Full of beautiful scenery, wildlife and a nearly unlimited number of things to do, it is no wonder the San Juan Islands have received accolades from several national publications, including being named as one of the “Top 10 Islands in the World” by the 2014 Travel+Leisure Magazine World’s Best Awards. The San Juan Islands are comprised of about 428 to 743 islands, only 172 which have names. The four largest and most well-known islands are San Juan, Orcas, Shaw and Lopez Islands and they have charming hotels, spas, shops, locavore restaurants and plentiful indoor and outdoor activities. Even better, there plenty completely free things to do in the San Juans, allowing you to experience as much of the islands as possible on a budget.
1. Explore the Lime Kiln Lighthouse – The 36-acre Lime Kiln State Park is considered to be one of the best places in the world to view whales from land, as orcas often cruise by, particularly in the months of May through September. Other frequent visitors to the park’s shores include Minke whales, porpoises, seal, sea lions and otters. If you want to learn more about the park’s wildlife should check out the Interpretive Center, which contains orca statues, a replica of an orca dorsal fin, interactive displays and activities and history about the old lime kiln that inspired the name for the park. You can also tour the park’s lighthouse, which still operates, and on clear days you can see the Olympic Mountain Range and Vancouver Island.
2. Tour the Pelindaba Lavender Farm – If you love lavender, or just flowers in general, you will delight in Pelindaba Lavender Farm. The lavender begins blooming in early May, with some blooms lasting into October. During these months, visitors are free to tour the many fields where over 50 varieties of lavender are grown and see and smell the flowers, cut bouquets from the fields, go on a picnic and taste lavender lemonade, iced tea, ice cream and cookies and pick up lavender products from the farm store. If you happen to visit in the summer, make sure to check out the Lavender Festival on July 18 and 19th where you can learn how to craft with lavender or attend demonstrations on things such as growing or cooking with lavender.
3. Visit Local Museums – Learn more about the history and culture of the San Juans while you are in town. First, pick up a little by visiting the San Juan Historical Museum where you can view historic buildings and antiques that allow you to imagine what life was like in 1894, when the island was a farming community. Second, for stop by the San Juan Islands Museum of Art for a little art appreciation. Here you can see photography, paintings, art installations renowned artists and workshops for kids and adults (some require a fee). Don’t forget to stop by the nearby Sculpture Park, which features over 20 acres of outdoor art.
4. Hike to the Mausoleum – Accessing the mausoleum is an easy trek through the Roche Harbor Cemetery, at the end of the cemetery you will find a set of gates reading “Afterglow Vista,” travel through them and you find the mausoleum. The Mausoleum, which was created for McMillin family that owned the local lime works, has an interesting history and is worth the hike for at least the beautiful golden glow that falls on the structure as the summer sun sets.
5. Check Out the San Juan Islands Summer Arts Fair – If you are planning on traveling to San Juan Island July 11-12, stop by the Summer Arts Fair, which has been a Friday Harbor tradition for the past 20 years. During the festival over 50 local artists sell fine art, crafts, jewelry, textiles, natural beauty products and more and there is a creative center for kids as well.
6. Discover San Juans Beaches – The San Juan Islands are full of fantastic beaches such as 4th of July Beach, Cattle Park, English Camp, San Juan County Park and more that provide endless opportunities for activities. Explore tide pools, fly kites, picnic, bird watch, wade in the water, skim board, play volleyball or explore the docks at Friday Harbor Marina.
7. Stroll Through the San Juan Island Farmers Market – San Juan Island began as a farming community, so it is no surprise that they still have a robust farmers market today. The market is held year round at Friday Harbor Brickworks Building, so walk through to pick up fresh produce, handmade crafts and tasty artisan foods.
8. Take a Hike on One of the Many Trails on the Island – In addition to a variety of beaches to explore, San Juan Island has a number of hiking trails. One of the most popular trips is Mount Young, which passes through historic areas and provides scenic views. Other great options include Mount Finlayson, Jackie’s Lagoon and South Beach Trail.
9. Watch a Theater Production – The Island Stage Left theater company offers free shows year-round to visitors and locals alike. During the summer (July-August) months the company performs a Shakespeare play outdoors under the stars and produces a combination of old and new plays throughout the rest of the seasons.
10. Drive Around the Island and Look for Wildlife – Home to a variety of animals such as deer, rabbits, eagles, wild turkeys, trumpeter swans and raccoons, San Juan Island is a great place to take your kids on a local mini-safari to see what creatures you can find. In addition to local fauna, some of the farms on the island raise non-native animals like llamas, Scottish Highland cattle, ostriches and alpacas. There is even a camel on the island named Mona; see you can spot her on Roche Harbor Road across from San Juan Winery.