Enjoy Outdoor Activities in the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are a delightful set of islands near Seattle, Washington, lying between the mainland and Vancouver Island. This is a special place - beautiful and peaceful, where bald eagles soar overhead, and orca whales cruise through the surrounding waterways. If you enjoy outdoor activities, nature and wildlife, and getting out on the water, then you will love the San Juan Islands.

Sailing in the peaceful San Juan Islands
Sailing in the peaceful San Juan Islands | Source

About the San Juan Islands

Depending on what you count as an "island", there are up to 700 islands in the San Juans, but hundreds of these are so small that they disappear at high tide. There are only about 40 islands inhabited by people, while 83 of them are set aside as a wildlife refuge. Only the 4 main islands are served by the Washington State Ferry system. When you head to the islands, you're really getting away from it all!

The magic begins when your ferry boat pulls away from the dock at Anacortes, and heads out towards the San Juan Islands. It feels like leaving the real world (that hectic world back on the mainland) behind, as you head into the peace and magic of the islands. The ferry winds its way around numerous rocks, islets, and islands, and you're lost in a land of blue sea, rocky coves, and tree-covered hills.

Map of the major San Juan Islands

show route and directions
A markerSan Juan Island -
[get directions]

B markerOrcas Island -
[get directions]

C markerLopez Island -
[get directions]

D markerShaw Island -
[get directions]

The two largest islands, and the ones that most visitors see, are San Juan Island and Orcas Island. San Juan Island has the largest population, and is the location of the island chain's only incorporated town, Friday Harbor. Even though it's the largest town in the islands, Friday Harbor is a laid-back, slow-paced, friendly small town. You'll find some great restaurants here, though, and plenty of delicious seafood! Orcas Island is a touch bigger area-wise, and it's wilder, more rugged, and has fewer people.

Weather in the islands

Weather in the islands is generally drier than in Seattle, though you may still find rain. July and August are the warmest months, though it's delightfully temperate - a wonderful change from places with sweltering summer temperatures. The winter gets cold, with occasional snow. Whenever you go, you'll want to take the best travel clothes for the season, with versatile layers, and a jacket in case of rain.

Video views of the San Juan Islands

Fun activities in the San Juan Islands

Once you're out in the islands, there are plenty of activities for those who love the great outdoors. When you want to savor the fresh air and scenery, here are a few suggestions.

Hiking - The best spot for hiking is Moran State Park, on Orcas Island. This park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails, ranging from an easy loop around Cascade Lake, to the strenuous climb up Mount Constitution, the highest point in the islands. It's a tough hike, but it's worth it for the views out over the rest of the islands. On a clear day, you can see Vancouver Island (Canada), and the snow-covered peak of Mount Baker in the Cascades.

Fox on a rock. San Juan Islands. Photo by Adventurous Wench
Fox on a rock. San Juan Islands. Photo by Adventurous Wench
Paddling is popular in the San Juan Islands
Paddling is popular in the San Juan Islands | Source

Kayaking - There are plenty of places to go kayaking in the islands, and you'll find kayaking companies on both San Juan Island and Orcas Island. You can sign up for a 3-hour kayak trip that stays near the shore, where you're likely to spot harbor seals, bald eagles, and orange or purple starfish. If you're up for a longer paddling trip, you can take a full day tour, or even a multi-day adventure that visits different islands.

Biking - You can rent bikes on either San Juan Island or Orcas Island. San Juan is a bit easier for biking, while Orcas has more challenging hills. Of course the granddaddy of them all is cycling up Mount Constitution, and you'll see hardy souls peddling valiantly up the mountain on any nice summer day.

If you'd like an easier biking venue, try Lopez Island, which is even less populous and more quiet than the other two.

Whale watching - The most famous residents here are the orca whales (also known as killer whales). There are three "resident pods" of orcas that spend a lot of their time in this area, especially when the salmon are plentiful. Orca whales are powerful and majestic creatures, and a chance to see them in the wild is very different from watching them in a tank at SeaWorld. You can watch whales from shore at Lime Kiln State Park, but your best bet for a successful sighting is to take one of the whale-watching boat tours from San Juan Island. The boat captains are experts at finding the whales, so if they're anywhere in the vicinity, you'll get to see them.

Whether you prefer your adventures ashore or afloat, you'll find wonderful ways to enjoy your time in the beautiful San Juan Islands.

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Comments 3 comments

Regina 5 years ago

This out of the way town seems like a lovely place to visit. Thanks for the discovery!

happyexplorer profile image

happyexplorer 5 years ago from Mostly USA, sometimes elsewhere Author

Hi Regina!San Juan is indeed lovely. A trip there will prove refreshing. Thanks for dropping by.

bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

We seem to have some similar travel interests. First Sicily, now the San Juan Islands. I have a Hub on whale watching in the San Juan Islands and this is one of my favorite places. Great Job. VU, sharing, etc.

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