Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

A visit to the San Juan Islands: Three islands with varying offerings, all with great views

By Kate Miner For The Spokesman-Review

If you’ve ever traveled to the United Kingdom, the coast of northern Maine or eastern Canada, you can expect a similar feel when visiting the San Juan Islands. What’s different is that the temperatures here are moderated by the waters that encircle them, resulting in a generally mild maritime climate.

Nearby mountain ranges create a rain shadow effect, resulting in less rainfall compared to the usual patterns observed in Western Washington, and from the observation tower at the top of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, you’ll see panoramic views of the Cascade Mountains, the Olympic Mountains and many Canadian and American cities. Inlets and bays are dotted with circling gulls, bobbing boats, rocky shores, soaring eagles, and picturesque seaside homes and villages.

Getting there

To get to the San Juan Islands you’ll either need to take the Washington state Ferry, a small plane/seaplane from Seattle, Everett or Bellingham, or a private boat. When taking the ferry from Anacortes, you will need to decide which island you’ll be visiting and plan accordingly. The ferries require a reservation, and not all of them visit every island.

Once on an island, you will probably want to stay and explore, but if you choose to travel between islands, there are limited island-to-island ferries. One suggestion is to find a base camp and travel by boat or foot.

Which island?

There are 172 islands and reefs in San Juan County, but the ferry only serves San Juan Island, Orcas Island and Lopez Island. Shaw Island is accessible by ferry but has limited camping and visitor amenities.

Each island has unique experiences and accommodations. Lopez Island is more pastoral and is known for biking, quaint B&Bs and day visits. Orcas Island (the largest) is known for secluded forest cabins, water-view resorts and outdoor adventure. Mount Constitution on Orcas Island is the highest point in the San Juan Islands (2,400-foot elevation) and the second-highest mountain on an ocean island in the U.S. San Juan Island is home to Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor and is known for activities like camping, kayaking and boating.

Island events

There are several island events, farm tours, art events and glorious farmer’s markets throughout the summer and fall. Some of the more notable are the Orcas Island Cider and Mead Festival in May, the San Juan County Fair in August and the annual “Savor the San Juans,” a fall celebration of food, farms and films across all the islands.

San Juan Island

Friday Harbor calls itself the Gateway to San Juan Island. An idyllic village where the ferry lands is home to a large marina, shops, restaurants and inns. This is also the area where you can catch a boat for whale watching or tours, or head out on kayak or bicycle.

Recommendations for lodging in Friday Harbor are the Friday Harbor House overlooking the ferry dock, which has well-appointed rooms (each with a Jacuzzi and fireplace), and an excellent in-house restaurant overlooking the water. The grassy area sloping down toward the water is dotted with cozy fire bowls and lounging chairs with blankets, ideal for watching boats and stargazing. The Earthbox Inn & Spa is another retro-chic hotel in Friday Harbor, with a spa and indoor pool.

Heading north out of Friday Harbor, you’ll travel along Roche Harbor Road, with your first stop at the San Juan Vineyard for wine tasting, live music and island views. Continuing along this road you’ll come to what many say is one of the best restaurants on the island: Duck Soup, a not-to-be-missed dining experience showcasing local produce, meat and seafood, foraged edibles and goods made from island craftspeople. Also along this road are great family-oriented camping options. Lakedale provides an 82-acre, full camp experience. With everything from family camping and RV sites to fully equipped cabins and luxury yurts, and 40 acres of lakes to float your boat.

At the top of the island is Roche Harbor Resort. The only other area on the island where you’ll find waterside shops, dining and lodging, and home to Hotel de Haro built in 1886. Full of history, this area was built by John S. McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer who discovered the richest and largest deposit of lime in the Northwest. By 1886, the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company was a booming business, and the original Hotel was built as a Hudson Bay Post, surrounded by lush gardens overlooking 12 miles of coastline. Accommodations range from luxurious modern homes to historic hotels and quaint cottages.

Close to Roche Harbor is the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, built on what was once an orchard. This 20-acre nonprofit park is run by a board of directors and numerous volunteers and funded almost entirely by donations. It has about 150 separate art pieces by Northwest artists and involves a meandering walk-about with whimsical and thought-provoking sculptures.

As you travel down the west side, take time to explore English Camp and learn more about the area’s history. Further down West Valley Road, you’ll find Snug Harbor Resort on peaceful Mitchell Bay, offering year-round waterfront accommodations with cabins and suites with full kitchens. This area is also home to Saturn’s Return, a 42-acre all-inclusive farm with a small inn and the island’s only native population of trout, trails through forest and meadow, seasonal workshops and farm-to-table chef-prepared meals. Sweet Earth Farm is more established and rustic, with glamping tents.

Before heading back to Friday Harbor, be sure to make a stop at Lime Kiln Point State Park, a 36-acre day-use park equipped for boat/kayak-in campers. Walk to the lighthouse, explore the remnants of old lime kilns and watch wildlife. This area is considered one of the best places in the world to view wild orcas from the land and boasts breathtaking views of sea and sky.

Orcas Island

The horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island is often called, “the gem of the San Juans.” Named by a Spanish explorer for his sponsor, Viceroy Juan Vicente Guemes de Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, it’s only a coincidence the orca whales live here year-round.

It’s an intriguing mix of arts and lush forests, pristine lakes and home to Mount Constitution. This island is more rural, with curving roads that wind through forests, past artists’ studios and local farms. Since this island is hilly, it’s not as frequented by cyclists but can be a hiker’s dream. The 5,252-acre Moran State Park has several lakes and more than 38 miles of hiking trails. The old-growth trails around and up to Mount Constitution are impeccably groomed and offer expansive marine vistas. You can also drive or bike to the observation tower at the top of Mount Constitution.

The ferry brings you into a small area without much going on, but you will find the Orcas Hotel and Café here, which is an iconic landmark and was established in 1904. Next, make your way toward the top of the Eastsound, known as Eastsound Village, located at the upper curve of the horseshoe. This is where you’ll find the largest village with lodging, shops and restaurants. From there, you’ll either head over to the west side of the island, where you’ll find Moran State Park and Doe Bay, or to the east side, where you’ll find the Turtleback Mountain Preserve and Deer Harbor.

Eastsound Village has no shortage of well-curated shops, all within walking distance of the Outlook Inn. This newly renovated inn has a variety of lodging options including luxurious waterfront suites, and its restaurant, New Leaf Cafe, known for scrumptious fare, provides one of the best breakfasts in town. Tucked behind the Inn is Sara’s Garden, a peaceful retreat with gardens and ponds, and a quaint wooden chapel that exudes charm and poetic intimacy.

On the eastern side, Moran State Park has everything you need to stay busy outdoors – miles of woodland and lakeside hiking trails, and numerous campgrounds with swimming and boating. South of the park is the little hamlet of Olga, famous for its artists’ co-op, with an extensive collection of pottery, painting and jewelry, and Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, where you can dine with a water view at Doe Bay Café and enjoy cozy lodging, massage, yoga, sea kayaking, soaking tubs and more.

On the western side, Turtleback Mountain Preserve, saved from private development and now open to the public, has an 8-mile trail network that offers amazing views of the San Juan archipelago. Deer Harbor is where you’ll find one of the few sandy beaches in the Islands and a village with a small but quality selection of lodging, such as Pebble Cove Farm, an organic farm on the water. From the marina, you can schedule guided kayak and whale-watching tours, and the seaplane base is located here.

Lopez Island

If you’re seeking a quieter pace, Lopez Island is perfect. It’s simpler . It’s optimal to walk along the beach, go hiking, bird watching or kayaking, and provides the easiest cycling of the three islands. If you’re staying on one of the other islands, consider bringing your bike over for the day on the ferry and just pedal about. (The interisland ferry from Orcas Island or San Juan Island is free for walk-on passengers and cyclists.) It has parks for picnics, farms for frolicking and a bit of history to explore. Locals know it as “the Friendly Isle,” where everyone waves and smiles, and nobody is in a hurry.

When you come off the ferry, you’ll head out along Ferry Road and past Odlin County Park, then onto Fisherman Bay Road to Lopez Village. With quaint cafes, farm-to-table restaurants, a bookstore, galleries, a historical museum, a library and shops.

Lopez is home to artists, craftspeople, entrepreneurs, musicians, farmers, fishermen and nature lovers. Everyone is connected, and it’s a great place to just hang out and meet the locals, make connections, have a beer, listen to local music or spend hours bird-watching at Agate Beach and Iceberg Point.

For lodging, consider the Edenwild Hotel in Lopez Village with water views, where the major amenities are, “peace and quiet.” And for those bird watchers and agate hunters, look no further than the Mackay Harbor Inn. A B&B with a long sandy beach and homemade breakfast.