Updated: Nov 4, 2022
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago of islands located about a 1 1/2 hour drive + a 1 1/2 hour ferry north of Seattle. Its most famous for the Orca whales that live there year-round, fresh seafood, and coastal mountain views. The San Juan Islands are stunning and there are lots of adventures to be found while there on a day trip.
When I found out my fiancé was headed to the San Juan Islands north of Seattle, I knew I had to come! One, I’ve always dreamed of seeing whales and experiencing that Pacific Northwest Island life, two I love a good adventure, and three give me all the off the beaten path destinations. A day trip to the San Juan Islands definitely hit all the marks and more.
Getting from Seattle to the San Juan Islands
Anacortes is the starting point for traveling via ferry to any of the San Juan Islands. You can also get there via seaplane or private boat.
We flew into Seattle Airport and rented a car. The drive is about 1 1/2 hours to Anacortes where we chose to stay. Anacortes is where the ferries to the San Juan Islands leave from. The ferry system in Washington State is large and you’ll find a bunch of times available for rides over to the islands, especially in summer during the high season.
We took our car with us over to San Juan Island so we could easily get around and see everything we wanted to since our time is limited. A lot of people bring or rent bikes instead. We found this to be about the same price and chose to save our money for the kayaking trip we wanted to take – more on that later!
You’ll book your ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island (or Orca Island) on the Washington State Ferry website.
We took the earliest morning ferry at 5:40 am to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. You must arrive 45 minutes early to get in line and save your spot. There are other ferries and islands you can visit in this Archipelago, but Friday Harbor is the largest town on the islands and the easiest for a day trip.
While you don’t have to have a ticket ahead of time according to their website, it’s highly recommended that you reserve a space online before your trip. In the summer months, the ferries do sell out regularly and you wouldn’t want to take a trip all the way there only to miss out on the trip! You can book ahead on the Washington State Ferry website.
It took about 2 hours via ferry to get to the island. The ferry moves slow, but the pace and beauty of the ride over will keep you smiling the whole time. We were required to wear a mask the entire time on the ferry but were also allowed to stay in our car during the ride as well.
We were also thankful we got an early ferry because parking in Friday Harbor is limited. Getting there early ensured parking was a breeze. You can also find free parking at the fairgrounds right outside town. While this requires some walking, it’s easy to get into town.
The last thing to plan ahead for is food. Food in Friday Harbor can be pricey. We chose to visit a grocery store the day before our trip so that we could stock up on some food for lunch and water for the day to save a bit of money! We were glad we did as even a sandwich on the island can run you about $20 alone.
Pack a day bag and include a jacket. It can get cold even in the summer months here, especially in the morning and evening. Layers are your friend, and you’ll want to be able to change if you get too cold or too hot. I also recommend bringing a hat and water bottle that you can refill throughout the day. While it’s not warm, it is very sunny there (reminds me of Colorado in winter!). It’s easy to think you’re not getting a sunburn if you’re not hot, but trust me, it’s easy here!
Why Just a Day?
While it would have been amazing to spend more time in the San Juan Islands, they are not a cheap destination. There are some ways to do it for cheaper, but it’s difficult without all the proper outdoor gear, which we didn’t have on our weekend trip. Instead, we decided to stay in Anacortes where the San Juan Island ferry leaves from.
Anacortes had several affordable hotels, and we found the Fidalgo Bay Inn which was nothing fancy but did the job on our weekend trip.
If you have the chance to stay longer, there are some beautiful places to stay on the different islands. Orca Island is another popular island besides San Juan Island and easy to get a ferry to as well.
San Juan Island National Historical Park
Wildlife is most active in the morning and evening. This meant the perfect spot to start our day was hiking around San Juan Island National Historical Park. The San Juan Islands offer tons of wildlife of their own, but also incredible views. You have to visit this area. It’s found at the southern tip of the island and offers views of three different mountain ranges from there – Olympic National Park, Mt. Rainer National Park, and the Cascades.
There are lots of beautiful views here, but the wildlife is what really blew us away! While there, we saw a bald eagle, foxes, otters, porpoises, and so many types of birds. We also loved how quiet and calm it felt there. Being there in the morning, no one was there. With a coffee in hand, we sat by the ocean and took in the beauty of this place!
San Juan Island is home to many different farms across the island. Each Saturday, there’s a local farmer’s market in Friday Harbor from 10 – 1 pm. We chose to grab a light breakfast while here to fuel us up for the day of croissants and you guessed it, more coffee!
There are lots of places to find a bench and enjoy your breakfast in the harbor. You can watch the boats and ferries come in, listen to the water, and get a great view.
Kayaking Trip with Outdoor Odysseys
After our breakfast and farmer’s market visit, it was time for our adventure! Kayaking and searching for the wildlife on the water on San Juan Island. A quick aside – yes, you have the chance to see orcas on one of these kayak trips. While it’s more likely you will see whales on a boating trip, the boating trips are not good for whales. People use predatory tactics to get boats to the whales fast and actually scare the whale population away. Kayaking is better for the whale’s and all the wildlife’s environment.
We chose to take a trip with Outdoor Odyssey and were so glad we did! We met up in downtown Friday Harbor at 10:30 am and were picked up by our guide Sam for the day. Their day kayak trips leave from Friday Harbor and head to Haro Straight. They offer full-day, half-day, bioluminescent bay, and multi-day kayak trips. I’d love to go back and do a multi-day kayaking and camping trip to a few different islands with them! It’d be such a unique experience.
We chose to do a full-day kayak tour. When you get to the starting point, you’ll get a quick orientation and it’s time to get out on the water! Your guide will help you get situated in your kayak and getting comfortable on the water. Speaking of the water, it is really cold, so you won’t want to jump in, but you’ll have a nice trip on the water keeping you cool.
The thing that really set this trip apart was our guide. He was so nice and really did a great job making our trip memorable. He knew so much information about the islands and worked to make sure we had fun the whole way.
Halfway through your trip, you’ll have a stop for lunch in another bay that is stunning. One of the coolest things about this kayak trip was that we had views of the mountains the entire time. It’s probably one of the most unique landscapes I’ve seen along with Page, AZ, and the Arabian Desert.
On our trip, we did not get to see any whales, however, we did see seals, porpoises, osprey, and got to eat some seaweed! Kayaking in such a gorgeous location for the day was enough but our awesome experience with Outdoor Odysseys was worth it.
Lavender Farm, Oyster Farm, or Winery Visit
After some kayaking, it was time for some relaxation. As mentioned when talking about the farmer’s market, the San Juan Islands are full of all types of farms. This means visiting a local farm is a must! You’ve got a lot of different options while there. We chose to visit a lavender farm called Pelindaba Lavender Farm since it was lavender season, but there are so many different kinds of farms you can visit. Here are some other highly suggested options:
Dinner in Friday Harbor at Cask & Schooner
Seafood! That is what you have to eat on your day trip to the San Juan Islands. On an island surrounded by wildlife and fish, you couldn’t ask for fresher seafood. We went to Cask & Schooner for dinner which came highly recommended by many different locals in town who we asked. It had a very small-town feel to it but can have really long lines due to its reputation.
Since it can have a line, plan ahead and put your name in. You can then walk across the street for a drink while you wait for your table. We had the biggest oysters here I’ve ever seen! I wasn’t a huge fan, but my fiancé really liked them.
Depending on the time of your ferry, after dinner head to Jackson Beach where you can enjoy the sunset and some local wine you got earlier in the day on the winery visit or a snack from the farmers market you got that morning! The beach is a favorite of locals and has a quiet feel.
You’ll need to be 45 minutes early for your ferry again if you have your car. You’ll wait in downtown Friday Harbor (the signs are really clear).
While this is a long day, trust me – it is worth it. You’ll love your day trip to the San Juan Islands and who knows, maybe you’ll even get to see some orcas while you’re there!