Reconnect With Nature on The San Juan Islands

By Natalia Kvitek,

Regardless of whether you’re looking for romantic sunset kayaking excursions for two or a visit to an alpaca farm for six including the kids, the San Juan Islands are just big enough to offer a plethora of outdoor activities all within reach of a short stroll, a bike ride or a boat journey. With temperate weather year-round and an easy-boat ride from surrounding cities on the Washington State Ferry, the San Juan Islands are an unlikely vacation spot you’ll want to keep a secret from even your closest friends.

Secret Islands Puget Sound

Morning at the San Juan Islands. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington CC BY

Hiking the Islands

lighthouse Washington State

The islands offer a myriad of hiking trails for all levels of visitors. Photo by Nikky CC BY

From leisurely coastline journeys with an overload of photo opportunities to historical hikes where you’ll learn as you climb, spread across the three largest islands are miles of trails.

Looking to catch a glimpse of Canada? Pick up where the British left off in 1860 when they went to war with the USA over this particular piece of scenery with a climb through forests of evergreen, oaks and madrones on Mount Young. You’ll start your hike at the waters of Bell Point, pass by a Royal Marine cemetery before marching up to where the trees clear out and the hill offers sweeping views of the Islands and far beyond. Be sure to pack a picnic to enjoy with the view as you’ll be hungry after this moderate to difficult hike.

Orca watching San Juan Islands

Wild and free Orcas roam around the islands. Photo by Jim Maya.

Winding forest trails on the Westside of San Juan Island lead you to another one of the best picnic spots in the State: located next to the lighthouse at Lime Kiln State Park which is also known as Whale Watch Park since its one of the best places in the world to do on-land whale watching. Come between May and September and you might enjoy some company, care of the Orca whales that frequently venture close to land.

Eagles on San Juan Islands

Glimpse an eagle in flight. Photo by Phil Green

To get the feel of sand between your toes, head to the South Beach trail, the largest beach expanse of San Juan Island. Start at the San Juan Island National Historical Park visitor center to grab a trail map and perhaps catch a glimpse of the eagles which nest among the Douglas fir trees. You’ll also pass a pristine natural prairie and views of Mount Rainier as long as the weather near Seattle is cooperating. This easy-to-moderate hike brings you through several different kinds of scenery and you can see well over 200 species of migratory birds along the way.

Wildlife watching on the Islands

Wildlife watching San Juan Islands

Seals playing on the shore. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington CC BY

Famed for its varied wildlife, the San Juan Islands remain unspoiled with opportunities to get up close and personal with orcas, foxes, sea lions, bald eagles and more. Whale watching tours offer more than just a glimpse of the three pods of orcas who are seasonal residents; if you’re lucky you’ll spot several more varieties of whales including minke, humpback and gray whales, as well as playful seals, porpoises, otters and sea lions.  The San Juan Island residents pride themselves on holding the utmost respect for these creatures, doing everything possible to ensure that their behavior and life cycles aren’t affected by the tours.

Orca watching San Juan Islands

The awe-inspiring Orcas of the Salish Sea. Photo by Ingrid Taylar CC BY

San Juan Safaris operates out of Friday Harbor with daily excursions accompanied by a marine biologist, binoculars and a 90% whale sighting record. They also have a Hydrophone on their 55 foot boat so you can experience the magic of hearing the whales sing! 

Sea Lions San Juan Islands

Sea Lions hanging out against the backdrop of the mountains. Photo by Jim Maya

Join the San Juan Island Whale & Wildlife Tours for a voyage out to the Salish Sea. With a six passenger limit on the boat, their tours offer an intimate eco-tour experience. Their evening tours, named the “Magic Hours Whale Watching Experience” has professional photographer and Captain Alan Niles setting you up for that majestic shot you’ll want to frame and hang above the mantel.

Water Activities off the Islands

boating San Juan Islands

Take full advantage of the incredible seascape around the islands. Photo by Dana CC BY

Take in the coastal scenery from another angle! Whether you’re stroking the water with a paddle or reeling in a catch on a chartered fishing boat, the tranquil experience of being out at sea is part of the charm of the San Juan Islands.

Kayaking San Juan Islands

A lone kayaker at Sunset. Photo by Mark B. Gardner Rainshadow Photographics

Regardless of whether you are a seasoned sea kayaker or a beginner, many knowledgeable outfitters offer three hour or even three day kayaking tours. Why not meld your kayaking adventure with a foray into gourmet food? Crystal Seas Kayaking will transport you from downtown Friday Harbor to their launch site and provide all necessary gear, including gourmet meals and wines that are organic and locally sourced whenever possible. Both the meal and the kayak experience will be tailored to your desires. 

Secret islands Washington

Discover tiny islands by boat or kayak. Photo by the Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington CC BY

All aboard with San Juan Classic Day Sailing! Climb aboard the yacht and get whisked away on a half or full day sail. The small family-owned-and-operated business takes on six passengers daily for sails ranging from romantic couples escapes under the sunset with wine and hors d’oevres to family cruises out to view the orca pods.

If you’re looking to put dinner on the table, the waters around the San Juan Islands offer an incredible variety of fish, including halibut, cod and salmon (depending on the season). Join North Shore Charters for a fishing adventure custom tailored to you.

See more Island inspiration here:

The Ultimate Dream Escape To The San Juan Islands

Eat And Sleep Your Way Through The San Juan Islands

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