3 Totally Cool, Non-invasive Ways to observe Whales & Wildlife on San Juan Island

Any time of the year is an amazing time to observe the majestic whales and stunning wildlife on San Juan Island. Humpbacks have made a huge comeback in recent years. We also see Greys and Minkes, who look to the untrained eyes like mini Orcas. There are sea lions, seals, otters and over 200 species of migratory seabirds to explore and of course, the famous Orcas themselves. The mammal-eating Biggs Killer Whales are having lots of healthy, fat babies, thanks to a surplus of harbor seals. Our endangered Resident Killer Whales are struggling. Their diet consists mostly of Chinook (King) Salmon and there is not enough of it. Visit the Friday Harbor Whale Museum, three blocks from the ferry landing, to learn about their history, habitat and challenges, then get out there and see for yourself!

 1)        From Land

Lime Kiln State Park, also known as the Whale Watch Park on the westside of San Juan Island, is one of the best spots to observe whales from land on earth. The 42-acre-park features the historic Lime Kiln Lighthouse, which turned 100 years this June and doubles as an interpretive center. There are shaded, ADA-accessible trails to the whale watching platforms, picnic tables with the most amazing views, a food truck with ice cream and sandwiches and a rebuilt lime kiln to explore.

2)        By Kayak

Silently gliding through the crystal clear Salish Sea on a guided kayak tour is a profound experience. Our friends at San Juan Outfitters in Roche Harbor offer 3 & 5 hour tours, tours especially dedicated to searching for Orcas and the very special Bioluminescent tours during the New Moon, when reactive plankton creates the most phosphorescent glow. All ages and experience levels are welcome. Give them a ring and find out which tour is best for you and yours.

3)        By Boat

Your best chance to see whales and other wildlife are from a professional and extremely responsible whale watch tour provider. The fun San Juan Safaris offer multiple tours per day out of Friday Harbor, always have at least one, if not two naturalists on board and all their vessels have “heads” -  that’s “boat” for “bathroom”.  For families with small kids or on a day with cooler weather, chose a trip on the Sea Lion with heated cabin and 360 degree viewing deck and make memories of a lifetime.

Summer Family Vacation San Juan Island

Do you remember your school days from childhood? Getting up awfully early, sitting still in class, homework, dinner, playtime? Yeah, me neither. But we all do remember our family vacations, the first time we saw a whale, climbing the tiny spiral staircase of a lighthouse, touching an anemone and that huge cherry ice cream we ate on the ferry. Give your family the gift of memories and experiences with a San Juan Island vacation this Summer. This great article from our friends at the Bird Rock Hotel outlines the10 Best Family Fun Things-to-do on San Juan Islandthis Summer.

Happy Independence Day from San Juan Island!

4th of July is a big deal on San Juan Island. Festivities starts at 10:30am with an adorable small town parade, immediately followed by a community Pig War Picnic on the corner of Spring and Price Street by the baseball field in Friday Harbor. The historic resort of Roche Harbor on the north end of the isle features fun activities throughout the day, like the legendary blindfolded Dinghy Race or the Log Rolling contest. And come evening, both Roche Harbor and the town of Friday Harbor will have stunning fireworks over the water. Come celebrate America’s birthday with us!

 Photo by Anne Dubert.

5 Best Places to Go Swimming on San Juan Island

Swimming in the Salish Sea, even in July and August, is not for the faint of heart, especially if you are over 6 years old or have only two feet and no fur. That doesn’t mean you’ll have to go without when vacationing on gorgeous San Juan Island. There are breathtaking lakes to explore, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and a few sheltered coves, where the salty sea does warm up enough for a refreshing dip. Find the 5 Best Places to go Swimming on San Juan Island here.

Orcas, Art & History – How to Make the Most out of Your San Juan Island Vacation

1)        How long to stay?

At least two nights, any less and you are likely to feel rushed.  Stay a little while and experience the isle’s slower pace. A week is ideal. Keep in mind, San Juan Island will always be here and you will definitely want to come back. It has happened to all of us! Consider coming midweek to take advantage of lodging specials.

2)        Don’t over-plan!

The best part about a San Juan Island Getaway is to just … be. Allow yourself to meander the streets of the adorable coastal town of Friday Harbor, lined with restaurants, cute boutiques, shops and galleries. Stay at the beach for the sunset. Ask the front desk at your hotel about special happenings or events, like free live music in the park. Leave room for spontaneity and feel really free!

3)        Whales & Wildlife

San Juan Island is best known for its exceptional wildlife. Here you’ll find a nesting Bald Eagle couple for every mile of shoreline, plus over 200 migratory seabirds to observe. The best place for birding are the dunes by Cattle Point Lighthouse in American Camp National Historic Park. Watch killer whales, humpbacks, sea lions, seals and more on a guided Whale & Wildlife Tour with San Juan Safaris. Spend some time at Lime Kiln State Park, also known as the Whale Watch Park, one of the best places to observe Orcas from land in the world, complete with whale watching platforms, an interpretive center in an historic lighthouse and a hydrophone to let you hear the whales sing.

4)        Art

There are seven galleries and four museums in walking distance to the ferry dock in Friday Harbor. You say that’s not enough? There is more: San Juan Island’s Sculpture Park on the north end of the isle, displays over 150 sculptures along five trails leading through woods, along the shore and around a natural lake. Visit the buzzling historic resort of Roche Harbor, featuring an entire street lined with artist’s booths in the Summer. Join us for the Annual Lavender Festival at the stunning Pelindaba Lavender Farm on July 20 & 21, 2019, a very good smelling mini arts fair with live music, amazing food, kids activities and learn everything you ever wanted to know about Lavender.

5)        History Lives Here

Two absolutely gorgeous National Historic Parks pay testament to San Juan Island’s Pig War, the last war fought on American soil. Enjoy historic re-enactments and demonstrations of life during the 19thcentury on Summer weekends there. Don’t miss the San Juan Historical Museums grounds in Friday Harbor, speckled with historic buildings and home to the free Music in the Park Summer series. 

6)        Food

The San Juan Islands are known as the “Gourmet Archipelago”. Our talented island chefs concoct the most artful, fresh and tasty fare from the healthy island-grown produce and local seafood. Visit the Saturday Farmer’s Market in Friday Harbor for fantastic ready-to-eat food like paella and pizza. Have a romantic dinner at Friday Harbor’s renowned Farm-to-Table -Restaurants like COHO or the Back Door Kitchen or go dessert and cocktail hopping one evening.

June is Orca Awareness Month

This beautiful photo of J26 and J50, who we lost in 2018, was taken by Whale Watch Captain James Maya with Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching. He sent it along with the following message:

“This is my small gift to you. Make prints of this image, as many as you like. Give them away, send them to friends, gift them to others, go spread the word, the story of J50, and the SRKWs and their plight. Talk about salmon restoration. Join the Center for Whale Research. Give your dollars to worthy causes. Talk about global warming. Talk about the Snake River. Talk about the Big Leaf Maples that are dying. There is much to be done. Spread the word. 

J50 and her clan are the canaries in the coal mine. Our environment is the coal mine. The canaries are dying.”

Capt. Jim

James Mead Maya

Exploring the Scenic By-Way on San Juan Island

Designated in 2009 for its natural beauty and cultural significance, San Juan Island’s Scenic By-Way leads along breathtaking coastlines, lush fields, by farms, historic sites and amazing beaches. Explore the Scenic By-Way by car, moped, bike or shuttle bus and experience the stunning beauty and rich history San Juan Island has to offer, packed with fun for the entire family.

Find a complete weekend itinerary of a Scenic Tour of the Isle here.

San Juan Island with Teenagers

The recipe for a successful weekend getaway with your teenager must include a cool destination, amazing adventure and the right mix of alone and family time. Completely walkable, quaint Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is especially suited for such a vacation, with its numerous, safe, exciting things your teen can do alone, like bowling, going to the movies, the skatepark or shopping, and the vast array of fun family experiences the island offers. 

Find the coolest, funnest 11 Teen Tested Ideas for a Successful San Juan Island Vacationhere.

Packing Tips for a Kayak Trip in the San Juan Islands

One of my goals this year is to tread lightly, or lighter rather. I’ve always been conservation minded, but this year I intend to seriously cut down if not eliminate any single use plastics, to use less gas and to be more mindful about how I consume and how much space I take up on this beautiful and delicate earth of ours.

With this in mind I treated myself to a guided kayak tour with San Juan Outfitters earlier this year. Gliding silently through the beautiful waters of the Salish Sea, while respectfully observing wildlife really appealed to me, and at the same time, pushed my boundaries just enough.

San Juan Outfitters have their base camp in the bustling historic resort of Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, and they’ll pick you up in Friday Harbor if you are travelling without a car. All guided tours take place in double kayaks, which you “board” via slip docks, making it virtually impossible to fall in the water trying to get in or out of your boat. I liked that very much. San Juan Outfitter’s fun kayak guides are all trained naturalists, able to answer such pressing questions as “how long do starfish live” and “how fast does bull kelp grow”. They know where the Bald Eagles’ nests are, where the latest whale sighting was and how much time you have left to watch the seals playing before the tide goes out. I felt safe, in excellent hands and had an unforgettable experience.

Insider Tip:

In addition to “my” three-hour kayak tour out of Roche Harbor, San Juan Outfitters also offers 5-hour Orca Search, multi day, family, as well as bioluminescent kayak tours. All levels of experience and all ages are welcome. Call and discuss which trip is right for you. 

When packing for your kayak trip, especially if you are going on a day where the weather is still trying to decide whether it will be warm and sunny or breezy and overcast, bring more not less. San Juan Outfitters have a big locker by their check-in kiosk where you can leave the things that you don’t want to bring on the water.

You’ll get a kayaking skirt, so you won’t get wet in your boat. You’ll also be asked to wear a life vest with lots of pockets, additionally protecting you from wind and cold and perfect to store your phone or camera and gloves.

Use the bathroom on the docks before your kayak trip. If you have to go during the outing, your kayak guide will find a place to pull over to use the bushes. 

What to wear:

  • Dress for the water temperature, rather than the air temperature, while you won’t be swimming, you will be sitting low, surrounded by cold water

  • Wear layers, lots and lots of comfortable layers, to protect against both, sun and cold.

  • Avoid water absorbing cotton and go with quick drying fibers, your arms are likely to get little drips of water up your sleeves when you paddle

  • Wear river sandals or old sneakers.

  • Sun hat with straps or well-fitting baseball cap and a beanie for underneath.

  • Light gloves, against cold and blisters.


What to bring:

  • Sunscreen, always, especially on cloudy days. 

  • Sunglasses.

  • Water in a metal or plastic bottle, avoid glass.

  • Snack, like a granola bar or some fruit.

  • Camera & go-pro.

  • Binoculars.

 Have fun!

History lives Here! The Boarding House at Lime Kiln

In 1860, lime production began on San Juan Island in what is today the Lime Kiln State Park, also known as the Whale Watch Park. For 60 years, the area adjacent to the park was quarried for limestone. Kilns were built to fire the limestone to produce lime. Buildings were built, roads were cut and much of the island was logged to feed the fires of the kilns. Three to four cords of wood per day fired the kilns to transform 20 tons of limestone into 9 tons of lime.

The Boarding House at Lime Kiln in above photo from circa 1970 served as the kitchen and boarding house for the lime kiln workers. Photo courtesy of San Juan Historical Museum.

Today you can visit a rebuilt lime kiln in the park. In the woods beyond its boundaries, you’ll find the ruins of other lime kilns and of above boarding house.