Best of the San Juan Islands
Find gorgeous scenery and tranquil trails on the islands across the Salish Sea in northwest Washington. See our picks for some notable sites on these beautiful islands.
What if they gave a war and nobody came?
That’s exactly what happened on San Juan Island in 1859 — long before the idea turned into an iconic 1960s slogan. The United States and Britain almost came to blows over the exact boundary between the two nations in the complicated seascape of the Salish Sea.
When an American settler on the island killed a British worker’s pig, war clouds gathered. But the small garrisons on each side spent more time facing off on the dance floor than on the drill field, and the fracas was eventually settled by a rare instance of international arbitration.
The so-called Pig War’s peaceful resolution is marked today at San Juan Island National Historical Park, and like the surrounding islands themselves, the park offers more than just history. Shimmering scenery, charismatic beings big and small, enthralling activities for all: The San Juan Islands hold a lifetime of delights.
There are more than 400 islands on this archipelago between Washington and Vancouver Island, though only four are served by ferry. Read on to learn some of the best spots to visit on the islands.
San Juan Island National Historical Park
The park’s two units, English Camp and American Camp, preserve their namesake garrison’s posts — and vast expanses of endangered island habitat. At English Camp, an immense bigleaf maple tree benchmarks a bayside fastness frequented by eagles, seals and waterfowl; uphill, Garry oak savannah climbs the slopes of Young Hill, as do day hikers heading up to take in the expansive views.
At American Camp, some 15 miles southeast, hundreds of acres of open prairie overlook the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains in the distance. Long stretches of pebble shoreline invite beachcombing, and the prairie is the home of picturesque red foxes and the incredibly rare Island Marble butterfly with its green and white mottled wings. On the north side, three saltwater lagoons draw flocks of shorebirds and migrating waterfowl for the enjoyment of hikers on shoreline trails.
Lime Kiln State Park
On the west end of the island, this state park on the top of a bluff is one of the West Coast’s best vantages to watch passing whales — not just the Salish Sea’s famous orcas, but humpbacks, grays and the occasional fin whale as well. A historic clifftop lighthouse has starred in a million photographs, and old growth firs and madronas dot the slope above the cliff.
Docents from the Lime Kiln Point Interpretive Center — a compact building converted from an old U.S. Coast Guard garage — can explain the land, sea and its denizens. Rumors persist of sea otters living in the kelp beds just offshore. Bring a beach chair and practice Yogi Berra’s famous axiom that you can observe a lot just by watching.
More than 130 years ago this quaint, scenic inlet was the site of the Northwest’s largest limestone quarry. It’s gone considerably upscale since, with a charming historic hotel, white-linen restaurant, pricey shops and rental condos, and a lavish marina. Kayak expeditions depart from the marina into nearby inlets whose serene waters offer some of the best paddling in the Northwest.
The harbor has drawn celebrities aboard immense yachts — one of the Hotel Haro’s rooms sports an oversize bathtub specially installed for John Wayne. A 19-acre sculpture park has dozens of imaginative pieces by West Coast artists that are installed near a pond, along meadows and short trails.
Nearby Westcott Bay Shellfish Co. farm grows highly flavorful oysters, mussels and clams, and they’ll be happy to chuck and roast them for you on-site.
Moran State Park
This 5,400-acre park’s densely wooded hillsides peak out at 2,409 feet atop Orcas Island’s Mount Constitution, highest point in the San Juan Islands. The 360-degree panorama at the pinnacle provides views of the U.S. and Canada, glaciers and shores, forests and fields for hundreds of miles — all of them easy to see from a stone replica of a 12th Century Russian watchtower built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps crews.
The park’s trails, picnic sites and campgrounds are among the best in the Northwest, and its two lakes offer boating and fishing.
This historic resort at the foot of Moran State Park was built between 1906-09 as a private home in the days that wealthy Seattleites sailed their yachts north to vacation on what was a remote, rural island. Shipbuilding tycoon Robert Moran spared little expense, including a 1,972-pipe organ in Moran’s lavish mansion, now preserved as a museum.
Though extensively modernized (there’s a spa), the resort’s atmosphere exhibits late Victorian elegance like few others in the Northwest.
Spencer Spit State Park and Odlin County Park are two small sites on the north end of Lopez Island, and among the very few places you can camp beside a saltwater beach in the Northwest. Beach-side campsites at both are somewhat crowded together, but the sandy-shore ambiance and fresh salt breeze make up for the lack of privacy.
Both offer swimming, beachcombing, paddling, wildlife watching and general lazing about in the sun — the water is, well, brisk, but during the endless days of high summer the sun is hot. Both parks offer campsite reservations and it is essential to make them far, far ahead.
Iceberg Point County Park
This little-known preserve on the southwest end of pastoral Lopez Island provides what may be the most mesmerizing view in the Salish Sea. From Mount Rainier in the southeast distance to the central mountains on Vancouver Island in the northwest, with the iridescent waters of the Salish Sea in the foreground, the setting is divine.
The park’s woodlands hold dryland old-growth Douglas firs, centuries old, gnarled and thick, but barely 100 feet tall. Innumerable grassy pockets on the bluffs provide perfect picnic spots for those energetic enough to hike in on the half-mile access trail. The park is day use only.
Squint here and you might see a tiny coastal village in Maine. Holly B’s Bakery is known far and wide for its cinnamon rolls, and Haven Kitchen & Bar offers eclectic comfort food.
The Edenwild Boutique Hotel across the way is one of the finest small inns in the Northwest, and both the big grocery store, Lopez Village Market, and the natural foods store, Blossom Grocery, reflect the avidly agrarian ethos on the island.
– Written by Eric Lucas, last updated in October 2022.
– Top photo is by adonis abril/AdobeStock.