A San Juan Islands day trip from Seattle is a must for anyone visiting Puget Sound. Nestled in the heart of the Salish Sea between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Vancouver Island, BC, the San Juan Islands is a collection of more than 743 isles and rocks, most of which are uninhabited by humans.
Of the 20 or so that are, just three, San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island, are open to tourists. Each of the islands has distinct character and qualities, and whether you choose one or all three, you’ll doubtless find plenty to do and see.
How to Get to the San Juan Islands from Seattle
Seattle to the San Juan Islands by Car
The San Juan Islands archipelago starts just about 90 miles north of Seattle. There are a few ways to get there, but most travelers begin their San Juan Islands day trip to Seattle in the car.
Typically, this means going via the city of Anacortes, where you can catch a ferry to the San Juan Islands. Located on Fidalgo Island, Anacortes connects to neighboring Whidbey Island and mainland Skagit County, Washington state, by bridges on either side.
By car, you can reach Anacortes from Seattle in a little over two hours.
Take Interstate 5 north and exit at Burlington, #230. Then, turn west onto Highway 20, which will take you to Anacortes. From the city center, follow the signs to the San Juan Islands and Vancouver, BC ferry terminal.
Alternatively, you can take a more roundabout route and get to Anacortes via the Keystone Ferry from Port Townsend, a quaint town just southwest of Seattle featuring beautiful Victorian architecture. The Keystone Ferry takes you to Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. From here, you can follow the main road to Highway 20, which traverses the island and continue north over the Deception Pass Bridge to Anacortes.
Bear in mind the ferry from Port Townsend to Coupeville cannot run in extremely low tides. While this doesn’t happen too often, check the tide charts or call ahead to avoid delays.
You can also go north from Seattle via I-5 North, then connect to Highway 525 North to the Mukilteo Speedway. From the Mukilteo ferry terminal, you can catch the ferry to Clinton on the southern tip of Whidbey Island. Highway 20 goes straight up the island, about a 90-minute drive from end to end, then through Deception Pass to Anacortes.
Unfortunately, day trips to the San Juan Islands from Seattle aren’t viable via public transit. Google Maps does outline some options, which involve a combination of buses and ferries and a total of eight or so hours’ travel time. However, it’d be a much better use of time and energy to take a car or hop on a charter.
Even if you drive much of the way, as you may have realized, at some point, you will have to hop on a boat or plane to get to your final destination.
If you need to rent a car for your trip, you can browse the deals available on Rentalcars.com. If you only want to go whale watching on your San Juan Islands day trip you can also book this tour that departs from Anacortes.
Seattle to the San Juan Islands by Ferry
There is no direct ferry from Seattle to the San Juan Islands. But you can take a ferry from the Seattle port to Anacortes.
Washington State Ferries offer round-trip, flat fee fares from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands. You can either walk on or take your car. The trip takes about an hour each way.
During the summer, the ferry lines can fill up fast. Get there early to avoid an hours-long wait.
San Juan Islands Day Trip Itinerary
The San Juan Islands may not be as famous as the Emerald City. Still, they have been a keystone of the Salish Sea for millennia, inhabited by Coast Salish people for about 9,000 years before European explorers from Spain set foot on the land in 1791.
As soon as you set foot on the islands, it won’t be hard to see why the land was so coveted, even igniting a “war” between England and the burgeoning U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century.
Besides their spectacular natural beauty, the islands enjoy a temperate climate thanks to the rain shadow provided by the surrounding mountains. The fair weather, combined with its locale, makes the San Juan archipelago a prime destination for tourists and its resident orcas, migrating humpbacks and minke whales, and a vast array of other wildlife, including porpoises, sea lions, and seals.
The islands are also home to the largest concentration of bald eagles in the continental United States and fertile ground for crops including lavender, camas root, and berries, among various other plants.
Don’t be surprised if you start checking out bungalows on Zillow by the end of your first day on a Seattle to San Juan Islands day trip.
But assuming you don’t decide to make a permanent move just yet, here are a few stops to check out.
Of the three tourism-friendly islands, Orcas is technically the largest. However, the second-largest — San Juan Island — is the most populous and by far the most frequented.
The county seat is housed here, as is the county hospital and historic fishing village Friday Harbor is the county’s only incorporated town, as well as the central transport hub between the islands and mainland U.S. and Canada, as well as surrounding isles.
In Friday Harbor alone, there is plenty to see and do.
Check out the art galleries, bookstores, and gift shops of the small downtown core, and grab lunch at one of the locally-owned restaurants or cafes. San Juan Vineyards, housed in a charming nineteenth-century schoolhouse, is a must for winos.
Whale-watching is by far the most popular activity in the whole of the San Juan Islands, and not just among tourists but residents too. Trust me, people who live on the islands for decades still get giddy when spotting one of these majestic creatures.
If you’re making just a one-day trip to the San Juan Islands and have to choose one main activity, make it this one.
There are around 72 resident orcas around the San Juan Islands and transient pods making their way to or from Alaska. You might see orcas in any season, but they’re most active in summer.
Several whale-watching excursions depart from the islands, operating every day during peak seasons. If you visit the San Juan Islands in the summer, consider booking ahead of time as tickets may sell out, especially on weekends. Some popular options include this tour from Friday Harbour or this tour from Ocras Island.
The San Juan Islands, like many islands in the region, is home to many farmers who grow crops to feed locals as well as visitors and mainland residents, and restauranteurs.
The San Juan Island Farmers Market, every Saturday morning, is the best place to sample a little bit of everything. But you can also take a self-guided tour of various farms or, if you’re visiting in autumn, join the Savor San Juans Festival with various foodie events and farm tours.
You can buy items from the farm stores as well, including fantastic lavender ice cream, or pick your own lavender bushels straight from the fields.
Over on Orcas Island, Orcas Moon Alpaca Farm is a must. Who doesn’t want to hang out with some of the earth’s floofiest and gentlest creatures? You can also purchase handmade alpaca goods from the farm shop.
Lime Kiln State Park
San Juan Island’s west coast is Lime Kiln Point State Park, one of the best places to whale-watch from land in the summer (May to September). Even if you don’t see whales, you can trek the ruins of the former lime kiln, check out the 1919 lighthouse and observe seals, sea lions, and porpoises, all against the beautiful backdrop of the Haro Straight.
Hiking San Juan Island National Historical Park
There are two former military camps on San Juan Island and, as you may have guessed, these are the American Camp and English Camp. Although there are certain distinctions, they’re pretty similar in aesthetic and layout, and both are located within the National Historical Park. The park offers an interesting peek into the past and hiking trails with lovely sea views.
South Beach and Fourth of July Beach, located in the American Camp on the south of the island, are favorites among visitors.
On the north end of San Juan Island is Roche Harbor, with its historic Hotel de Haro, built in 1886. Once a bunkhouse for men who worked in the lime kilns, it is now a resort and popular wedding destination.
But the hotel is far from the only attraction. Roche Harbor is a great jumping-off point for kayaking as well. Paddling around the rugged coastline, you’ll enjoy incredible views of snow-capped mountains, vast ocean, and various marine creatures. Be sure to paddle by Half Moon Bay, the only public part of Henry Island, with its gorgeous stash of sea glass and rocks.
Hiking Orcas Island
If you have the time, hop on another ferry from Friday Harbor and set sail for Orcas Island. The 50-minute journey itself, with stunning views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Mount Baker, and the Cascades, is a treat. But the island, with its laid-back energy and wild landscape, has more to offer still, particularly for the outdoorsy types.
When you arrive on Orcas Island if you’re up for a challenge, head to Moran State Park and hike the rigorous 6.7-mile Mount Constitution Loop Trail for an even more spectacular view of the surrounding islands and Strait and 2,000 feet above sea level.
If you’re not quite up to that, the Little Summit Trail is just 2.2 miles with a gain of 389 feet.
Alternatively, the Land Bank area of Turtleback Mountain offers views arguably as good as those at Mt. Constitution or Little Summit and may be less crowded during peak tourism season.
Explore Eastsound, Orcas Island
Eastsound, about a 15-minute drive from the ferry dock, is the Friday Harbor of Orcas Island, with charming late 19th Century architecture and some fantastic small shops and cafes.
Biking Lopez Island
Smaller in size but similar in character to Orcas Island, Lopez is the heavenly home to more animals than people. But the humans that do inhabit it are famously friendly.
With a relatively level terrain, quiet country roads, and stunning scenery, it’s a haven for cyclists. Don’t worry if you didn’t bring your bike; you can rent them. Cycle through the roads lined with colorful wildflowers, including poppies and lupines, and stop by one (or a few) of the island’s vineyards and artists’ studios.
For a beach stroll, head to Agate Beach on the southern end of the island or Spencer Spit State Park to the east. You can also hike the forest trail at Shark Reef Sanctuary, home to far more sea lions and otters than sharks.
In summer, the weekend farmer’s market in Lopez Village is a great spot to stop for provisions before catching the ferry back.
Have More Time?
With so much to see and do, it’s challenging to fit everything into a one-day San Juan Islands itinerary. If you have more than one day in the area, after exploring each of the San Juan Islands, consider spending a bit of time in the historic town of Anacortes on the ferry ride back and head to Deception Pass State Park for some more fantastic hiking and stunning ocean views.
Following Highway 20 from Anacortes and Deception Pass, you can stop by Whidbey Island’s creative hub, Langley, along the way to the South Whidbey ferry in Clinton. Another popular spot for Seattleites in need of a weekend getaway, the quaint historic town is a hub for creative types.
It’s also home to a booming population of adorable bunnies. But mention the latter to locals at your own risk; it’s a hot topic, particularly among farmers and gardeners.
Where to Stay in the San Juan Islands
If you’ve decided that you’re after more than simply a San Juan Islands day trip then you’re likely going to need to find a great place to stay in the area. Friday Harbor is probably the best location for this and if you’re looking for the perfect place to rest your head here, check out these great options:
Friday Harbor House – If you’re looking for a bit of style and luxury while in the San Juan Islands, then this is a great hotel choice for you. They have a range of plush rooms available, an excellent location in the heart of Friday Harbor and an on-site restaurant featuring a locally sourced menu. Click here to see their availability
Tucker House Inn – If you’re after a quaint, comfortable and pet-friendly bed and breakfast during your trip to the San Juan Islands, then this is an excellent option for you! They have a number of great rooms available to suit all kinds of visitors and delicious breakfast is included each morning. Click here to see their availability
Private Rental – If a hotel or bed and breakfast doesn’t quite suit your fancy, then consider a private vacation rental while in the San Juan Islands. There are countless options available in the area, such as this peaceful waterfront cottage near Friday Harbor that you’re sure to find something that suits your needs. Click here to browse private rentals
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more hotels in the San Juan Islands!
Planning the perfect San Juan Islands day trip from Seattle can be a difficult task when you consider just how much there is to see and do in this beautiful area of Puget Sound. However, with the proper planning, you can have an enjoyable day trip and forge memories that will last a lifetime.
Are you thinking of doing a day trip to the San Juan Islands? Have you been before? Let us know in the comments!