San Juan Islands road trip
Snuggly ensconced between Northwestern Washington and Vancouver Island is a collection of landmasses that yield to the ebb and flow of the Salish Sea. The 172 islands, each with its own distinct appeal, are known collectively as the San Juan Islands. Only four of the islands are serviced by the Washington State Ferry System, the others are left to boaters and pilots to explore. Some of the islands are privately owned and prop up giant estates. Others have been designated as state parks with hiking trails and camping. A few are only visible during low tides, which can make boating a contact sport.
Originally from Seattle, I’ve spent a fair amount of time exploring the state, but one area that had eluded me was the San Juan Islands. I had heard many stories of its breathtaking beauty and charm and my desire to explore for myself was finally realized during a week of Chamber-of-Commerce weather in late July.
I was heading to Seattle for a family wedding and decided to extend my visit so I could take a road trip to the San Juan Islands. I invited my sister Susanne to come along for the ride and she enthusiastically accepted. Anyone who has ever joined me on “Mike’s Road Trip” can attest to the exciting adventures I encounter.
After escaping the hellish traffic of Seattle we made our way north on Interstate 5 to the coastal town of Anacortes where we would board a ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We were a bit early for the ferry so we drove through downtown Anacortes and found a nice little place to grab some sandwiches to eat on our ferry ride. Both Susanne and I remarked at what a delightful and seemingly up-and-coming town Anacortes seemed to be, definitely a place to come back and explore in the future.
We then made our way to the ferry dock where we waited in line to reach the tollbooth. I had been informed to make reservations, which, thankfully, I had several weeks earlier (the ferries in Washington are very busy during the summer months). I was also told to arrive 30 minutes early, which we had. It did, however, take us nearly 15 minutes to reach the tollbooth, by which time it was only 20 minutes before the ferry departure, so we were put into a “holding” lane. The attendant told me that we needed to be at the ferry 30 minutes before the sailing. When I informed her that we had been in line for 15 minutes, she simply replied, “I don’t doubt it.” I was really concerned that we would not make it on the ferry. As it was, there were only five additional cars behind us that made the sailing. [TIP: arrive 45 minutes early to the San Juan Islands ferry during peak season.]
After parking the car, Susanne and I headed to the top deck of the ferry where we enjoyed our lunch and the amazing scenery that passed by. It was a gorgeous day and the excitement was building. As we disembarked the ferry and drove through Friday Harbor toward our hotel we were enamored by the alluring charm before us. There were beautiful boats in the marina, colorful flowers in every direction with shops and boutique hotels terraced up the hillside. We even saw a duo performing some old-time music with an accordion and bouzouki; the style was quite fitting for the scene. We parked the car at our hotel and started strolling the streets. The picturesque harbor town had an electric atmosphere that made us fall in love instantly.
We had made reservations to go zip-lining so we met our tour guides in town and were whisked off to their camp in the forest where eight zip lines awaited. Both Susanne and I had been zip-lining many times before, and were really looking forward to the experience. Beyond the obvious adrenaline rush, each zip line tour is unique, some are really high up, some really long and some are very fast. While we both had a fantastic time on our San Juan Island Zip Tour, it was pretty novice and seemed to be geared for newbies rather than adrenaline junkies like us. I think the longest zip was only 600’, where the longest I’ve ever been on was 3 times that distance. The longest in the world is well over a mile.
After our zip tour we went to check into our accommodations at the Friday Harbor House, a really nice boutique hotel perched atop the hill overlooking Friday Harbor. We had a wonderful view from our room with a large sliding door that led to a grassy knoll with several tables and chairs to relax and take in the views.
After getting settled and freshened up, we hit the road en route to Roche Harbor on the other side of the island. On the way we saw rolling farmlands, dense forest, vineyards and many deer nibbling on wild berries and foliage. We stopped at a fantastic 20-acre sculpture garden that must have had over 100 works of art in various mediums. There was a pond right in the middle of the park with an old rowboat in the center with a giant bird that looked like a heron. At first I wondered if it was a sculpture, but a moment later its head moved.
Our visit to the sculpture garden was far too short, but we had dinner reservations at McMillions and didn’t want to be late. We made our way down a winding road that led us to the waters edge into Roche Harbor. Around every bend in the road there was some awe-inspiring sight and Roche Harbor was yet another that captured our attention. The setting looked like a scene depicted in a watercolor painting. Beautiful 19th century buildings dotted the hillside with a yellow brick path leading visitors through the village. Yachts filled the harbor and colorful flowers adorned the streetlights and landscapes. The harbor was once a company town that quarried lime; the kilns and equipment are on display for visitors to see and learn of the history.
During dinner we asked our server if there was a good place to watch the sunset, he recommended the Lime Kiln Lighthouse about 15 minutes away. We arrived at the lighthouse about 20 minutes before the sun was to set. The sky was already starting to put on a display of utter beauty. The lighthouse setting reminded me a bit of Maine, with its jagged shoreline and picturesque setting. It was the perfect end to our first day in the San Juans.
The next day we woke to a beautiful sunrise casting its amber glow across the harbor. We headed to the restaurant area of the Friday Harbor House where they had a nice breakfast buffet presented. With coffee in hand we headed outside to sit at one of the tables on the grassy knoll overlooking the harbor. It was a sensational start to our second day on the islands.
With luggage in tow we loaded up the car and set off in another direction of the island we had not yet explored. Our first stop was a stroll through the American Camp, one of two historical military parks on the island. The other is the British Camp. In the late 1850s Great Britain and the United States shared San Juan Island while a water boundary between the two nations could be settled (back then Canada was under British rule). This dispute was known as the Pig War. The squabble ended in 1872 by by a German arbitrator which left the San Juans as part of the United States. During the “war” it was decided that the camps would be located on opposite ends of the island; unfortunately we never made it to the British (aka English) Camp.
The American Camp is on a grassy slope about 200 yards from the shoreline of Griffin Bay. The park has a number of historic buildings but the main attraction is the vast beauty of the grounds and its view of the water.
Our next stop was to the Pelindaba Lavender Farm where my sister seemed to be in heaven…she loves all things “lavender.” During our trip, each time we walked past lavender plants, Susanne would grab a bushel (more like a handful) and stuff it in her bra. The first time I noticed this I asked what the heck she was doing. She said, “It has a calming affect, plus I love the smell.” My sister is very high strung so I replied, “I don’t think it’s working…” We both had a chuckle.
Soon after we checked into our hotel that first night, I went to the bathroom and noticed debris on the floor. I asked Susanne what it was and she said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Well, I doubt housekeeping would have left it there.” Later that evening Susanne came out of the bathroom and said, “I think I know what the stuff on the floor was.” “What?” I said. She replied, “I think its lavender from my bra.” We both roared with laughter.
We then stopped by the San Juan Vineyards to taste some of the local vino and ended up buying a bottle of their Siegerrebe for a sailboat cruise we would take the next day.
It was nearing lunchtime so we stopped by the Market Chef where we had a marvelous meal. We split two sandwiches and one really stuck out…it was a veggie sandwich on freshly baked multi-grain bread with sunflower seeds, apple, brie, sprouts and a deli mustard. It was delicious!
After lunch we boarded a ferry en route to Orcas Island where we would spend the next couple of days. Once we disembarked we headed to the other side of the island toward our accommodations. We checked into the Lodge at Orcas Island and met Dave, the owner/innkeeper. We hit it off immediately and ended up talking for a spell before freshening up for our evening out.
The Lodge at Orcas Island reminded me of a beached ship with characteristics reminiscent of the movie Swiss Family Robinson, with its rope railings, fish tanks and its perched open-air deck surrounded by tall trees. The accommodations are a bit like a hostel or bunkhouse providing a sense of European hospitality. There are cozy common areas, a full kitchen and laundry services available for guests. The lodge is definitely communal which can be a lot of fun getting to know other guests. European visitors will really dig this place, however some Americans might prefer more private accommodations. Most of the rooms have shared bathrooms and some are on the small side, but the Lodge has something for everyone. The largest room is quite spacious, nicely appointed and very comfortable. While the Lodge might not be for everyone, it is a pretty unique place that fits the theme of the island quite well.
That evening we headed up the street to Rosario Point where we had a gastronomic meal at the Mansion Restaurant at Rosario Resort & Spa. The venue is stunning with sensational views of the bay below. The dining experience absolutely matched the stunning views. Click here to read more.
After dinner we raced through Moran State Park to the top of Mount Constitution (a soaring 2400′ peak) to see the sunset, unfortunately we just missed it. The drive up to the top however provided some amazing scenery. On the way we passed Cascade lake, the road skirted the shoreline and was nearly level with the water, providing an incredible vantage point. Along the lake were several campsites that looked to provide an outstanding camping experience.
The next morning we went to Eastsound (one of the larger villages on the island) for breakfast. It was such a beautiful morning and while strolling the streets we saw a very inviting patio at the Outlook Inn, so we stopped there for breakfast and were happy we did as the delicious and hearty breakfast was just what we needed to get us going for a day of exploring.
It was a leisurely day, mainly spent driving around the island and taking in the sights, frequently driving down random roads trying to get lost and seeing what we might find.
That evening we meet up with Karl and Jess of Kruger Escapes, a sailboat tour company for a sunset cruise. There are two boats in their fleet, we went out on a 50′ racing boat. Unfortunately, the wind was not in our favor to set any speed records, but it was a sensational evening nonetheless.
After an hour or so of sailing, it was time to break out our picnic dinner basket (Kruger Escapes works with a caterer to prepare an array of picnic baskets for their various excursions). In our basket we had two sensational sandwiches, a salad with colorful nasturtiums (edible flowers), two cookies, sparkling fruit juice, and coconut water. We also had a lovely bottle of Siegerrebe, a perfect summertime white wine from San Juan Vineyards.
After our fabulous picnic dinner, Mother Nature decided to put on a display that was simply captivating. When we left Deer Harbor there was hardly a cloud in the sky and the temperature was quite lovely. We often felt a warm breeze come off the water, which seemed odd to me being in the Pacific Northwest, but we were not complaining. By the middle of the cruise storm clouds developed to the east and the skies became ominously dark. A light beam broke through one of the clouds casting an amber light on one of the small islands. A rainbow appeared in another direction, while lightning bolted across the sky in another—and to the west, a spectacular sunset that painted the sky with burnt orange streaks. It was a sight that I don’t ever recall seeing, as a matter of fact, Karl and Jess even remarked that with all their years of sailing experience they didn’t recall ever seeing such a show either.
It was such a remarkable end to our San Juan adventures. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with Carl, Jess and the other passengers and would love to go out with them again on one of their multi-day excursions. The sunset cruise merely whet our appetite for exploring the majestic beauty of the San Juans.
While there is no shortage of sights to marvel throughout the San Juan Islands, there is also the random and whimsical—from the artwork, to the odd looking young man with a distinct mohawk juggling three oddly shaped items while standing on the side of the road, as if robotic.
San Juan Islands is well known for its splendid vistas, saltwater shore, quiet woodlands, orca whales and one of the last remaining native prairies in the Puget Sound and Northern Straits region. The natural isolation provides a sense of peace and relaxation accompanied by pristine natural beauty. If you’re looking for a good road trip destination while in the Pacific Northwest, don’t miss the San Juan Islands.
If you’ve ever visited the San Juans, please leave a comment below and share your experience and/or favorite aspects. Click the following links to see more photos from San Juan Island and photos from Orcas Island. How many San Juan Islands have you been too?