts are a must. My mouth is watering just thinking about them.
After that very long day and dinner, and it being summer, Janine and I still had a couple hours of daylight left, so we decided to drive to Roche Harbor Resort on the northern part of the island just to walk around. It could not have been more perfect with the sun setting, a flag retirement ceremony and a marina filled with giant yachts! We happened to be admiring the Watta Ryde, a Selene 92′ Ocean Explorer when the yacht’s realtor, Scott Hauck, chatted with us about the yacht and asked us if we wanted to come aboard and check it out. Janine and I were not on the market to plunk down almost $6 million for a yacht, but walking through it, we were in awe and were more determined than ever to win the lottery. It is for sale through the Hampton Yacht Group if anyone is in the market for some luxury! With the amount of yachts we’ve seen, there are most definitely plenty out there who can afford the cost of one. We heard while we were strolling around the harbor that feadship superyachts are considered some of the best in the world so I think we’ll get saving!
Day Three: San Juan Historical Museum, English Camp, San Juan Islands Sculpture Park & Nature Preserve, Home
San Juan Historical Museum
After sleeping in a little, packing up our hotel room, checking out and eating at Cynthia’s for breakfast again (that bacon, I’m telling you!), we headed over to the San Juan Historical Museum and met with the executive director, Kevin Loftus. We received a tour of the museum grounds and learned a lot about the future plans for the museum and the history of the entire island. If you are a history fanatic like I am, you will find all the nooks and crannies of the museum incredibly fascinating. San Juan Island is rich in its history and Kevin is a passionate story teller. The museum has artifacts, over 3,000 photographs, documents, letters, diaries and an oral history of recordings from over 30 people with deep roots in the San Juan Islands. The museum tells the story of why the island was settled and why people stayed – the answer is lime and fish more than anything else. Once the actual museum is completed, it is going to be a wonderful interpretive center of the island’s history and I’m going to have to come back and visit again!
After our museum visit, we booked it up to English Camp! If at this point you are wondering about the difference between American Camp and English Camp, both American and British farmers were living on the island. In 1859, an American killed a British pig, which almost brought the United States to the brink of war over the issue of territorial rights. Great Britain and the United States agreed on joint occupation of San Juan Island until the water boundary between the two nations could be settled, so it was decided that camps would be located on opposite sides of the island. And by joint occupation, I mean both sides sent over 200 soldiers to the island of 25 people! British soldiers established camp at Garrison Bay, where English Camp is located, while the American troops camped on the south end. In 1872, peaceful arbitration was reached and the San Juan Islands territory was placed in control of the United States. In October of that year, British camp was abandoned. The video we watched at American Camp is also playing at English Camp, and I really recommend watching it to get a better visual context of what life was like during that time period.
San Juan Islands Sculpture Park & Nature Reserve
On our way to Roche Harbor the previous evening, we saw the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park and planned to make a stop here, which we did. The park offers visitors a quality experience of nature and art working in harmony. The art is rotated as new pieces become available, so what you see one month may not be the same the next month. Each year, new pieces and new artists are given the opportunity to take their place, and there is even a section of “rejected art,” called Le Jardin des Refus’es. There were also some bird’s nests in the welcome center building with baby swallows getting fed by their mom! If I lived on the island, I could see myself driving up here and going for a walk or jog on the trails, and just enjoying the serenity around me.
San Juan Island is an incredible place, filled with rich history, beautiful and sweeping landscapes and locals who are passionate about island life. From a practical perspective, getting to and from there by ferry was easy and not as scary as I thought, I always found ample parking, and as someone who can be direction-challenged at times, I found my way around the entire island quite easily and did not have to rely on Google Maps very much. I highly recommend taking 3-4 days exploring the island and everything it has to offer. I need to go back because there is still so much more I want to see and visit!
Disclosure: I was not financially compensated for this post. I received some comped and discounted meals and services for review purposes. The opinions are completely my own based on my experience.
Lesley is the founder and editor of What’s Up NW. Prior to creating WhatsUpNW.com, she was the Seattle city editor for AskMissA.com. For both publications, Lesley has covered fashion shows, openings, and local charity events. She has written numerous articles shining the light on local businesses, encouraging readers to always shop local.