10 San Juan Island Must-Do’s for First Timers
Updated January 2019
There is so much to do on beautiful San Juan Island and in cute Friday Harbor, it may be hard to decide how to prioritize your stay, especially if it’s your first time visiting. Follow our 10 tips to get a sense of this unique island, it’s rare wildlife, astonishing nature, rich history and culture and, most importantly, to have fun.
Popeye watching out over the port of Friday Harbor
- Friday Harbor
The quaint, historic fishing village of Friday Harbor, where the ferry lands, is just over one square mile in size and is perfectly walkable. The main streets are dotted with acclaimed galleries, cute boutiques, antique stores, unique shops, restaurants and art-work. Meander along the waterfront and see the tiny aquarium inside the “clock dock”, the dock next to the ferry landing, to see the creatures living in the harbor. Visit Popeye’s statue looking out over the ocean and you may even see Popeye herself, the famous, half-blind harbor seal who is often seen along the docks pleading for fresh fish.
The Whale Museum is great fun for kids all ages
A great way to spend a rainy day or to fill the hour before dinner is to visit one of the three museums right in downtown.
- The Friday Harbor Whale Museum is a fantastic natural history museum, the first in the nation to be dedicated to a species living in the wild. The place is great fun for kids with many interactive displays and hands-on exhibits like an old-fashioned phone booth from which you can hear all the different whale calls.
- The San Juan Historical Museum consists, besides the museum itself, of an array of historic island buildings--like the first county jail--displaying island life in the 19th and early 20th century. They offer workshops, re-enactments, a 4th of July community picnic and a very respectable Music on the Lawn concert series in the Summer. This is a lovely place to picnic, play and learn something new.
- The San Juan Islands Museum of Art is committed to promoting the arts of the Pacific Northwest and Southwest British Columbia with an emphasis on the stunning beauty and environmental fragility of our region.
The re-built lime kiln at Lime Kiln State Park
- Lime Kiln State Park
The so-called “Whale Watch Park” on the west side of San Juan Island is the best place to watch Orcas from land in the entire nation. Orcas are present year-round, mostly seen from April through October, with the height of the season being July & August. The park features lovely nature trails through old Douglas Firs and Madronas, has a historic light house, an interpretive center, a whale watching platform and a re-built lime kiln. The park is ADA and stroller accessible, has abundant picnic spots and is the place to be at sunset.
- Whale Watch or Kayak Tour
Your chances to see Orcas in the wild are much greater on a whale watch tour. There is also other wildlife, like Steller sea lions, humpback whales, porpoises, Bald Eagles and seabirds, which are easier to find from the sea. All wildlife tour operators on San Juan Island are ecologically responsible, knowledgeable and fun. We love the folks at the San Juan Safaris and the Western Prince, both leaving from the docks of Friday Harbor.
Sea Kayaking is another gentle, fun way to explore wildlife. San Juan Outfitters offer kayak tours for families, beginners and experienced kayakers searching for Orcas alike.
- American Camp
Stunning American Camp, the site of the American troops after the Pig War and ensuing occupation of San Juan Island, consists of 100 acres of Prairie grass, steep cliffs, Mt. Finlayson and its trails, countless beaches and coves, a historic light house with an almost 360-degree view and what’s left of the encampment’s buildings and sites. You can spend your day hiking, learning about San Juan’s history, playing on the beach, having a bon-fire, and watching wildlife. You’ll see foxes and bunnies and deer, Bald Eagles, every seabird you know, otters, seals and often Orca whales before a breathtaking backdrop of Mt Baker and the snow-covered Olympic Mountains.
- English Camp
English Camp, on the north of the island, nestled on calm Garrison Bay is quite the opposite of its counterpart American Camp. More barrack buildings are preserved here, as is a beautiful formal English garden. English Camp is wooded and hilly. Explore the barracks under old fruit trees, before hiking Mt. Young, a steep 3-mile hike with rewarding views of all of the other islands.