When speaking of spaces that stick with us, there is always an indescribable something special that makes our hearts sing. LAAAAAA. One of those places for me is the San Juan Islands in Washington State. An archipelago of islands sitting about as far west as you can get. But archipelago, while a beautiful word and super fun to say, doesn’t do this string of beautiful green treed bastions justice. There is something magical about this place. Wait, wait you say. Still don’t know where I’m talking about it? Can’t place it? I hate when people talk about somewhere like everyone knows it. Ok. Let me help. Hand gestures over the interwebs can be tricky. Come with me. Picture the map of the United States – now look at the upper left corner in your brain, no need to Google it. Keep going. Over there. Up there. Yes. Do you feel me pointing? It’s almost Canada eh? Here. These are the San Juan Islands. I want to take you there. In fact I would take everyone there. If I could. Let me try.
Being as they are islands. You can only reach the San Juans by boat. (Or plane – but I’ll get to that later.) There are no bridges. Don’t have a boat? No problem. Enter the iconic, stately – no really, they are run by the state – Washington State Ferries. These old beauties can carry your hopes and dreams for adventure, or relaxation, to all manner of mossy, green mountained wonderful destinations. Today. We have driven the 85 miles north of Seattle, Washington to the little port town of Anacortes. We have booked ahead our passage west to the San Juan Islands. We are driving, but you don’t have to, rates are reasonable for bikes and hikers to ride aboard the ferries. On board, we lock our car and make our way to the top to watch the cold blue water churn as we slowly rumble away from the enormous dock. The ferry ride alone is half the fun and we buy snacks to supplement our picnic lunch after a walking tour of the perimeter soaking up the views over Rosario Strait.
Washington State ferry system has a dedicated route to the San Juan Islands and depending on where you are headed offers different options. Many people have a favorite island, but ours by far is San Juan Island. The westernmost outpost on the ferry route in this archipelago. The longest ride. You can take a direct route, but check the schedules and book in advance. Especially in the summer. When you roll into Friday Harbor, the main port on San Juan Island, you will instantly see why we love it. You will pass the massive dock where boaters of every ilk park and picnic and plan their island explorations. Slowly the giant floating ferry rumbles in to port. Process for a minute how it floats. A masterful feat of engineering. The cars fire up and make their way off through the little town of Friday Harbor. Restaurants here cling to the harbor front and shops tempt with their wares. Don’t worry – there will be time to come back and explore. But today, we’ve got camp to set up. We’re rolling 10 miles west from Friday Harbor, to San Juan County Park Campground.
20 rustic campsites sit here on the water waiting for you. This is the sunset side. And there are sites that sit on the water. They book quickly. So plan ahead. We look west to Canada across the icy cold waters of Haro Straight. The lights of Victoria twinkle in the distance after the last throws of the late summer light spray across the water. Fishing boats start their trawl up and down the Strait looking for the same fish that draw bigger hunters to these waters. Orca whales. This is WHY I love San Juan Island. Orca whales. And you may wonder looking at the map of this island chain why I wouldn’t choose an island named ORCAS. You can see them there as well. But I have yet to fail sighting the magestic whales EVER when visiting San Juan Island. It helps that Haro Straight is deep and cold and the natural channel for migrating salmon. The killer whales here are mainly fish eaters, getting 80% of their diet from the salmon rich waters that are able to sustain full pods of whales that return here to this region every year. When the spring chinook salmon is running from late spring to late summer – three separate “resident” orca pods are spottable in this area. They are known as J pod, K pod and L pod.
We have seen them right from our campsite at shore here at San Juan County Park. But the best spot, is a few miles down the road. Head to Lime Kiln State Park and the orca research center here. The unique landscape here at the lighthouse keeps the water deep close to the shore. The orcas are known to come in very near the rocky banks, diving and playing in the kelp beds below. Lime Kiln Point is lovely even without orcas, but extraordinary with them. The resource center will teach you about the gorgeous creatures and keep you updated on the pod members as well as their last sightings around the island.
We first fell in love with the graceful beasts when visiting San Juan Island for our 10th wedding anniversary. We had no car that time as we had chosen to arrive by seaplane. (If you can ever do this – do it! It’s so cool. Seriously. Cool.) We set out for Lime Kiln on the local island shuttle, San Juan Transit. Approaching the rocks near the petite lighthouse outpost, a growing crowd was gathering. Like lemmings, we followed them. What is everyone watching? Nothing it seemed. I mean the water is beautiful and all here, but this was a lot of people.
A couple from California, here on their annual orca watching outing were slightly giddy with anticipation. The rangers they explained, have reason to believe that there was going to be what they called a “super-pod” reunion. All three resident pods were back from explorations and heading this way. A network of whale spotters up the coast were radioing in locations as the animals worked their way south to Lime Kiln Lighthouse, also know as “whale watch state park.” For good reason.
There were guesstimations as to the pending arrival of said super pod between 30 minutes and an hour. At the time, the convenient, but limited, shuttle schedule was slated to make it’s last return to Friday Harbor before that. Gah. What to do? It was a 10 mile walk back. We processed. Do able. Not ideal. But do able. Worth the wait. We hoped. More people began staking spots, setting up tripods, listening in to the broadcast from the orca hydrophones, set just offshore at Lime Kiln. Clicks, whistles and calls were coming in. Orcas can communicate for miles and miles underwater using this elaborate system. Palpable was the crowds’ anticipation. And then. Whale sighting. Fin spotted out in the channel. Gasps. OOOHS! Clapping even. This was no SeaWorld. Slowly at first, they moved down the channel solo and in pairs. And then, for the next two hours, we were treated to a veritable orca whale parade of over 50 whales. It is difficult to describe the pure awe.
At points the whales were mere feet off shore. You could see their characteristic black and white patterning looming up through the clear clear water before you heard the PFOOOF sound as they exhaled through their blowhole. Mists of water expelled shimmered in the late afternoon light. You could see their eyes. Watching us. As we delighted in them. And it was easy to see how they enjoyed the interaction, some would quietly, smoothly, stealthily slip back down and not come up again in our sight. Others would stay and play. Slapping the water with their giant fins. Like waving to us all on shore. Tail slaps emitted cries of joy from onlookers. I wonder what we sounded like to them, this landlocked club of watery mammal fans. Spy hops charmed us when a whale literally peeked its head straight up out of the water. Hello. But bonus points and the loudest cheers always went to those intrepid whales who shared with us a full breach – launching themselves up and fully out of the water and splashing down on their side, like a kid who always cannonballs at the pool. Smiles and head shaking and picture snapping and amazement. Huge fins followed small fins and little ones stayed with mamas. Orcas live in a matriarchy. They follow the oldest female in their pods. Some here were estimated at nearly 90 years old. It was the best anniversary gift I could have ever received. So beautiful.
And when it was over, we didn’t have to walk back those ten miles. We joyfully would have. By the end of our whale journey, we’d discovered a community of experiencers, it had connected us. It was easy and felt completely natural to grab a ride with our new couple friends from California. Thank you for that. Years later, we were able to share the orcas with our kids on several subsequent return visits. This time in our own car. While we have yet to get another mother and child whale reunion like when we first met them, our kids have multiple opportunities to be in the company of those beautiful creatures.
If you asked my kids though, San Juan Island is more to them than whales. For the kids, it is whales and bald eagles and seals and fishing and wading in cold water and rock throwing and shrimping from docks and ice cream tasting and marshmallow cooking and lavender smelling and ferry rides. It is magic. This place on the edge of the United States. In Western Washington state. In the San Juan Islands.
HOW TO GET HERE:
WASHINGTON STATE FERRIES
Anacortes Ferry Terminal, Anacortes, WA 98221, USA
Book ahead to avoid lines. There is little to do around the ferry terminal and once you commit, you are in line and unable to leave. Wait times can be long in summer without reservations. You’ll understand why soon.
Take a seaplane to San Juan Island. This is by far the coolest way to reach the islands. There is something completely surreal about landing on the water. Even though it feels so wrong, it is really so so so right. If a splurge is in your budget – this is the way to fly. From Seattle to Friday Harbor. Read more about our experience here.
WHERE TO STAY:
SAN JUAN COUNTY PARK CAMPGROUND
San Juan Park Rd, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
20 sites available for reservation in advance limited to 14 nights with one site per reservation. Reservations cannot be made within 5 days of arrival or more than 90 days in advance. I can highly recommend paying the premium price for campsite #18. It is on a private beach away from the crowds and masses. Like your very own slice of San Juan Island for your own self. Delicious.
Lovely family resort on the northeastern side of San Juan Island. Set on a lake with a lodge, camping and glamping sites available. Boats for rent (even if you aren’t staying here) and organized activities for children. A well-rounded popular resort.
FOR THOSE WHO DON’T CAMP:
Stay aboard a boat. Yes. A boat. A 60 foot yacht sitting in prime space to feel like you are really part of Friday Harbor. This is where we stayed for our 10th anniversary and while the owners have changed, the vibe has not. Not exactly great for families, but for a special weekend away.
ROCHE HARBOR RESORT
248 Reuben Memorial Dr, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Queen of them all on this island. This place is beautiful. Even if a few rooms here are out of your budget, come up for a drink. Or soak up the atmosphere. I will divulge that the Bloody Mary’s here are top notch.
HOW TO GET AROUND:
SAN JUAN ISLAND TRANSPORT
Cannery Landing, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, WA
Shuttle to main sites around San Juan Island. Check link for latest schedule. As of September 2016, rates for a day pass were $15 for adults over 13 and $10 for children age 5-12.
125 Nichols Street, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Looking for a motorized option to control yourself to explore. Susie’s Mopeds offers – duh – Mopeds. But they also offer these crazy fun looking little motorized coupes and cars. If you want that.
WHAT TO DO:
Interpretive center offers educational opportunities regarding local wildlife. Specifically ORCAS. Best place on island to spot orca whales. Hiking and exploring if no whales in site.
Off West Valley Road, San Juan Island, WA 98250, USA
History plays out in this border war between England and American of the 1850’s – this is where the co-occupying forces of England sat. Tour historic buildings and learn of the conflict in as much detail as you care to.
4668 Cattle Point Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
See the other side of the story at the American outpost in the famous “pig-war” of San Juan Island. Junior ranger programs available for younger explorers complete with a “swearing in” after completion.
PELINDABA LAVENDER FARM
45 Hawthorne Ln, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Picturesque purple fields of soothing lavender. Feel free to snap away and snip a bouquet to go. (Memories are gratis, but bouquets for a small fee.) Everyone will sleep peacefully tonight. Especially if you stuff a fluffy purple dog with lavender. And sleep with her for the rest of your life. (So far, anyway. 5 years and counting.)
WESTCOTT BAY OYSTER FARM
904 Westcott Dr, Friday Harbor, WA 98250, USA
Shuck your own oysters right on the bay. Family owned site on Westcott bay provides tables and oyster knives and shucking lessons as well as drinks and their house made mignonette to enjoy fresh oysters in person. YES PLEASE. YUM. Want them to take back and enjoy at your campsite while the sun sets over Haro Strait while you wave to Canada? You can do that too. They offer oyster knives and ice for your dozen or two to go. See – you don’t have to go to Roche Harbor to be decadent on San Juan Island. Another reason to love it here.
SHRIMPING IN FRIDAY HARBOR MARINA
From the local fishing tackle shop – right in Friday harbor, near the marina dock – you can purchase long handled nets. Tie some chicken legs to a string and lower down near the many piers along the harbor. This is best done at twilight. Carefully lure up the large shrimp hiding amid anemones or kelp and scoop up in your net. The kids were entertained for hours.
I am seriously wanderlusting. It’s been five years. We celebrated my husband’s 40th birthday here. We just toasted his 45th. And while Copenhagen feels very far away from the San Juan Islands, the memories floods back. Times not things. Hope you enjoyed the tour. If you have any questions about the island, I am happy to try to answer. Enjoy the tour and cheers from Copenhagen. Up next. The Danish island of Fyn. You’ll like it too. I promise.
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Cheers from Denmark! Erin
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