The San Juan Islands
Visiting the San Juan Islands in Washington is fun any time of the year, but I think my favorite season is in the Autumn. Gone are the summer crowds, as well as the long ferry lines. The weather is even more perfect than in the summer with blue skies and golden sunsets, but there is the added attraction of the beautiful fall colors. This archipelago of islands nestles in the protected waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Salish Indians, who have made this area their home for over 11,000 years, call the strait the Salish Sea. This was their waterway. These able seamen traveled, traded, partied on and lived off the abundance of the sea. To this day, the strait is still teaming with life. Ling cod, rockfish, halibut, salmon, clams, oysters, flounder, and greenling can be found here, as well as Dungeness crab and Spot Shrimp. Salmon, returning from the sea, can also be found on the inland streams, along with Rainbow and Cutthroat trout.
As you make your way to the islands on the ferry, be sure to keep a watch out for orcas, the resident pod of killer whales that live in the area. There are about eighty orcas that have been identified and summer and fall are the best times to see them. Grey, Minke and Humpback whales also frequent these waters. As you watch for sea life, be sure and check out the kelp beds along the shore because often you’ll see seals and river otters as they wrap themselves in the kelp while napping on the surface.
Although there are many islands in the San Juans, the last count being over 400 with only 128 of them actually named, there are only a handful of islands that are populated with year round residents. Living on an island is wonderful, rewarding, safe and sometimes challenging, especially when you want to get to the mainland. The most common way to reach San Juan, Lopez, and Orcas is by boat or ferry from Anacortes or Bellingham, so residents need to be relatively self sustaining, which is just fine with them. As we explore these islands, you’ll see that each has their own unique personality.
San Juan Island
Friday Harbor, a historic seaport, is the largest city on San Juan Island. If you long for a time when life was simpler and slower paced, you’ll be enchanted by this lovely little island city. The only word for Friday Harbor is charming, with it’s walkable town filled with small, friendly stores and restaurants. No fast food chains here and no traffic jams - just an abundance of beauty and friendly people. Roche Harbor Resort can be found on the north side of the island. This is a full service resort with both historic and contemporary accommodations, a marina, a spa and great restaurants. Eastsound is yet another area of the island for you to explore with its art galleries, its historic buildings dating back to the 1800’s, and once again, great restaurants. If you feel like more adventure, go ziplining on this island, or go out on a whale watching cruise, or go kayaking or canoeing. You could also take a day sail or sign up for a fishing charter. If you prefer to stay on the island, go to Lime Kiln Point State Park, where the views go on forever. By the way, I forgot to mention the best part of San Juan Island - the weather. Unlike Seattle’s notorious rain, this island sits in the rain shadow of the Olympic Peninsula and only gets half the rain of Seattle.
Orcas is the largest of the San Juan Islands with 57 square miles and also has the highest mountain, Mt. Constitution rising to over 2400 feet. The mountain is surrounded by Moran State Park, one of the most beautiful parks in Washington state. They say if Moran was located on the eastern seaboard, it would give Maine’s Acadia National Park a run for its money. This park cover 8.5 square miles. Orcas Island is proud of its agritourism farms where you can not only visit the farms but pet alpacas as well. Orcas also boasts its own winery, the Orcas Island Winery, where you can sample varietal wines. Or visit the Buckbay Shell Fish Farm where you can see up close how oysters and clams are raised. Additionally they feature a restaurant and bakery. On Orcas you can rent a moped and take it over to the famous Rosario Resort. This resort is located on the shores of Cascade Bay and has spectacular views of the water. And, like San Juan Island, Orcas offers day sailing and kayaking.
Lopez Island is predominantly a rural island with rolling hills and flat pastureland. It’s perfect for bikers and picnickers. Spencer Spit State Park, a 138 acre park, is just one of several natural attractions on Lopez Island. This is a favorite site for clamming and crabbing. Or you can head over to Shark Reef Sanctuary. No, you won’t see sharks. This wildlife sanctuary was named after a nearby reef, but it does have amazing views from its cliffs where you can spot whales, seals or even eagles.
Back into town, take time to explore the Village of Lopez, where you can find shops and galleries, farmer’s markets and perhaps grab a bite to eat. While you’re on Lopez, don’t miss the Lopez Winery tasting room.