An Introduction To Washington's Beautiful San Juan Islands

JoAnneh Nagler

Summer is by far the most beautiful time to visit the San Juan Islands in Washington State. A little over an hour north from the major metropolitan center of Seattle, the islands are pristinely dotted along a protected coastline, and totally unspoiled. They hover just a stone’s throw from the coast, and just spitting distance from each other—meaning there are islands everywhere you look.

Alexander Beach

In most geographies you can find your direction North, South, East, or West by simple landmarks—open water to the West, or mountains to the East, for instance—but the San Juans are a bit trickier. Look in any direction and you will spy a new grouping of isles, a new bay or bit of water, and peninsular land masses shrouded by clouds looking at once both mysterious and ethereal—enough to make you feel completely surrounded by the mysteries of isles and sea.
The weather in the summer is what’s known by the locals as ‘partly cloudy’—which really means mostly sunny with occasional haziness throughout the day. The light haze of clouds brings a perfect balance of warmth with a wafting of cool wind—a heavenly blend of coastline sunshine and divinely temperate air. Dubbed “The Banana Belt” by the locals, the beaches feel like a mild-weathered Monterey—the calmness of the glassy water created by a peninsula that juts out into the sea and keeps the ocean serene and smooth.
Anacortes (on Fildalgo island, accessible by car) is the sweet little town from which to explore the islands, with ferries heading to many of the water-surrounded ones, and a darling community of small-town houses and shops to delight the visitor. There are lots of little beaches upon which to rent homes for a summer’s stay, and certainly with the advent of AirBnB and VRBO there’ll be plenty to choose from for your summer excursion. Find one of the private beaches outside Anacortes (Alexander Beach is as sweet as they come) just outside of town, where the homes perch on the sloped hillsides and the views are vast and incredible. Or, ferry over to Guemes Island, a tiny isle with darling cottages and homes dotted all around its ten-mile radius, and just a five-minute ferry ride to Anacortes. If you love hotels, stay in the local Majestic Inn and Spa or or the authentic Anacortes Ship Harbor Inn. Anyplace you choose to stay will offer a sweet base from which to enjoy and explore.

Fildalgo Island

So what’s there to do here? If you fish, the answer is obvious. Salmon fishing is an art form here, and salmon eating is a joy that the locals—and visitors—never get over. Take a day and do a fishing trip with Outer Islands Excursions to get the feel for yourself of what it’s truly like to game-fish the San Juans.
Hiking is a gorgeous experience of sky and land, cliffs and waterways, so absolutely bring your hiking boots and set out for a trek or two. Hike Deception Pass State Park for incredible views of a clear-water bay and simple rolling-hills, wooded trails that end at spectacular cliffs overlooking the sea. The main trail opens onto a pristine beach at the mouth of a protected bay—a perfect place for a midday picnic.

Rent bikes for the day at The Bikespot, just at the end of town, where the staff really knows their stuff and then pedal over to the Skagit County Ferry and head for Guemes Island for the afternoon. Guemes island is about ten miles in circumference with mild rolling hills, and makes for a perfect day-bike trip and a lovely way to see the island. On the return trip tool around Anacortes and follow the bike trail all along the waterfront, viewing the remnants of old canneries from days gone by, perched just at the water’s edge.
The best meals to be found in the San Juans are the ones procured from a simple stop into one of the local fresh fish markets (try Black Rock Seafood, no website, 8991 Stevenson Rd, Anacortes, WA 98221), where you can buy fresh-caught salmon, spot prawns and more—then pop them on the grill for a quick few minutes for a truly exquisite seafood experience.
Head over to the mainland to the little town of La Conner for a sweet retreat into the charms of a tiny waterside hamlet, or take a ferry over to Vancouver Island—there’s so much within a stone’s throw of the San Juans that you’ll be pressed by the pull of what to explore next.

View from the trail at Deception Pass State Park

Any place you choose to explore in the San Juan Islands will serve up its best to you: land that’s lush, clean, and full of rock and wood-strewn beaches; fresh air that’s clear and crisp; small-town charms and exquisite seafood; gorgeous waterways and idyllic beaches.
The San Juans are the best of the Pacific Northwest—a perfect summer experience of the serene and tranquil, the outdoorsy and the gorgeous. They’re the glory of Washington State, and, once you’ve gone, they’ll be a cherished and glorious travel memory that you’ll hold deep in your heart.

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