Grey whale jumping from water near San Juan Islands

9 Reasons to Visit the San Juan Islands (Expert Guide)


Washington, USA—renowned for coastal views, nature and small-town life.

“Wait. What?”

Well it is, if you know where to look.

There are nearly 175 islands and corals in the state of Washington (not Washington, D.C.).

Of these islands, three stand out above the rest. It’s time you got to know them a little better.

Let’s get into the top 9 reasons to visit the San Juan Islands.

What Are the San Juan Islands?

The three islands commonly known as the San Juan Islands are: Lopez Island, Orcas Island and San Juan Island. If you’re looking for food, drinks, accommodations or fun, the best options are on these three islands.

Lopez Island:

With roughly 17,000 residents, Lopez Island is small in population and size. It’s the smallest of the three major islands. Thanks to summer homes, camping and better weather, it gets busy when summer rolls around. Also, people there are super friendly, so be on your best behavior.

San Juan Island:

Aptly named, think of San Juan Island as the New York City (gross exaggeration) of the three islands. It’s where Friday Harbor (San Juan County seat) is located. Of the three islands, San Juan has the highest population and the most commercial activity.

Orcas Island:

In terms of size, this horseshoe-shaped island is the largest of the trio. It’s also the most scenic. Covered with greenery and lakes, this is where nature lovers go to be at their best. Orcas Island is so beloved; locals literally call it a gem.

Where Are They?

Map of San Juan Islands

The State of Washington is known for the city of Seattle, Mount Rainier Park and Olympic National Park. It’s not exactly considered an island destination. But neatly tucked away beyond Washington’s northwest coast are the San Juan Islands. They’re south of Vancouver, Canada. This location means great year round weather and an ideal playground for outdoorsy travelers. Now that you can find the San Juan Islands on a map, it’s time for the fun stuff.

Island getaway without leaving the United States? That's easy. Welcome the San Juan Islands! Click To Tweet

Reasons to Visit

1. Marine Life

Love animals that aren’t in captivity? The San Juan Islands are a yearlong hangout spot for a number of them: bald eagles, sea lions and deer. Oh my. The islands are also known for killer whales, gray whales, humpbacks and Minke whales. I get a whale. You get a whale. Everyone gets a whale! And of course no proper group of marine life animals is complete without seals. Your best chances of seeing these animals are from the San Juan Island shore, a tour, or directly on the water in a canoe or kayak. But be careful, get too close and you might end up as whale food.

2. Water Sports and Activities

Woman in kayak on water

While on the topic of kayaks and canoes, rent or buy your own and get on the water. You can also go sailing or boating if kayaks and canoes aren’t your cup of tea. If you’re looking for a more catered to experience, book yourself a tour. There are several great tour options to choose from, ranging from hours to a few days.

Fishing is also a big part of why travelers head to the San Juan Islands. Choose from freshwater or saltwater. Grab some fishing gear. Hop on a boat. And go catch something!

Last but not least, don’t venture onto the water without taking the necessary precautions. Pack a life jacket, water, a first aid kit, water resistant clothing, and protection from the sun.

3. Take a Hike

Hikers have tons of options with rugged trails to walk, hills to climb and even beaches to cross. Go deep into nature past local landmarks, open fields and more. Grab your gear. Find the right map for the trails and islands you want to explore then head out into the wild.

4. Go on A Bike Ride

2 bicycles near water

Expert, intermediate and novice cyclists are always welcome in the San Juan Islands. It’s an affordable and popular activity during the warmer months. If you’re looking for a more challenging ride, look up the islands’ cycling itineraries. Each island has a unique layout and terrain. Choose the difficulty you’re most comfortable with take off. Explore and get a leg workout at the same time.

5. Eat Delicious Food

You won’t find any celebrity chefs. You won’t find Michelin Star restaurants. But you will find delightful food. And the icing on the cake is that it’s mostly home grown. Get fresh ingredients and high quality food in a friendly setting at a fraction of the price of those big city restaurants. Pair your meals with local wines to take your dining experience to the next level.

Looking for something a little more hands on? Try a farm tour or spend a couple hours wandering through a farmer’s garden or market (or both). You can even take classes taught by local farmers. Learn about planting, picking, cooking and more. It’s also the perfect opportunity to try a farm-stay!

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6. Taste Amazing Drinks

Glass of brown liquor on bar

Region specific drinks can tell you a lot about a place. The San Juan Islands have tasting rooms dedicated to wine, cider and beer. There aren’t many, but the relatively short list has some pretty elite options.

7. Experience the Art Scene

Didn’t think it was possible for a small group of islands to have a thriving art scene? Think again. There’s something about access to nature that brings out the best in artists. Buy local art, jewelry and other kinds of artwork at markets or in galleries. You can also sit back and enjoy performance and theater art from local and international talent. You’d be surprised by what may peak your interest.

8. Voluntourism

Shovels in grass

Not many people come back from a trip feeling like they’ve made the world a better place. But you can. The San Juan Islands have a bunch of unpaid volunteer opportunities for anyone who’s interested. Help out with events, tours and more (seasonal or all year long). I’ve curated a quick list below to get you started, but there are many more.

  1. Friends of Lime Kiln Society (F.O.L.K.S.) – State Park
  2. San Juan Island National Historical Park 
  3. The Whale Museum 
  4. Washington Trails Association 
  5. Washington Native Plant Society

9. More Activities

For a small group of islands, the San Juans have a lot to offer. The eight activities mentioned above only scratch the surface. Many tourists spend their time in the islands doing different things. Some enjoy zip-lining. Others go for the golf. Many visitors go to take advantage of nature photography opportunities. There are number of marine life tours marine, island tours and spas. In other words, there’s a little something for everyone. But don’t take my word for it. See it for yourself!

Looking to travel outside of the US? Read up on other amazing destinations on the JustFly blogs.