The San Juan Islands, just off the northern coast of Washington state in the Salish Sea, represent the Pacific Northwest in all its glory — abundant wildlife, lush landscapes, friendly fishing villages and stunning water views in every direction.
Roughly 160 kilometers northwest of Seattle, the San Juan Islands are made up of more than 172 named islands and reefs. The most frequently visited islands are the four with ferry service: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw. One of world’s best whale-watching destinations, the San Juan Islands have their fair share of attractions on land, too, with peaceful beaches and meadows to explore on bike or foot, and numerous art galleries to meander through.
Start in Seattle
Since Seattle is the gateway city to the islands, first spend at a day or two exploring this eclectic city. While you shouldn’t miss going to the top of the Space Needle or watching the fishmongers throw fish at Pike Place Market, consider also taking in larger-than-life waterfront art at the Olympic Sculpture Park and touring the city’s subterranean passages on the Underground Tour of 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.
Stay in the gateway city of Seattle for a couple days to see attractions like the EMP Museum and the Space Needle before traveling to the San Juan Islands.