Guide to Visiting San Juan Island

There are over 450 islands in the San Juan archipelago, occupying the waters of the Puget Sound and the Straits of Juan de Fuca and Georgia. Of the 172 that are part of the state of Washington, San Juan Island has the only incorporated city, Friday Harbor. Accessible by water or air, San Juan Island provides its visitors a tempting mix of majestic scenery, rural charm, resort amenities, and thrilling outdoor adventure.

In addition to wildlife viewing, outdoor recreation, and Friday Harbor shopping and dining, San Juan Island visitors can choose from a number of interesting attractions.

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Local Attractions

View of Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Andersen Ross / Getty Images

Whale Museum

Spend an afternoon at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor and learn about the social and matriarchal orcas, as well as other whales and marine mammals of the region. Exhibits tell the story of the three orcas "pods" who live in the area, including their genealogy and identifying traits. You can also learn how to "adopt" a whale, listen to whale song, and take in a video presentation. Find a San Juan Island souvenir at The Whale Museum Store, which offers apparel, books, art, CDs, videos, and educational items

San Juan Historical Museum

Located on a 100-year-old homestead in Friday Harbor, the San Juan Historical Museum features exhibits and information related to the pioneer and military history of the island. Museum buildings include the original farmhouse, the first county jail, a log cabin, barn, milk house, and a carriage house.

Pelindaba Lavender Farm

This 20-acre San Juan Island lavender farm bursts into bloom from late July to late September. Their retail outlet, located in an old house on the property, offers such lavender products as honey, soap, eye pillows, potpourri, and dry lavender bouquets. They also conduct docent tours so that visitors can see the inner workings of a lavender farm.

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Whale Watching Cruises and Boat Tours

A pod of orcas at the surface of the water
Danita Delimont / Getty Images

Whale and wildlife viewing top the list of fun things to do on San Juan Island. Experience these natural wonders on a sightseeing charter, a kayaking trip, or while meandering around the island on foot or bicycle. Creatures that you might see along the way include orca whales, Dall's porpoises, eagles, seals, otters, deer, and seabirds.

A number of scheduled and private boat tours operate from Friday Harbor, Snug Harbor, and Roche Harbor. Most provide their services during the peak whale watching season, typically from May through September. These sightseeing excursions range from one hour to a half day.

Note: The Pacific Whale Watch Association provides guidelines for responsible whale watching. Whichever guide or charter you choose, take care that they are a member of this organization and that they follow practices that don't harm or harass the animals. If you are boating on your own, please take the time to educate yourself about safe and responsible whale watching.

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Sea Kayaking Whale and Wildlife Tours

Sea kayaking at Roche Harbor in the San Juan Islands
John Marshall / Washington State Tourism

Guided kayaking trips are another way to get an up-close and personal peek at San Juan Island birds and animals. These companies can outfit you with the proper equipment; an experienced guide will lead you along the island shoreline. In many cases, the guide is an ​experienced naturalist. Sea kayak tours can be anywhere from one hour to all day. A few companies offer multi-day expedition packages.

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Biking & Hiking

A bike rests near the water on San Juan Island
Brian Holsclaw / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

San Juan Island provides a wide range of outdoor fun, both on land and in the water. Whether you prefer leisurely meandering or a physical challenge, you will not leave disappointed.


Bring your own bicycle or rent one on the island—you will find San Juan Island offers a pleasing blend of flat and hilly bike routes along both the seashore and the rural inland. The island roads are narrow and have little or no shoulder, so be sure to ride single file

Walking and Hiking

You will find a wealth of scenic strolls and hikes on San Juan Island. The San Juan Island National Historic Park has a number of interesting trails, providing the opportunity to view historic locations along with the majestic scenery.

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Diving and Fishing

Boast docked at the marina in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
Alan / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Visitors who arrive on San Juan Island in their own boat will find plenty of moorage and services available. For those interested in renting or chartering a boat on the island, there are a number of companies that rent out sail or power boats, with or without crews:


Scuba diving is a popular Northwest activity. Reviews of Washington dive sites are written up by Northwest Dive News.


Freshwater fishermen will find bass and trout fishing on the island's three lakes, Egg Lake, Sportsman Lake, and private Lakedale Resort.

Saltwater charters are available for those who prefer fishing for king, coho, sockeye, and chum salmon, ling cod, snapper, or sea bass:

  • Captain Monty Trophy Charters
  • Orcas Boat Rentals
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San Juan Island National Historical Park

A beach in the San Juan National Historic Park
Lidija Kamansky / Moment Open / Getty Images

The British and the Americans argued over the possession of San Juan Island from 1818 until 1872. Although the Oregon Treaty of 1846 gave the United States possession of everything below the 49th parallel, the wording left San Juan Island in dispute. The situation came to a head in 1859, when an American settler shot a British-owned pig. The subsequent hostilities became known as the "Pig War", leading to the military occupation of the island by both British and American forces. Finally, the dispute was settled via third-party arbitration in 1872.

The sites of the two military camps were designated a National Historic Site by an act of Congress in 1966. Its purpose is to commemorate the peaceful resolution of the boundary dispute. The preserved area covers over 1,750 acres and lies in two different areas—the English Camp on the northwest part of the island, and the American Camp on the southern end. You can visit both the American Camp and the English Camp areas, and take in a laser disc slide program, and archaeology and historical exhibits at the two visitor centers. You can also enjoy hiking, picnicking, and wildlife viewing in the parks many beaches and coves.

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Hotels and Lodging

The Lakedale Resort on San Juan Island, lit up at night
Ryan Harvey / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Here is a small sample of the hotels and lodging options available on San Juan Island:

Snug Harbor Marina Resort

The waterfront cabins at Snug Harbor come fully-equipped for your family or group getaway. Snug Harbor also offers a campground with waterfront RV spaces and forest tent sites. Either way, the San Juan Island resort offers convenient access to water sports such as kayaking and diving, power boat rentals, and whale watching tours

Hotel de Haro and Gardens

This charming historic hotel at Roche Harbor is surrounded by gorgeous gardens, making it an elegant and romantic San Juan Island lodging option

Friday Harbor House

The Friday Harbor House hotel offers upscale guest rooms and elegant meeting facilities. Seasonal ingredients and fine wines are featured in their dining room, where guests can enjoy gourmet continental breakfast each morning

Lakedale Resort

Marvel at the view of this trout-stocked lake on San Juan Island from a tent, RV or log cabin. Lakedale Resort features half- and full-day rowing and kayaking "Family Camp" programs and rents out fishing and camping equipment, rowboats, canoes, kayaks, and pedal boats.

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How to Get to San Juan Island

A ferry docks in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island
nik wheeler / Getty Images

San Juan Island is accessible by car, air, and by boat.

By Car and Ferry

From Interstate 5 take the Anacortes-San Juan Ferry exit, #230. Proceed west on State Highway 20 for approximately 20 miles. Follow the signs, which will take you to the Anacortes Ferry Dock. The Washington State Ferry ride to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is approximately 1.5 hours. Allow time for long waiting lines to board the ferry.

San Juan Island may also be reached by private passenger ferry:

By Air

There are a number of local airlines that offer either scheduled or charter flights to San Juan Island.

By Boat

Visitors who arrive on San Juan Island in their own boat will find plenty of moorage and services available.

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