June 7, 2019
Top 5 Things to Do on San Juan Island for First Timers
I have recently uprooted back to the United States after living in New Zealand for a year and a half and decided I wasn’t ready to give up that beautiful scenery. I discovered the San Juan Islands after an impromptu trip with my best friend and decided not only is it incredibly similar to my life down under, but it was a place I needed to be! Therefore, I packed up my Red Band gumboots in my favorite Osprey backpack and moved out here at the very beginning of May. Being a hard-working mom, my sister decided we needed a “Sisters Trip” and made the flight out with me. We explored the island non-stop for four days before she flew back to the Midwest, leaving me to continue my explorations with a whole new community of amazing Upper left’s. I cannot stress enough how much I LOVE this place, after literally one night. I’ve decided to make a list of the top 5 things to do while on island to hopefully spread that love of the country’s best hidden gem!
1. Explore Friday Harbor!
We spent an entire day exploring the town itself! This historic fishing village was rated one of the most beautiful towns in Washington and is full of rich, vibrant history. Easily walkable, you can stroll along the water and visit the statue of world famous “Popeye,” the half blind Harbor Seal that frequently visits our inland shoreline. With being around 2 square miles in size, this quaint harbor town is full of big personality and a wide variety of things to do.
If you’re like me and fully enjoy eating your way around the world, check out the many restaurants this town has to offer. A few of my favorites for hanging out with friends and coworkers include Cease and Desist for late nights and the San Juan Brewing Co. which has amazing craft beer, open mic nights on Wednesdays and features live music on Friday. I probably hang out here the most with the amazing staff and fun vibes. Enjoy a hole in the wall bar with a wide variety of tap beer and Karaoke on Wednesday Nights with your best friends? Herb’s Tavern is the place for you! A few other great places to find food and craft cocktails include Cask and Schooner and Downriggers – try the Spicy Prawn and Crab Mac and Cheese, I’m still drooling a month later.
This place offers more than just mouthwatering restaurants, it also is home to many boutiques, local cafes and even a few museums. Take time to visit the Center for Whale Research to learn more about our Critically Endangered Southern Resident Whales, the Whale Museum to see historic populations and real skeletons of some of the worlds most amazing marine mammals. A few others include San Juan Historical Museum or the San Juan Island Museum of Art with rotating exhibits, lectures, and workshops. Like I said, this place has something for everyone and does not disappoint!
2. Eat Donuts at Roche Harbor!
Being a donut connoisseur, I do not take this lightly. Warm and made in house each morning at Lime Kiln Cafe , I am questioning how I’m typing this without one. My sister opted for the yummy chocolate, while I couldn’t stop thinking about the cinnamon sugar. Let’ just say, we had donut envy the entire time since we wanted them all.
While you’re indulging guilt free, make sure to take time exploring Roche Harbor itself. This town use to be a lime excavation area and originally housed workers and their families. It is located on the northwest side of the island and faces Haro Strait as well as the U.S-Canadian Border. It is also bordered by both Pearl and Henry Islands. You can stroll along the resort following the old kiln fire bricks and heaps of flowers! It’s obnoxious how many flower photos rest in my phone’s library from my first visit there. There is sculpture park located in Roche Harbor, but more exciting were the sculptures you pass driving towards Roche Harbor from the West side of the island; primarily because they were so unexpected! Play an island game of ‘Where’s Waldo’ and see if you can find the large pineapple and life size fish you can crawl into. I promise it’s worth all the photo ops and last minute stop near San Juan County Park.
3. Explore All of the Island's Trails and Farms!
So many farms! Remember how I said I needed a place similar to New Zealand? Well here it is! Farms, lavender, mountains, ocean, jungle forests and large pines. This place is so aesthetically pleasing, I never want to stop exploring. The best way to do this if you walked on the Washington State Ferry or flew with Kenmore Air is to rent a moped and really expand your exploration. Susie's Mopeds is one of the Go To places for moped and electric scooter rental. Susie herself is incredibly humbling and makes sure you have the best experience! Be sure to stop and smell the... lavender... at Pelindaba Lavender Farm and immerse yourself in the purple fields, or even visit their shop downtown to try all the yummy samples and send gifts home.
If you continue to head north towards Roche Harbor, please do not continue on without seeing the alpacas at Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm. Their permanent smiling faces will surely bring a smile to yours! It also has a country store to purchase all the hand-woven alpaca goods. My mom sure appreciated her brand new alpaca hat for Mother’s Day! In addition to these farms, take in all the views of the local rolling hills hidden between the large pines with a variety of goats, horses, sheep, and cattle!
After a fun morning of farm hopping, pack a picnic and go explore the many trails San Juan Island has to offer! This has been what sealed the deal of my love for the island! I cannot stress this enough, do ALL the hiking! Or at least as much as your time frame allows. One of my personal favorites that I hike often is Mt. Finlayson Trail which also takes you through Jackle’s Lagoon. Be sure to hike towards the highest point, where you will find breathtaking views of Cattle Point Lighthouse, Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the Olympic Mountains. I am not kidding when I say I visit here multiple times a week and it still thrills me! Keep a sharp eye out for banana and leopard slugs!
Another Go To hike is Mt. Grant. A little under two miles up hill and roughly a 500-foot elevation change, this place is worth every viewpoint… especially at sunset! We saw many Bald Eagles here- fun fact: The San Juan Islands are home to the largest breeding population of Bad Eagles in the lower 48 comprising of over 125 nesting sites!
One last major place I would mark down at the top of the list is Cattle Point/ Cattle Point Lighthouse. Named after the original lighthouse keeper, you can spot stunning views of the mountain, view wildlife from shore, and skip rocks at the sun washed, driftwood filled South Beach. This is nice and close to American Camp as well and a fantastic place to spot Red Foxes and all their kits! How adorable is that?
4. Whale Watch at Lime Kiln Point State Park!
This early 1919 lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west coast of San Juan is one of the best places in the entire world to view whales from shore between May and September. Just last week they were seeing Humpbacks from there! Not only is it incredible to view marine mammals such as Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, Southern Resident Killer Whales and Bigg’s Killer Whales, but also an incredible place to find Harbor Seals, Steller Sea Lions (when they aren’t at their breeding grounds in Alaska), Harbor Porpoises, and many, many birds both on and offshore. Bring your binoculars and take a walk around the hiking trails viewing and reading about the history of Lime Kiln. You will stumble along the ruins of the old kiln and maybe even a few Black-Tailed Deer. If you are a movie buff like my sister and I, you may also appreciate the fact that this is very close to where the original vintage style house from Practical Magic sat.
5. View San Juan Island and its Wildlife from the Water!
This one easily outranks all the rest and ideally should have been placed as #1, but I like to save the best for last! Alter your view and see the islands and all the wildlife from the water to gain a completely different perspective. Are you an outdoorsman? Hop on one of the day kayak trips with San Juan Outfitters, or even expand your trip to an overnight and camp with some of our amazing guides who love talking about and playing in nature. This gives you the opportunity to explore tide pools for some of our small critters or end up kayaking the same area as many of our Pinnipeds and Whales!
Prefer to ride along and really broaden your range? Definitely hop on a Classic Whale Watch Tour or Adventure Tour with San Juan Safaris! This gives you the opportunity to spend time with the extremely knowledgeable and fun Naturalists as they educate you on the conservation of all the marine mammals in the area. If you love [killer] whale puns and capturing the raw moments you can only find in the Salish Sea, do not hesitate. This is the number one place to view Wild Orcas and see the Humpback Whales migrate back from Hawaii; every day is an adventure in one of the most biodiverse inland seas in the world!
Whether you are making a day trip or coming for a long weekend, San Juan Island is not something you want to miss out on; every day I am absolutely captivated by its beauty. Both Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor are full of life that you can feel radiate from all the boutiques, restaurants, museums, and the people themselves! The island comprises of being both vibrant, as well as calm and collected- much like the power of a Killer Whale breach in the calm, glassy waters of the sunset. Be sure to explore, try new things, eat fantastic donuts and seafood guilt free, and take time to get to know the amazing people that make up this island and all the historical backgrounds that mesh together.