Fall Road Trips

Going Solo in Washington’s San Juan Islands: Kayaking, Mountain Hikes, and Peace and Quiet

Take a slow trip via ferry to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, with detours to Orcas, Lopez, and other parts of the archipelago on the Salish Sea.

By Ryan Good September 9, 2022 Published in the September 2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Kayaking near Orcas Island

Traveling on your own, it's easy to pick up the feeling of your destination, to shed your routine and exist in a new place, at its own pace. Washington's San Juan Islands, a ferry-accessed archipelago in the Salish Sea consisting of San Juan, Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and several smaller islands, will cast their calmness on you if you let them. 

The feeling starts on the ferry from Anacortes, about 80 miles north of Seattle, after you stop battling I-5 and can simply be carried along, watching for harbor seals and whales on the hourlong ride to Friday Harbor, the islands' "big city" with a population of about 2,400. (Alternatively, toss your bike on Amtrak, get off in Mount Vernon, and ride the 20 miles to the ferry terminal.) 

Friday Harbor

For lodging, find the confluence of quirky, quaint, and luxurious at Juniper Lane Guest House on San Juan Island, nestled between farms about a mile west of Friday Harbor and run by Juniper Maas-Mercer, a fifth-generation islander who wanted to offer something comfy and colorful that was a little different from the resorts, motels, and "lace doily" B&Bs that already dot the islands. 

With clawfoot tubs and big chairs to sit and read in, the rooms can be hard to leave, but you'll want to make time to get out on the water in something smaller than a Washington State Ferry. The area's tidal exchanges and currents can make solo kayaking dangerous, while they also create a mix of marine life that's packed with bioluminescence—light-emitting plankton make the water glow as if dusted with pixie dust. So stay safe and catch this wonder by booking a evening trip with a local outfitter like Discovery Sea Kayaks, which runs bioluminescence paddles through the end of September, starting just before sunset on the darkest nights—the glow from the water is easier to see when there's a new moon, not a full one.

Another plus for a guided kayak trip is that beach access in the San Juans can be tricky, with so much of the coastline privately owned. To reach the water on your own, try South Beach or Deadman Cove on San Juan, or North Beach on Orcas Island (a ferry stop
between Friday Harbor and Anacortes, but not all departures stop there, so a visit takes some planning). Otis  Perkins Day Park on Lopez Island (also a ferry stop) is a good pick for a sandy beach, as are Iceberg Point and Shark Reef for the picturesque rocky, craggy shoreline.

Mount Constitution viewpoint

For some strenuous hiking, the 5,424-acre Moran State Park on Orcas Island contains 38 miles of some of the most beautiful trails in the Pacific Northwest, and fall brings stunning sunsets and fewer hikers to move aside for. Hike to the top of Mount Constitution, highest point in the islands, and be treated to a spectacular view that includes the Puget Sound, several other islands, and Mount Baker. On the other side of the island, you'll find Turtleback Mountain Preserve, which can't match the drama of Moran but is generally less crowded. While on Orcas, check out Orcas Island Pottery, a gallery/shop with a sweet cedar treehouse and great ocean view. Beer lovers can grab a cold one at decade-old Island Hoppin' Brewing, while the cocktail set might head to year-old Matia Kitchen and Bar for drinks with house-infused lavender-leaf tequila and strawberry-top bourbon. 

No trip to the islands is complete without a visit to Isabel's Espresso, a Lopez Island institution slinging baked goods and espresso mixed with milk from local dairies. And if you want to hold onto that island calm a little longer and are clearly engrossed in a book, scribbling in your journal, or just quietly staring out at the water before getting back on the ferry, the regulars will happily leave you to your reverie. 

Packing List Need distraction on the ferry? Pack a puzzle in case your vessel doesn’t have a communal one for passengers to work on, or an islands-set novel such as Marrow Island, by former Portlander Alexis Smith, which imagines the aftermath and recovery following a devastating earthquake. And bring your passport in case you get tempted to lengthen the trip with a detour to Vancouver Island once Washington State Ferries restarts its international route to Sidney, British Columbia. Originally an extension of the San Juans route, service to the Canadian city was suspended in the pandemic and has yet to restart due to staffing shortages. —Margaret Seiler



Filed under