"Where Boats Might Outnumber the Automobiles" Top 5 Page for this destination San Juan Islands by glabah

San Juan Islands Travel Guide: 28 reviews and 129 photos

There are quite a number of places within the San Juan Islands. If you are driving, getting from island to island isn't a spontaneous process due to the ferry system. You must either make a reservation or wait in line for quite some time to assure a departure at your desired time.

Therefore, I suggest picking an island and staying on it for a day so that you aren't spending a considerable amount of time on the ferry or waiting in lines for the ferry. Due to the ferry line situation and cost, you may wish to arrive here without your own car and either rent one on the islands (which is expensive) or get around using the very limited public transit system (but it does work) or rent a bicycle or a Scootcoupe.

For an outline of some of the places on the various islands, please see my Places in the Islands in outline format. This gives you a basic idea of what you will find, plus links to the specific locations where I have additional tips.

The primary mode of transportation between the four most heavily inhabited of the San Juan Islands is the Washington State Ferry System, which connects the islands to the mainland at Anacortes, and with Sidney, British Columbia. The ferry system only serves the four primary islands, and other islands may only be accessed by boat or float plane.

There are approximately 170 named islands in the San Juan Islands chain (and dozens more that haven't been named yet), not including the "Channel Islands" across the border in British Columbia. You can get your car to four of those islands using the Washington State Ferry system. If you happen to have brought your boat, you can get to a number of other islands that are marine state parks, as well as to all four islands accessible by ferry, plus a few of the other islands so long as you know what you are doing (a few are state parks and therefore publicly accessible, others have public access points while yet others are entirely privately owned and visitors are discouraged by the owners).

Another problem with visiting the San Juans by auto is that there is only so much space on the ferries. During the winter this isn't a problem. However, during the summer months everyone and their dog attempts to go to the San Juan Islands, so the ferries can be very crowded. Bicycles, mopeds, and other small vehicles are more helpful then as they are much less limited in their ferry loading.

If you have your own boat, you don't have to worry about the ferry schedule, or how much space is available on them.

As a general rule, you will find the islands to be attractive, the people polite and willing to help, and the pace of life to be different than the mainland. Not necessarily more relaxed entirely, but as people have to plan around the ferry and the huge crowds of vehicles getting on and off them the reasons for hurrying and the reasons for waiting are different.

Another word of warning for those who are viewing the islands through here at the VirtualTourist web site, or otherwise rummaging through online guides or even guide books: The San Juan Islands and San Juan Island are two different things!!!!

The San Juan Islands is the name of the network of islands running north and west from Anacortes, Washington. San Juan Island is the name of the most populous and second largest of the San Juan Islands, and it is also one of the furthest west of the islands. This means that there is some confusion about what goes where, and people may put things relating to Orcas Island into the San Juan Island category, for example, thinking that they are actually talking about The San Juan Islands as a group - but instead they have placed it in the San Juan Island category.

There are a lot of scenic places here, and of course there are whale watching trips offered at a number of locations due to the most famous residents of the islands.

I have not, however, put much in the Things to Do list because most people only have a certain amount of time available and as mentioned above running from island to island really isn't a very wise use of time due to the ferry lines and transit times. Therefore, its best to take one island at a time.

To get started, take a look at my List of Places in the San Juan Islands.

Friday Harbor, which is the largest city (with no traffic lights and several restaurants!) on the islands.

There are approximately 170 islands in the San Juan Islands. The exact number can change depending on the tide level and where you decide to stop counting - a number of islands don't officially count as San Juan Islands as they aren't in the correct county or country. For example, geologically speaking Lummi Island might as well be a member of the San Juan Islands, but is across the border in the wrong county. The USGS only counts islands in San Juan County, USA as San Juan Islands, but many in western Washington include a more broad definition of the San Juans, even perhaps including in a more general sense at least parts of the Channel Islands located on the British Columbia side of the border, but are essentially islands that are part of the same chain nevertheless.

Many of these are uninhabited rocks. nor does it count several other islands that are located closer to land and therefore not officially part of the San Juan Islands by USGS definition.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Quite a Number of Outdoor Activities, Very Scenic Place
  • Cons:Small towns with limited city-type activities. Ferry system makes it time consuming to get from place to place.
  • In a nutshell:Amazing beauty, but everything will take longer than you think it should.
  • Last visit to San Juan Islands: Oct 2015
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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