by Jennifer Fontaine – The low-key, beachy archipelago called the San Juan Islands, which is sandwiched between the mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island, feels like a world away. But in reality, it’s only a short (hour-plus) ride on the car ferry from Anacortes, Washington. The ferry stop of Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the best-known town and has the most services and amenities, making it a great base for families in search of adventure.
The San Juan Islands have it all; find your rhythm biking along quiet country roads, spend time kayaking in peaceful inlets, and relish hiking amid old-growth forests. A hidden gem of the Pacific Northwest, this naturally-preserved outdoor playground is perfect for an incredible outdoor family adventure.
The San Juan Island History
Lummi Indians were the first settlers on San Juan, with encampments along the north end of the island. North-end beaches were especially busy during the annual salmon migration, when hundreds of tribal members would gather along the shoreline to fish, cook, and exchange news.
The 18th century brought explorers from England and Spain, but the island remained sparsely populated until the mid-1800s. The town’s main street, rising from the harbor and ferry landing up the slopes of a modest hill, hasn’t changed much in the past few decades, though the cafes and shops are snazzier now than they were in the 1960s and ’70s.
The San Juan Islands Whale Museum
You’ll recognize the Whale Museum by the mural painted on its exterior. Models of whales and whale skeletons, recordings of whale sounds, and videos of whales are the main attraction. Workshops survey marine-mammal life and San Juan ecology.
The Whale Museum celebrates the majesty and the science of the world’s largest mammal. In Friday Harbor, residents and summer visitors share the surrounding waters with the wild whales. These waters are the museum’s extended exhibit floor.
You can even adopt a whale, with proceeds of the program supporting stewardship of the Southern Resident orcas and the entire Salish Sea ecosystem. Consider following The Whale Trail, a collection of whale-focused recommendations for visitors to the San Juan Islands. Whales follow the salmon runs, so although whale sightings are never guaranteed, you’re most likely to see them in the wild along these routes.
Kayaking the San Juan Islands
With tours ranging from 3 hours to 6 days, there is sure the be an adventure that’s right for you. No previous experience is needed to join any tour with San Juan Outfitters. Tours include all kayaking gear and dry bags to keep extra layers and personal items dry. San Juan Outfitters uses top of the line, safe, and stable fiberglass sea kayaks that are locally made in Seattle, WA.
Their reputation developed from a commitment to the highest level of guest service, and two exclusive sea kayak and whale watch facilities at Roche Harbor and Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. From these locations they provide the safest tours offering the highest chances of seeing whales and other wildlife. They are also the only company specializing in family tours with K-12 educators on staff.
A Roche Harbor departure gives families direct access to Haro Strait, your best chance of sea kayaking with killer whales. Leaving from Roche Harbor also takes guests past three national wildlife refuges with ample opportunities to view Bald Eagles, Harbor Seals, and lots of invertebrate life.
This trip with San Juan Outfitters was the absolute highlight of our entire trip. Our guide was connected, personable, and incredibly knowledgeable about not only the local flora and fauna, but also filled the hours paddling under the light rain with stories of the native’s traditions, complete with actual demonstrations!
Whale Watching from the Land
Don’t want to get in the water? No problem. To watch whales cavorting in Haro Strait, head to Lime Kiln Point State Park, on San Juan’s western side, just 6 mi from Friday Harbor. The little white 1914 lighthouse is a landmark for boats cruising these waters.
The best period for sighting whales is from the end of April through August, but a resident pod of orcas regularly cruises past the point. The Interpretive Center is a great place to learn more about transient orcas as well as the Southern Resident killer whales.
The Alpaca’s of San Juan Islands
Set among huge oak trees and sprawling pasture, the Krystal Acres alpaca farm claims the largest herd in the San Juan Islands. Owned by Kris and Albert Olson, their 80-acre spread, near Friday Harbor, is home to an ever-growing herd of more than 70 of these gentle close relatives of the llama family.
The farm warmly welcomes visitors to stroll the grounds daily, capturing those memorable moments on camera from their public viewing area, or to shop in their well stocked, unique Country Store. It is here you’ll discover the amazing versatility of alpaca fibre.
Best Fresh Seafood in the San Juans
A long walk down a scenic pier is where you’ll find Friday Harbor Seafood. With a nice selection of fresh catch seafood and helpful staff, along with the resident one-eyed harbor seal, Popeye.
Popeye has regularly made her summer home around the Port of Friday Harbor Marina since 1995. That makes her at least twenty one years old which means she’s in her golden years (Harbor Seal life span is twenty five to thirty five years), living out her seal retirement in the San Juan Islands.
We selected a dozen raw oysters, fresh salmon fillets, and large shrimp, which we took back to our cabin and devoured next to our cozy furnace with a gorgeous view of the harbor sunset.
Since we had a long drive to our resort, the lady that helped us packed them in ice. If looking for fresh seafood, this is your place.
Historic Cabins at Roche Harbor Resort
Roche Harbor has 28 historic accommodations built in the late-19th century and updated over the years.
The Hotel de Haro is the state’s oldest continually operating hotel, and its 19 rooms have hosted stays for visitors since 1886. Occupying the second and third floors of the hotel, all of the rooms have access to the balcony with seating for full views of the gardens and marina.
View our recent updates to the Hotel De Haro including: The John Wayne Suite, The Presidential Suite, The Hudson Bay Suite, The Harborview Suites, The Sunset Suite and the new shared bathrooms.
The historic cottages are a vestige of the company town from 100 years ago, sitting on the sloping hillside on the east side of the harbor. Near the pool, playground and grassy field, these family accommodations are perfect for those looking to engage the island outdoors. In 2017, these historic accommodations underwent major interior upgrades to the furnishing and decor.
All accommodations have access to our 24-hour Front Desk and daily housekeeping.
Family Friendly Dining on San Juan Islands
Local beers fill the taps, and local shellfish liven up a menu of gastropub classics, giving Cask & Schooner a distinct sense of place. If you’re too much of a landlubber to go for razor clam chowder or fish & chips, don’t worry; the meat pie or eggplant sandwich will still match the Pike Brewing Heirloom Amber.
The faux ship in the rear of the restaurant is perfect for kids who need to get their wiggles out while parents finish off their spicy braised short rib and frothy brews and it’s really easy to find as it sits walking distance from the Washington State Ferry dock.
Scenic Driving on San Juan Islands
You can really go wrong when driving any back country road on this island, but the scenic byway is a great introduction to all this island has to offer. Starting in Friday Harbor, this breathtaking drive winds through prairie and grasslands, cool forests, and along breathtaking cliffs overlooking pristine beaches. Covering nearly 40 miles, the drive will take roughly 2-3 hours.
Just passed the apple orchard where fine cider is made and an oyster farm that is most worthy of a visit, enter under the arches and up the winding road to Roche Harbor Resort and reward your expert driving skills with a delicious ice cream from Roche Harbor Market as you watch the ships bob on their slips.
How to Get to the San Juans from Seattle
Road tripping from Seattle to the “San Juans,” as the islands are known, is half of the fun. It takes less than two hours to drive to the Washington State Ferries terminal in Anacortes. Make a small detour on Interstate Highway 5 North to marvel at the 8.5-meter-wide Deception Pass Bridge, one of the state’s most photographed wonders, then get back on State Route 20 to Anacortes.
You may take your car aboard the ferry or simply walk on. Either way, carry your camera onboard, too. The views are breathtaking and you might even see a whale or seal. Ferry captains usually announce when wildlife is in view. There are ferry stops at four islands: Lopez, Orcas, Shaw and San Juan. During the busiest season, from April to October, be sure to make a reservation.
Don’t have a car? The San Juans are easily reachable from downtown Seattle via the Victoria Clipper, which offers daily passenger-only ferry service to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island from mid-May to early October. Day trips and overnight trips are available, with and without whale watching itineraries.
Jennifer Fontaine is the founder of Outdoor Families Magazine, publisher of MommyHiker.com, a blog to encourage outdoor activities with children, and an activist filmmaker inspiring dynamic change in the world. She lives in Southern California with her family.