Pacific Northwest

Family Vacations to the San Juan Islands

Last updated 15th May 2018

Why Go?

The San Juan islands are beautiful. And these aren’t desert or tropical islands, they are lush and covered with maple, cedar, Douglas firs, alder, and yews. They are surrounded by salt water that ebbs and flows with seven-foot tides. The endless tide pools alone could mesmerize both children and adults for the few hours a day the tide is low.

The San Juan Islands make up an archipelago north of Puget Sound in the Salish Sea, and are home to around 16,000 people and lots of wildlife including, in the right season, pods of the popular black and white Orca (killer) whale! The islands also carry their own little nuggets of history. Since it’s so close to Canada, there was a little dispute regarding national boundaries in 1859 known as the Pig War – so called because it was started by the shooting of a trespassing pig. Thankfully the pig was the only casualty in the conflict. There are still remnants of the standoff between U.S. and British forces to be found and explored.

Where to Go

There are plenty of places to explore even though the islands are relatively small. The largest is Orcas Island at 53 square miles and one of the smallest named islands is Sheep (aka Picnic) Island at a mere 1.28 acres (that’s smaller than a football field). The hub of activity sits on the second largest island, the namesake San Juan Island, in the town of Friday Harbor.

Incorporated in 1909, Friday Harbor serves as the county seat and is incredibly charming. This is where most visitors arrive first, be it by sea or air. The town is chock-full of tasty eateries as well as little hotels, inns, and vacation rental homes within walking distance of the ferry terminal. There are also museums, parks, spas, and markets to explore. If you’re not careful, you might not get to anywhere else!

Beyond Friday Harbor, other popular family-friendly areas to stay on the island include Snug Harbor, Roche Harbor, Lonesome Cove, and near the San Juan Historic Park at the south end of the island. But then there are the other major islands that also have lodging like Orcas, Shaw, Lopez, Lummi, and Guemes. It’s also common to stay on the mainland near Anacortes and take the ferry to the islands for day trips. Plus, most of the islands with some sort of residence probably also have vacation homes available for rent. Otherwise the lodging options range from hostels, quaint bed and breakfasts, cozy inns, and luxury resorts. Both waterfront and inland options are available, including some incredible camping options. Some campgrounds are on otherwise uninhabited islands, and you and your family might just end up with a whole island to yourselves!

What to Do

You can go to the shops, museums, lighthouses, hiking, paddling, biking, historical tours and grounds, arts workshops, farms, whale watching, fishing, spas, horseback riding, film festivals, and more. There’s plenty to do. With summer temperatures hovering around 70F, outside is the place to be.

Exploring the intertidal zone is one of the more unique activities on the islands. You can also explore the shore by renting kayaks, canoes, stand-up paddle boards, or by hiring an outfitter to either guide your family or to take you on their own boat.

Another unique activity to the islands is to go whale watching where you can spot the whale even the youngest family members will probably recognize, the orca. Their distinct black and white coloring might not be totally obvious but it’s still a thrill to see them surface for a breath of air after clearing their blowholes spouting water into the air. Most of the organized activities are based on San Juan Island, though there are some outfitters on Orcas Island as well. And for those staying in Anacortes, there are plenty of outfitters who can get you amongst the islands based there, too.

Getting Around

Just getting to the San Juan Islands is an adventure. Arrival will be either by plane or boat. One of the more exotic ways to arrive, and to get a great view, is by seaplane operated by Kenmore Air. If you’re flying into SeaTac airport, Kenmore will shuttle you to their seaplane base on Lake Union in Seattle then whisk you up and over Puget Sound to the islands. They have a number of designated landing areas throughout the islands to accommodate specific visits. They, and other operators, also fly wheeled aircraft to some of the island airports like Friday Harbor and Orcas Island Airport.

There are a number of options for arriving by boat. You can park your car in Anacortes and walk on, you can ride your bikes onto the ferry or, like most, you can bring your car over. If your itinerary is going to stick to the very walkable Friday Harbor area, you might find the car to be more cumbersome than it’s worth. Also, depending on weather delays or a ferry boat breaking down, car traffic can get bumped a day or two while bike and pedestrian traffic can almost always fit onto the next available boat.

There is also the option of renting a car or even a moped (though, that’s not always as family-friendly as some need), on the island. If you’re going to tour around some, bring the car. For the more adventurous families (and this needn’t be too age restrictive), you can rent kayaks (double- and triple-seater kayaks are great for getting littles and gear out there), in Anacortes and paddle yourselves to the islands. This is most likely to be done by families looking to find a remote corner of an island to set up camp and then explore the area at their own pace under their own power.


Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker focused on family and adventure topics. He and his wife Jordan are based in Boulder, Colorado, and are parents to Rosie, 3, and Rey, 3 months. Visit Cameron’s personal travel page,