San Juan Islands
Washington State
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Lime Kiln Lighthouse on San Juan Islands north of Seattle
© Mike Leco / USATourist.com

Lime Kiln Point State Park, commonly known as Whale Watchers Park, looks west over Haro Strait and is a popular location for spotting Orca whales.

San Juan Islands, Washington

The San Juan Islands of Washington state are located approximately 150 miles north of Seattle in the midst of the great ocean inlet formed by the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. They consist of a cluster of picturesque islands with rocky shorelines that are covered in dense forests and rolling farmlands. San Juan Island, Orcas Island and Lopez Island are the largest.

You can reach the San Juan Islands by driving 60 miles north of Seattle on Interstate 5, then going west another 20 miles on route 20 to the village of Anacortes. From there, the Washington State Ferries take you to any of the major islands. A favorite destination with visitors is Friday Harbor, a quaint fishing village on San Juan Island. The voyage takes 60 to 90 minutes and passes some breathtaking scenery as it wends its way through the narrow straits between islands. A roundtrip fare costs $60 for an auto with driver. Passengers and pedestrians pay $16 for a roundtrip ticket.

Hike, bike, camp or tour

Some people go to these islands just to relax and appreciate the scenery. You can hike, rent a bike or just drive around the islands visiting the dense redwood forest, the rocky promontories and the tiny fishing villages nestled in the sheltered inlets. Many people go to fish in the adjacent waters with their bountiful schools of Salmon and Lingcod. Some rent kayaks in order to explore the coastal cliffs with their rookeries of wildfowl, to glide through the midst of the mighty killer whales as they cavort in the straits, and to spy the majestic eagles soaring above.

Almost everyone goes to the San Juan Islands to see the Orcas. Three pods or family groups of these magnificent killer whales live in the waters surrounding the islands. K-pod, L-pod and M-pod have a combined population of over 70 whales. Two of the pods remain in these same waters all year long. They typically fish for salmon off the western coast of San Juan Island or in the adjacent straits and can be seen surfacing and diving near the shore nearly every day.

Best Whale watching in the USA

The best place to view the whales from land is at the Whale Watch Park on the western side of San Juan Island. There is no entry fee. The rocky promontory surrounding the little lighthouse provides an unobstructed view of the Orca's favorite fishing grounds, and the whales can easily be seen on most days. Some people prefer to rent a kayak from one of the suppliers so they can paddle along the shoreline in search of the pods. A four-hour guided expedition costs about $80 per person. If you are lucky, you can glide right through the midst of a pod and watch the massive black and white hulks rise huffing and blowing spray right beside your little boat.

The best way to see the Orcas up close is by taking a charter whale-watching cruise. It costs about $90 per person for a four-hour excursion. Several such cruises depart from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, from Deer Harbor on Orcas Island and from a few other smaller anchorages.  All of these operators cooperate and communicate with each other via radio, so they almost always know the location of the whales. You will seldom be disappointed on a whale-watching cruise.

I went on a smaller boat operated by Maya Cruises out of Snug Harbor on the western shore of San Juan Island. We traveled only a few miles down the coast before we spotted the other whale watcher boats and saw the surfacing whales. For several hours, we were enthralled by these huge black and white creatures as they surfaced beside our boat, and leapt out of the water to watch us. Captain Jim Maya identified many of the creatures by name and pointed out a mother whale with her little calf clinging to her side. It was a fascinating experience.

Kayaking the San Juans north of Seattle Washington © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Guided kayaking tours and kayak rentals are available in the San Juan Islands.

Sea kayaking and fishing are popular

Sea kayaking is a popular pastime in the San Juan Islands. The adjacent bays, secluded inlets and isolated beaches offer many locations to observe the scenery and the wildlife. From a kayak silently gliding along the smooth waters, you can watch eagles, seals, orcas and other wildlife in a quiet intimacy. You can join a half-day guided kayak expedition for about $90. If you are more adventuresome, multi-day kayak expeditions with camping on remote island beaches are also available.

Fishing is fabulous in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. Salmon, Bass, Halibut and Lingcod abound in the local seas. One or more of these varieties of game fish are available for fishing every month of the year. Forty pound (20 kg) salmon, sixty pound (30 kg) lingcod and 100 pound (50kg) halibut are commonly caught in the area. Experience is not necessary for visitors to take excursions. Fishing boats can be rented at several local marinas or charter-fishing expeditions are available.

Dining, shopping, sightseeing

You can rent bicycles, mopeds or kayaks at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. There are restaurants, art galleries, shops and boutiques on San Juan Island, on Orcas Island and on Lopez Island. There is an interesting Whale museum in Friday Harbor. The American Camp Park and British Camp Park on San Juan Island commemorate the infamous "Pig War" that nearly resulted in an international conflict between the USA and Britain in 1859.

You can take a ferry from Friday Harbor to Sidney, B. C. or to Victoria, capitol of British Colombia on nearby Canadian Vancouver Island.

Accommodations

There are no motels or traditional hotels on the islands, but there are many inns, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts and vacation rentals. Here is a link to the San Juan Islands web page that lists many of the accommodations: www.guidetosanjuans.com. We stayed at the Argyle House B & B in Friday Harbor. The house was beautiful, our rooms were comfortable and the breakfast was delicious.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco / USATourist.com
Photo Description: A Washington state ferry makes its way through Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.