San Juan Island Washington

Sail Away to San Juan Island, Washington

Less than 90 minutes by auto ferry from mainland Washington, four islands dominate the San Juan Archipelago- Lopez, Orcas, Shaw, and San Juan- and welcome all who appreciate the great outdoors. Each island has its own unique personality, but all boast of beautiful scenery, a large bald eagle population, and are ideal for camping, bicycling, boating, fishing, wildlife-watching, and simply enjoying.

Dynamic San Juan is the most populated of the four main islands with about 6,500 residents. Visitors arrive via auto ferry, boat, or seaplane on the east side of the island at Friday Harbor. Friday Harbor is the only incorporated town in the island chain and is also the county seat. It’s a common destination for mariners, seaplane pilots, shoppers, and tourists alike. The full-service marina is open to the public.

Interesting stories explain the name of Friday Harbor: One legend claims that the name came about accidentally when a ship sailed into the harbor and inquired, “What bay is this?” Supposedly someone thought the sailor had asked what day it was and answered “Friday.” And from then on, it was marked as Friday Harbor on nautical charts. Another version tells that a Hawaiian shepherd named Joe Friday (his real name was actually “Poalie” but it had been anglicized to Joe Friday) always grazed his flock on the slopes above the harbor. Sailors passing by could count on seeing the smoke from his camp and began referring to the spot as “Friday’s Harbor.”

Today, you’ll find Friday Harbor has an old-fashioned, walkable downtown and the best places to stock up on camping supplies and groceries, grab a bite to eat and shop. Numerous art galleries and some interesting museums are here, too.

Once beyond Friday Harbor’s city limits, commerce and crowds fade into a rural setting of farmland, forests, gently rolling hills, and of course, miles of gorgeous waterfront. You’ll likely see more grazing alpacas and llamas than cows when driving around the 15-mile long island, but they’re cuter anyway! Remember to look up to catch sight of a majestic bald eagle in flight. It’s fairly easy to see them while on the island; Washington has more bald eagles than any of the other lower 48 states.

The Whale Museum
Before heading out of Friday Harbor, visit The Whale Museum at 62 First St. N. to learn about the island’s main attractions- killer whales! From May through September, about 80 killer whales (orcas), known locally as the J, K and L pods, live in the waters of the San Juan Islands. Each orca has a name and can be identified by the size and shape of its dorsal fin and its unique black and white saddle patches. The museum also covers the history of marine mammals and has an appealing collection of exhibits, including real whale skeletons. Once you listen to the “songs” of whales and watch a 30-minute video of Pacific Northwest orcas, you just might want to participate in the museum’s Orca Adoption Program. Funds are used to ensure the long-term well-being of the resident pods.

Lime Kiln Point State Park
About 10 miles west of Friday Harbor, situated on a rocky tip facing Haro Strait, Lime Kiln Point is the best place on the island to view orcas. Also called Whale Watch Park, the 36-acre day-use park is dedicated to whale watching. You’re also likely to spot porpoises, seals, sea lions and otters along the shoreline, as well as deer along the wooded trails. In 1860, a lime producing business operated here; kilns were built to fire the limestone to produce lime, giving Lime Kiln Point its name. Haro Strait takes its name from Spanish explorer Captain de Haro. He and his crew were the first Europeans to sail among the San Juan Islands in 1787. Today, Haro Strait divides the United States from Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Visit for more information on Washington’s state parks.

San Juan Island National Historical Park
In addition to state and county parks, San Juan has a national park with an odd history- it commemorates a Pig War. In 1859, the Pig War crisis arose because for over 10 years both the British and Americans resided on the island, each in hopes of taking possession of the San Juan Island group. Since tempers were already short from years of neither side having full control, when an American shot a pig belonging to a Brit, annoyance escalated into aggression. For a few months, American soldiers and the British Royal Marines were on the verge of war, but fortunately officials on both sides restored order before casualties occurred. Both nations continued to jointly occupy the island until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, acting as arbitrator, awarded the islands to the United States in 1872.

Appropriately, the national park is split into two camps 13 miles apart- American Camp on the south end of the island and English Camp up north. Each is distinctive and together they interpret the Pig War and celebrate how Great Britain and the United States demonstrated that it is possible for nations to settle their differences without violence.

Pelindaba Lavender
In the Zulu language, pelindaba means “place of great gatherings” which is quite fitting for an organic lavender farm founded to serve a great purpose: preserving the rural island’s farmland from development and pollution, creating employment opportunities, and providing a destination of natural beauty for all to enjoy. The owners, Susan and Stephen Robins, have succeeded. Pelindaba is now regarded as an important agri-tourism destination in the Pacific Northwest. Visitors may stroll freely through the demonstration gardens and fields where over 50 varieties of lavender plants are on view. Bring your camera- rows and rows of endless purple hues and a sweet fragrance permeate the scenic surroundings.

Beyond appealing to the visual and olefactory senses, Pelinda Lavender also produces a delightful and unexpected culinary line- lavender pepper, lavender honey, lavender sugar, and lavender herbal vinegars- from which a variety of appetizers, sweets, teas, and other foods can be made. Cookbooks are on sale, and if you’re lucky, samples of Pelindaba’s home-made lavender biscotti will be available when you visit!

As a premier grower, distiller, and handcrafter of lavender-based goods, the farm’s gift shop is filled with a wide array of not only personal care products, but also pet care and household products, too. Did you know that lavender was used as an antiseptic in the cleaning of field hospital floors during World War II when other disinfectants were scarce? Pelindaba Downtown, located in the center of Friday Harbor, is an extension of the farm’s gift shop. But even if you’re not a shopper, Pelindaba Lavender is a unique place in a unique setting and is definitely worth a stop to, ah, smell the lavender!

Roche Harbor Resort
On a picturesque harbor at the North end of San Juan Island, Roche Harbor Resort at 248 Reuben Memorial Drive resides on the former site of the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company. Filled with quaint country charm, it’s a tiny, self-contained village complete with a historic hotel, formal Victorian gardens, a fine dining restaurant, casual caf, full-service marina, seaplane base, airstrip, grocery store, and small boutiques. Kayaking and whale-watching boat tours leave right from the docks.

Roche Harbor started as a company town around 1886 when John McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, turned the largest deposit of lime in the Northwest into a large-scale business. McMillin built the 22-room Hotel de Haro and within a few years a well-established town grew around the magnificent hotel- complete with modern lime factory, a barrel works, warehouse, docks, ships, piers, offices, company store, church, school, and homes for workers and their families. At its peak, Roche Harbor was home to about 800 residents. Eventually the lime works closed and the full-scale town was dismantled, but Hotel de Haro continued to provide casual elegance for vacationers and the marina became a popular destination for boating families. Roche Harbor’s fantastic formal gardens make a fabulous backdrop for weddings. But even if it’s not a special occasion when you visit, take a stroll and enjoy the myriad of fragrances and color. The hanging baskets attract every hummingbird within flying range!

Although the resort is not pretentious, it very much stands on ceremony. Each evening at sunset, “The Retirement of the Colors” dazzles visitors whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the tenth. The non-military observance is taken very seriously by resort employees and has been a tradition at Roche Harbor since 1957. It can be viewed and heard (especially the booming canon) from almost anywhere on the grounds.

Over the years, great care has been taken to preserve Roche Harbor as a charming and inviting step back in time. The small village has a big sense of place and there’s no lack of amenities to suit day visitors or over-night guests. And some of the most spectacular sunsets in the Pacific Northwest occur at Roche Harbor. Don’t miss it!

Westcott Bay Reserve
Just across the road from Roche Harbor, more than 100 sculptures by noted Pacific Northwest artists are scattered on a 19-acre site, creating an outdoor art museum filled with works in bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass and ceramic. Even without the artwork, the reserve itself is a tranquil retreat and perfect for strolling. Situated on the edge of a pond, it showcases San Juan Island’s ecology: forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands, saltwater wetlands, and rocky outcroppings. Especially in the cooler evenings, it’s a great place to spot deer. Admission is by contribution, open dawn to dusk. Click to to take a virtual tour.

Tranquil and unspoiled, the San Juan Islands are like no other. With its own relaxed pace, rugged outdoor fun, and strong connection to nature, you’ll leave refreshed and rejuvenated and already planning your return!

For more information on the Washington State Ferry System, visit