A Traveler’s Guide to the Islands of Washington

For a relaxed atmosphere and top-notch outdoor activities, head to the Islands Region of Washington. Encompassing the San Juan Islands, Whidbey Island, and Camano Island, the region has no shortage of charming towns, pristine beaches, art galleries, and fantastic dining. The San Juan Islands are made up of 172 named islands and rocks. Three primary destinations — bustling San Juan, outdoorsy Orcas and laid-back Lopez — are easily accessible with many amenities. Getting to this island chain is half the fun. Enjoy a scenic ferry ride or hop on a brief charter flight. Whidbey and Camano islands are reachable by car. Outdoor enthusiasts can stay busy both on and off the water. At Deception Pass State Park, hike along rugged cliffs or kayak to pebbled beaches. With camping, jaw-dropping views, and phenomenal sunsets, it’s easy to see why this is Washington’s most-visited state park. In the San Juan Islands, take in sweeping views from the stone tower at the summit of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. For wildlife viewing, a whale-watching cruise offers visitors the chance to spot porpoises, seals, and majestic orcas. In addition to natural beauty, the Islands Region offers options aplenty for art lovers, history buffs, and foodies. Stroll through the Matzke Sculpture Park on Camano Island or visit Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve on Whidbey Island. Wine lovers can sip their way along Whidbey’s self-guided Wine & Spirits Trail (with a designated driver, of course). Each island also offers plenty of restaurants focused on locally sourced ingredients. Since each island has its own character, you’ll want to come back again and again to explore them all.

The Culture

Native American tribes and First Nations of Canada have cared for the San Juan Islands as part of their ancestral territory, since time immemorial. Coast Salish people gathered in the Islands to harvest shellfish and salmon from the Sea, camas in the prairies, berries along streams and in forests, and other flora and fauna for food and traditional uses. These ancestral lands and waters are still utilized today, and are protected under inherent, ancestral, and tribal treaty rights.

The Scenery 

You’ll discover something new around every bend in the road on San Juan Island. Meet the largest herd of alpacas in the islands, or spend your day picnicking in fields of lavender. Visit the iconic lighthouses and learn about the rich maritime history of the San Juans. When you travel San Juan Island beyond Friday Harbor, you’ll journey through miles of farmland and stretches of forest on your way to American Camp or English Camp, both part of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, or to the two waterfront state and county parks. You’re bound to hear about the 1859-1872 Pig War ”Crisis,” when Great Britain and the United States settled ownership of the islands through peaceful arbitration—the national park marks the sites of the U.S. and British encampments. American Camp includes the island’s longest stretch of beach, South Beach, and a network of forested and open trails along the coast, Jakle’s Lagoon and Mt. Finlayson. Orcas occasionally swim past this beach, and sharp-eyed youngsters may spot agates among the beach’s colorful stones. Close to Friday Harbor lies Jackson Beach, a popular picnicking, wading, and dog-walking/swimming spot.

The Weather

Surrounding waters moderate island temperatures and produce a typically mild maritime climate. Nearby mountain ranges create a rain shadow effect, causing the San Juan Islands to receive significantly less rainfall than is typical for western Washington. Relatively warm moisture-laden winds blow in from the Pacific Ocean. Rainfall in the park averages 29 inches per year at English camp on northwestern San Juan Island and 20 inches per year at American Camp on the island’s southern end. When the storm tracks shift northward in the summer, San Juan Island is left exceptionally dry and sunny. July and August are the sunniest and driest months, with May, June, and September relatively dry. November, December, and January are the rainiest, coldest and windiest months, with more than four inches of rainfall typically falling each month. Snowfall can occur, but is relatively rare, usually changing to rain and/or melting quickly. About 70 percent of the annual precipitation falls between October and April. Temperatures in the summer months are typically in the upper 60’s to low 70’s. Temperatures over 85 are rare. Winter daytime temperatures are usually in the upper 30s to low to mid 40s, with nighttime temperatures slightly above freezing. Although the thermometer will drop below freezing, with subsequent hard frosts, it rarely falls below the mid to upper 20s.

Attractions 

Bike Camano Island— Pedal around Camano Island on a scenic 45-mile loop that winds through rolling hills, dense forests, and flat farmlands, or dip into Camano Island State Park for an easy mile on car-free routes.

Explore historic Coupeville— Nestled on the south side of Penn Cove on Whidbey Island, the historic waterfront community of Coupeville was once a bustling port of commerce, ferrying products and people between the mainland and the island. Today, you can stroll its quaint wharf and browse charming boutiques and cafes.

Visit Deception Pass—Rugged cliffs plunge into swirling waters at Deception Pass, which separates Whidbey and Fidalgo islands. The Deception Pass Bridge offers phenomenal views, while the surrounding Deception Pass State Park is a nature-lover’s playground. You could spend all day exploring the park’s abundant hiking trails, beachside tidepools, and pristine lakes.

Get to know the region’s whales— The San Juan Islands are known for the resident pods of orca whales that frequent the surrounding waters. Join a whale-watching cruise or visit The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to learn more about these iconic marine mammals. Explore dozens of exhibits and artifacts while learning about the resident J, K, and L orca pods, see real whale skeletons, and listen to different underwater “songs” in the whale phone booth.

Take in the view from Mount Constitution— At 2,409 feet, Mount Constitution on Orcas Island is the highest point on the San Juan Islands. Drive or hike to the summit, where you’ll find panoramic views of the surrounding islands and mainland. Those who want an even higher vantage point can climb to the top of the stone observation tower.

Admire the Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens— Showy rhododendrons, flowering trees, and conifers fill Greenbank’s Meerkerk Rhododendron Gardens on Whidbey Island with lush color and life. Tour the display gardens or wander along more than 4 miles of trails within the woodland preserve.

Taste local wines— Wine lovers can’t miss visiting one of the handful of local wineries that dot the island and offer a diverse selection of red and white wines. Be sure to check business hours before you go and drink responsibly. The quaint Greenbank Farm features converted barns for wine-tastings, shopping, and art shows.

Shop and dine in Langley— In Langley, you’ll find a tightly knit downtown filled with art galleries, bakeries, and boutiques. Find handmade jewelry, clothing, home goods, books, and so much more. Before you leave, be sure to grab a bite at one of the town’s excellent restaurants, which include everything from fine-dining to casual cafes.

Explore the Wild Wonders of Moran State Park— On the east side of Orcas Island, Moran State Park is a crown jewel natural space of the San Juan archipelago. It encompasses over 5,000 acres of wild terrain. These varied landscapes include five lakes, acres of verdant forests, and the highest point of the San Juan Islands: Mount Constitution. The state park has over 130 campsites and over 30 miles of multi-use trails. The state park also facilitates non-motorized boating with launches on Mountain and Cascade Lakes. Boat rentals are available throughout the summer.

Bring Binoculars to Lime Kiln Point State Park— Lime Kiln Point State Park is on the west side of San Juan Island, accessible via the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway. It’s also known as Whale Watch Park, thanks to its magnificent saltwater vantage point. From the parking area at this day-use state park, it’s only a short walk to the rocky shoreline. Picnic tables and interpretive information line the shoreline at Lime Kiln Point State Park. Here, bring a packed lunch and some binoculars to sit and enjoy the show. Interpretive information in this area helps identify the fins poking above the water. And several madrone trees and a dramatic coastline ensure stunning coastal beauty, even if no whales are present. The Lime Kiln Lighthouse adds even more visual attraction to the state park. This active navigation aid poses brilliantly for photographs and is accessible with less than a quarter-mile walk. With several picnic tables all around, the lighthouse offers one of the best picnic spots on the San Juan Islands.

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