10 San Juan Island Must-Do’s for First Timers

Updated 2022

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

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1. 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.

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2. Museums

A great way to spend a rainy day or to fill the hour before dinner is to visit one of the 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.
  • 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. 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.
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Friday Harbor Whale Museum
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3. 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.

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San Juan Island, Washington
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4. Whale Watch or Kayak Tour

Your chances to see Orcas in the wild are much greater on a whale watch tour. There are also Steller sea lions, humpback whales, porpoises, Bald Eagles and seabirds, which are easier to observe 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.

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San Juan Island, Washington
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5. 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.

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.

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San Juan Island, Washington
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6. 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.

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English Camp on San Juan Island
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7. San Juan Island Sculpture Park

The 20-acre Sculpture Park near Roche Harbor features over 150 sculptures along five trails winding along meadows, woods, a natural pond and beautiful Westcott Bay. Kids are free and puppies are welcome.

There is a huge starfish shaped sandbox for kids and kids-at-heart to create their own art. Sign the Friendship Totem and write down a wish to put in the Tibetan wishing urns.

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San Juan Island, Washington
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8. Roche Harbor

The historic resort of Roche Harbor is buzzing with summer activity. Cute shops and artist kiosks line the way to the busy marina, where fishermen, kayakers and yacht owners go about their daily adventures.

See John Wayne’s custom made bathtub in the historic Hotel De Haro and treat yourself to a sunset drink at McMillen's Dining Room.

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San Juan Island, Washington
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9. Pelindaba Lavender Farm

Spread over 25 acres with Olympic views, the Pelindaba Lavender Farm offers over 240 lavender products, many of them featured at the Earthbox Inn & Spa.

Stroll the fields, cut your own lavender, participate in one of the fun family workshops, have a lavender lemonade and soak in the beauty. 

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Lavender Farm on San Juan Island, Washington
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10. San Juan Vineyards 

A lovely three-mile ride from the Earthbox Inn & Spa, you’ll find the destination winery & historic tasting room of the San Juan Vineyards, open on weekends, Spring through Fall.

Taste award-winning local wine on their sunny patio and bring some home.

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San Juan Island, Washington