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Visiting the San Juan archipelago is like entering another world, yet the islands are easily accessible from Seattle, with a drive to the town of Anacortes followed by a scenic ferry ride – or, even better, via floatplane. San Juan Island, the second largest and most populous, is home to the historic seaport town of Friday Harbor, with a number of museums, art galleries, eclectic shops, and lots of outstanding eateries, while Orcas Island is best known for its tranquility and outdoor adventure, though you can arguably find both on either island.
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What Is It? One of the best places in the world to see orca whales in the wild is San Juan Island.
Why Do It? The whales come and stick around for the abundant supply of Chinook salmon. Known as the Southern Resident killer whales, they can frequently be seen in the waters off the west shores from late May through early October. The best opportunity for a close-up view is to take a kayak tour, where you’ll get a much more intimate experience than you would by joining your typical boat whale watching tour.
Good to Know: Not only is it fun to paddle through the frequently calm waters, but in addition to orcas, you’re likely to see a wealth of other wildlife, including bald eagles, dolphins, minke whales, seals and otters.
What Is It? Orcas Island, that green paradise referred to by locals as the “gem of the San Juans,” is home to the highest mountain in the islands, Mount Constitution, which rises nearly a half-mile from the landscape.
Why Do It? Moran State Park hosts a trek to the top, among its 38 miles of hiking trails. Sitting at the crest is a stone tower replica of 12th-century Russian watchtowers. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built the tower and the road and bridges that lead to the summit.
Good to Know: While the 6.8-mile round trip trail is steep and challenging, when you get to the tower, you’ll be rewarded with a 360-degree view of this magnificent region, including glimpses of the North Cascades and Mount Baker, as well as numerous other islands. If you’re not all out of breath yet, you’re sure to be now.
What Is It? If you’d prefer to stay on land and watch for whales, rather than heading out in a kayak, one of the best places to see them from shore in the world is at Lime Kiln Point State Park, AKA Whale Watch Park, where they come in especially close to land.
Why Do It? The 36-acre park is also home to a picturesque lighthouse that’s open for public tours in the summer. Built in 1919, it continues to serve as a navigational beacon for ships in the Haro Strait today.
Good to Know: The site also hosts an interpretive center with a gift shop, and there are a number of natural trails that wind through the woods.
What Is It? If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’re in luck. Both San Juan Island and Orcas Island offer wine tasting.
Why Do It? Orcas Island Winery just recently opened its tasting room, serving nine different varietals, and you may want to pick up a bottle or two as purchases are only available onsite.
Good to Know: San Juan Vineyards is in Friday Harbor and is the only commercial operating vineyard and winery on San Juan Island. It produces wines from the vines grown in the vineyard and grapes brought from the Yakima Valley and Horse Heaven Hills Appellations of Eastern Washington.
What Is It? One of the best ways to explore either island is to get out on a bike.
Why Do It? If you don’t want to bring your own, there are a number of outfitters that rent them. Biking Orcas Island is generally for the more experienced riders, with lots of steep hills, and narrow, winding roads. Cycling to the top of Mount Constitution is a popular, but exhausting pursuit, though many feel the views from the top make it more than worth it.
Good to Know: San Juan Island offers a mix of both challenging and more gentle, flatter routes. You can circumnavigate the island in a day, traveling about 43 miles, though you might want to do it in two, there are so many attractions along the way.
What Is It? Friday Harbor hosts The Whale Museum, a must-visit for anyone interested in whales.
Why Do It? This fascinating natural history museum was the first in the nation to be dedicated solely to a species living in the wild. Here you can actually listen to the orca whales sing, as well as learn about the marine ecology of the Salish Sea, and perhaps even adopt your own orca. There are two floors to explore – upstairs, in the Gallery of Whales there are exhibits focused on the natural history of marine mammals, with a special focus on the orcas of J, K and L Pods that live here in the Salish Sea, the inland waters around the islands.
Good to Know: The museum also hosts a fascinating collection of other displays, artwork, models, and artifacts, including real whale skeletons.
What Is It? Like lavender? San Juan Island has that going for it too.
Why Do It? The purple spreads across 25 acres, which also includes a lake and gorgeous views of the Olympic Mountains. You can stroll through the fields, visit the nursery and essential oil distillery, check out the educational exhibits and purchase from over 200 lavender-based, botanical, culinary, personal care, therapeutic, household, and pet care products that are handcrafted and sold onsite.
Good to Know: In the summer, lavender-based snacks and other refreshments are available too.
What Is It? Golf lovers have the opportunity to play on both Orcas and the San Juan islands.
Why Do It? The Orcas Island Golf Course has a 9-hole course and welcomes all to play, with an excellent selection of golf club rentals along with a practice range and golf lessons in a spectacular setting across from Crow Valley with views of Turtle Back.
Good to Know: The San Juan Golf & Tennis Club features a picturesque 9-hole course, driving range, practice green, chipping/pitching green, a full-service pro shop, a grill, lessons, and more.