Summer is undeniably coming to a close here in the Pacific Northwest, and while I am enjoying the cooler temperatures, I was really hoping to get more hiking in before the weather changes and conditions in the mountains get more spotty. Alas, wildfires and the (now annual) smoke season had other ideas. So I looked to the west for a different day-trip. 

The San Juan Islands

The San Juans are a group of islands north of Seattle, in between Victoria, BC and Bellingham, WA. There are 172 named islands within this group, but the three you can access via Washington State Ferry are San Juan Island, Orcas Island and Lopez Island. There’s tons to do on each island, and it’s a popular destination for those visiting Seattle who want to also experience the surrounding areas of Washington. 

Shitty ferry coffee is part of the experience.

The last time I visited was on a family vacation sometime in my childhood, so I wanted to take a day trip to escape the smoke and explore Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. 

Exploring the Harbor

Arriving at Friday Harbor via WSDOT ferry.

I took the 9:05am ferry from Anacortes and we arrived at Friday Harbor just after 10am. Just blocks off of the ferry dock, there are tons of shops, cafes and studios to explore. Most of my morning was spent pursuing these shops and admiring the work of local artists. I stopped at Cynthia’s Bistro for lunch and enjoyed the garden patio’s shade as I ate. 

Good food in Friday Harbor is not hard to find. If seafood is your thing, there’s an abundance of options. There were definitely fewer vegetarian options, but what I did find was exquisite. I dropped into the bar at Downriggers for dinner and had the best cauliflower I’ve ever had. It was a real treat. 

Wine Tasting: Madrone Cellars & Cider

After lunch I headed over to the Madrone Tasting Room for a wine tasting. At noon on a Monday, it wasn’t busy at all. The worker was chatting with a local resident discussing local music spots as I took in the space. Photographs from the winery (located in the middle of the island) hung on the walls and plants were strewn about the space.   

I chose the wine flight (other options were the cider flight or sparkling flight) and headed out to the patio to enjoy the sun. All the wines are unfiltered and dry, made with the intent to support the local agriculture community on the islands. Sustainability is at the root of their business, and their wine and ciders are a reflection of their traveling experiences brought back to their home.  

I enjoyed learning more about Madrone Cellars as I soaked up the sun. If you have more time than I did, they offer tours of the winery in the San Juan Valley that I’m sure would be absolutely lovely. It’s on my list for the next time I visit.

Whale Watching: San Juan Safaris

Next on my itinerary was the real thing that brought me to San Juan - whale watching. I’ve lived in Washington for over a decade and I’d still never gone whale watching. After my awesome experience with humpbacks in Iceland, I was hoping to spot some orcas in my own backyard. 

The San Juan Islands are home to some of the best whale watching experiences in the PNW. In addition to gray whales and resident orcas, porpoises, bald eagles and harbor seals are regularly sighted. So, once again, I found myself in fishing overalls, ready to head out onto the waters. 

There hadn’t been any sightings earlier in the day, so we were hoping some rumors of orcas in the north were true. I booked the “Adventure Safari”, which placed me in a smaller, more nimble boat so we were able to head out to open waters pretty quickly. It only took us about 30 minutes before we learned that the rumors were true, and we spotted Onca & Lynx surfacing in Plumper Sound, BC.

We got very lucky and saw several spyhops and “The Boys” even did a close pass-by of our bow. This was my first orca sighting and I was in awe of how large these two were. Although they’re only teens (18 and 14) and have a lot of growing left to do (orcas aren’t considered to be full-grown until 25), their dorsal fins were already easily 4ft tall. 

These two are a favorite of the locals, seen often around the area traveling, hunting and playing together. Just the day before, they were spotted on the west side of San Juan Island, punting a porpoise out of the water! 

We said our goodbyes to the boys to let others get a good view and made a few stops on our way back to Friday Harbor. On our way back we spotted Harbor seals, a bald eagle and passed by Spieden Island, which has a very interesting history. Two Seattle-born brothers had dreams of turning this island into a hunting park (“Safari Island”) and brought in game from around the world in the 1970s and ‘80s. Mouflon sheep from Corsica, fallow deer from Europe and Sika deer from Japan still inhabit the island, although its hunting days are long over. It’s kind of like a less-failed Jurassic Park.

A harbor seal trying to keep its head and tail dry as the tide comes in.

The whole tour was absolutely amazing, and San Juan Safaris posted a report about this trip on their website here. I definitely recommend this whale watching tour to anyone who wants to spot and learn more about wildlife in this area. 

A Lovely Day Trip

After disembarking the whale-watching vessel and grabbing a quick bite to eat, it was time to board the ferry back to Anacortes and drive back home to Seattle. It was a lovely sunset ferry ride - the perfect end to a great day. If you’re visiting Seattle or even if you’re a local, I highly recommend taking a day trip out to Friday Harbor. It’s one of those places that reminds me how lucky I am to live here.