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Why You Should Make the San Juan Islands Your New Weekend Getaway

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Cattle Point, San Juan Island | Bureau of Land Management
Cattle Point, San Juan Island | Bureau of Land Management

About 100 miles north of Seattle, the San Juan Islands offer a breathtaking respite from the bustle of city life. Comprised of 172 islands in total, four of which -- San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez, and Shaw -- are serviced by the Washington State Ferry service, the scenic archipelago makes a cozy getaway for Seattleites looking for a dreamy Pacific Northwest weekend or staycation spot.

In fall, you’ll find significantly smaller crowds, but still good weather. According to the visitors bureau, the San Juans get an estimated 247 days of sunshine a year -- with about half the precipitation of Seattle, thanks to the Olympic Mountains’ "rain shadow" effect. It’s possible to bounce between the three major islands (the small Shaw isn’t considered a tourist destination) in the span of a couple days, or pick one and really get to know it.

Either way, getting around by car is definitely the way to go in the fall, especially if you want to hit all three islands, or if you opt for Lopez, which doesn’t have public transit or car rental facilities. But first, you’ll need to take the ferry, which departs from the Anacortes terminal, about 80 miles north of Seattle. The ferry ride takes anywhere from 40 minutes to 1.5 hours (depending on the route), and offers magnificent views of the island’s lush maples and rocky cliff sides, making the passage an experience all on its own. 

As for what to do when you’re back on land? Allow this guide to clue you into the best places to eat and things to do when visiting the San Juan Islands this fall.

Iceberg Point, Lopez Island | Monica Bennett

Lopez Island

Idyllic and rural, Lopez Island (the first stop on the ferry) is noted for its slower pace of life and renowned as the agricultural hub of the islands. You won’t find any big-box stores here -- just llama farms, groves of fruit orchards, and 63 miles of shoreline primed for long walks on the beach. Should meadows and woodlands be more up your alley, the island’s gentler topography lends itself to plenty of easy hikes or go full outdoor by setting up camp at Odlin County Park. Full of unexpected delights like incredible ramen and cute coffee shops, plus stunning views, here, you’ll be living your best island life immediately. 

Lopez Village
Lopez Village might be small, but it’s packed with charming shops, an organic grocery, a pharmacy, and a museum. It’s located four miles from the ferry terminal and a stone’s throw from Fisherman Bay, so there’s no doubt you’ll pass through at least once or twice. Whatever you do, make sure to grab a cinnamon roll from Holly B’s Bakery (open Friday-Sunday), a 43-year-old fixture in the village. Also, the annual Holiday Lighting & Gathering takes place the Friday after Thanksgiving and is about as small-town charming as they come with bonfires, caroling, and free holiday treats. 

Isabel’s Espresso 
Because being a bit off the grid shouldn't mean being doomed to lackluster gas station coffee, head to Isabel's, an adorable little house that slings coffee every bit as good as what you’d find in a big city. For tea, the Lopez Mist is a fun play on a London Fog (aka Earl Grey latte) and is the perfect drink to stick in the cup holder of your car before setting off on a drive.

Shark Reef Sanctuary
Located on the west side of the island, the scenic Shark Reef Sanctuary offers lush forest, handsome shorelines, and unparalleled views of the Olympic Peninsula, Mount Rainier, and the Cascades. The trail is only about a mile long and pretty flat, so you can take it all in without breaking a sweat as you keep your eyes peeled for the sea lions, otters, and eagles that are known to congregate here.

Setsunai 
Since there’s no better season than fall to cozy up with a steaming bowl of ramen, fuel up for hours of sightseeing at Setsunai, which makes their noodles fresh daily. It’s open Wednesday-Saturday; lunch is first-come, first-served, with reservations available for dinner. Pro tip: order the gyoza. 

Iceberg Point
The three-mile round-trip hike through Iceberg Point, located on the southwest tip of the island, can’t be beat. The gorgeous trail skirts the ocean from up above and offers breathtaking views of the Salish Sea and the Olympic Mountains -- if you’re lucky, you may even spot an orca in the distance.

Ursa Minor 
Ursa Minor highlights the Pacific Northwest with elevated, yet heartfelt dishes made with ingredients sourced from local farmers, fishermen, and foragers. As such, the menu at the dinner-only restaurant (open Friday-Sunday in fall) changes according to what’s in season -- right now there’s sturgeon ham & pickles and squid with cauliflower, yogurt & chlorophyll -- and is small-plate focused, perfect for sharing.

The Edenwild
A boutique inn located in the heart of Lopez Village, Edenwild rents out nine rooms, and offers bike and kayak rentals as well as tours, making it an easy choice for a luxurious spot to recharge after exploring the island. Try renting room six, which features a brick fireplace, antique soaking tub, and plenty of cozy spots to curl up with a book, as well as marvelous views of the San Juan Channel, perfect for taking in the seascape as yachts and ferries sail by.

Mount Constitution, Orcas Island | Dana Halferty

Orcas Island

While Lopez Island is the agricultural hub of the San Juans, you see all the fruits of this labor at play best on Orcas Island, the largest one of the group. You could easily spend an entire weekend eating your way around the island… which we highly recommend. The good news is there’s no shortage of exploring to do, from hiking to the top of Mount Constitution to exploring a historic pottery studio, to balance out all the foodie activities.

Brown Bear Baking
For scrumptious homemade pastries and quiches, this bakery in Eastsound is your best bet on Orcas. The orange morning bun and croque monsieur are standouts in the French-influenced pastry case, but you really can’t go wrong with anything here. 

Mount Constitution
Especially in the off-season, there’s no denying the harmonious dance between the fog and trees during the drive through Moran State Park and up Mount Constitution. While you can definitely just drive to the top, the park features over 38 miles of hiking trails, including a 6.7-mile loop that takes you to the summit, the highest point of San Juan Island, which clocks in at 2,409 feet.

Clever Cow Creamery
Clever Cow features around 30 rotating flavors, some of which pay homage to Orcas’ neighbors, like Lummi Island Lemon and Deer Harbor Crunch. The creamery (open Friday-Monday) also serves seasonal food like hearty homemade soups, pork brats, and paninis in the cooler months. 

Orcas Island Pottery
Check out the oldest pottery studio in the PNW, nestled in an area of old growth trees a few miles away from Eastsound. Take home a completely original and colorful memento from your trip with a piece of their signature dinnerware.

Hogstone
From wood-fired pizzas made with alliums, mushrooms, and fresh cow cheese; to potato, smoked cow cheese, pickled shallots, chili, and cured yolk; Hogstone knows how to play around with the classics. You're definitely going to want to make reservations (fall/winter hours are Friday-Monday, dinner only) at this popular spot -- a recent James Beard Award nomination for chef Jay Blackinton certainly made this place a trickier one to get a table at. 

Doe Bay Resort & Retreat
Nestled on the southeast end of Orcas Island, near picturesque state parks, Doe Bay Resort is a great option for anyone on a budget still looking for a glamping experience, since rates are discounted during the off-season. Accommodations here include cabins of both the basic and deluxe variety, yurts, and camp sites if you’re looking to get outdoorsy (the latter provide some of the most incredible views). 

The Barnacle
Once you’ve had enough exploring for the day, head to this excellent little island hideout in Eastsound. The Barnacle is a romantic little tapas bar that highlights simple but excellent cocktails (like a twist on a Dark & Stormy made with their ginger elixir), tinctures and elixirs, and artisanal cheese and meat boards. 

Courtesy of Westcott Bay Shellfish Company

San Juan Island

The namesake island of this archipelago is as scenic as they come, but don’t take our word for it: nearly two dozen films have been shot here over the years from Free Willy to Practical Magic, so apparently Hollywood agrees, too. San Juan Island is the second biggest and most populated island of the gang. Resplendent with lush forests and miles of coastal roads just begging for a joy ride, the island is also an ecological haven -- San Juan County is home to more bald eagles than any other county in the state. Spend your time here filling your five senses with the spirit of the San Juans at these must-hit spots.

Cask & Schooner
Located conveniently close to the ferry terminal in Friday Harbor, Cask & Schooner is the perfect place to ring in or ring out your island adventure. Open everyday at 12pm, this true-blue public house slings a large selection of beers on draft as well as incredible sandwiches like blackened sockeye and stout-spiked chicken (which has bacon, brie, apple, frisee, and fig aioli). 

Lime Kiln Point State Park
Home to some of the best orca-watching in the world during the summer, Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west side of the island is still a must-hit any time of year -- you could get lucky and still catch a glimpse of the infamous killer whales, and if not, the day-use park is perfect for a picnic or just a nice gawk at the rugged seascape. Be sure to cruise along the beach and check out -- or tour -- the beautiful 1919 vintage lighthouse along the shore.

San Juan Islands Scenic Byway
This island is home to one-third of the San Juan Islands Scenic Byway and Cycle San Juan’s Island Classic Tour will take you through all 30 miles of it in their 4-5 hour ride (the $165 price includes a hybrid bike rental, snacks, and lunch). To explore the byway on four wheels, follow this driving route, which takes you past sights like Cattle Point (where you can hike to a lighthouse), the sculpture park at Westcott Bay, and the San Juan Vineyards.

Inter-island sailing tour 
From day sails to overnight trips, there are abundant options for boating and sailing tours on the islands. If you’re in town with a group, Custom Coastal Charters offers six-hour, all-inclusive day trips out of Roche Harbor on San Juan Island for up to 12 people, so you can experience the scenic coastline of all three islands from aboard a skippered yacht.

Westcott Bay Shellfish Co.
A “working aquaculture farm,” Westcott Bay (open 12-3pm on Saturdays in the off-season) lets you pick your own oysters from the tanks here to take home or eat at their outdoor picnic tables. If you decide to stick around and enjoy your prized catches on site, you’ll even get a free shucking lesson -- a gift that will truly keep on giving, especially as a PNW resident.