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Northwest Weekend: San Juan Islands Island Get Away

Spend a weekend hiking; watching for whales and enjoying the food and drink in the San Juan Islands | by Rachel Wood and Brandon Fralic

A ferry navigates the corridors of the Salish Sea, flanked by the glacial-carved islands of the San Juans: It’s an image as iconographic to Washington as Mount Rainier looming on a clear day. The islands are keepers of memories for both of us. For Brandon, they are memories of childhood ferry rides to visit his grandmother on Lopez; for me, Rachel, they’re memories of chasing our southern resident orcas while working as a crew member on a tourist vessel one summer. But this weekend we looked forward to island hopping—hiking, eating and drinking our way across San Juan and Orcas islands.

Even with reservations, ferry sailings make me anxious and we arrived 60 minutes early to the Anacortes ferry terminal. We had plenty of time to stretch our legs on the Ship Harbor and Guemes Channel trails. An easy amble along beach, boardwalk and paved path, this route begins near the ferry dock and offers beautiful views across the channel to Guemes and Cypress islands. From here, we could even see the approaching ferry coming into view during our return walk to the car. It was time to set sail!

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Photo by Brandon Fralic.

We didn’t enjoy any orca sightings from the bow of the MV Samish this time, but we did spot a few placid harbor seals, their large black eyes peering up at us from blue-green depths. Our destination was Friday Harbor, the only incorporated town in the San Juan Islands. We parked the car near our accommodations for the evening and explored the quaint town by foot. It’s easy to understand why Friday Harbor is often written off as a tourist town—more than one souvenir shop has a storefront on the main drag—but you can easily spend an afternoon exploring The Whale Museum or even getting lost in the maze of books at Serendipity Used Books. 

After an afternoon of exploration, a walk along the waterfront and checking out the boats moored at the public dock, we were getting hungry. We checked into Friday Harbor Hideaway Guest Suite, appreciating the cozy room and close proximity to downtown, stashed our luggage and headed down to Cask and Schooner for dinner. If any restaurant could make you feel like the captain of a tall ship, Cask and Schooner is it.

It was hard to beat our first day in the islands, but by the time we’d had breakfast at Cynthia’s Bistro on day two (complimentary with a stay at Hideaway Guest Suite) we knew that we were on track to do just that. After indulging in French toast and the avocado breakfast boat, we headed to Lime Kiln State Park. Affectionately called “Whale Watch Park,” Lime Kiln is one of the best places in the world to spot members of Washington’s three resident orca pods: J, K and L. Again, we struck out as far as sightings, but couldn’t be disappointed by a trail that followed the rugged western edge of San Juan Island, framed by brilliant scarlet and emerald hues of madrone trees. We took a few pictures of the iconic lighthouse before continuing on to learn more about the history of the lime kilns that give this area its name. 

Photo by Cameron Zegers.

We had worked up a thirst, so it was only logical to head straight to San Juan Brewery next. We enjoyed a sample tray plus a wood-fired pizza in the lofty, industrial-chic taproom, relaxing a bit before heading to catch our ferry to Orcas Island. The largest of the San Juan Islands, Orcas’ distinctive horseshoe shape makes it easily recognizable on a map.

From the ferry dock on Orcas, we headed to the village of Eastsound and stopped at the grocery store to grab something to cook for dinner. Then we simply relaxed for the evening at Orcas Island Getaway. We made use of the fully outfitted kitchen, enjoyed a nightcap beer and topped the evening off with a long soak under the stars in the hot tub. We headed to bed early to rest up in order to explore Moran State Park the next morning.

Moran State park has it all—Mount Constitution’s epic views, a number of waterfalls, multiple lakes and 38 miles of hiking trails. We parked at Mountain Lake and hiked up to Little Summit. The views here are gorgeous, looking south to Obstruction Pass, Obstruction Island and Blakely Island beyond. We also discovered a west-facing viewpoint, with far-reaching views toward Bellingham and Mount Baker. From Little Summit, it is possible to continue hiking to the top of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. We enjoyed the views while eating lunch and then headed back down to hike out to Cascade Falls on our way out of the park.

We made one final stop on our way to the ferry: Island Hoppin’ Brewery. With each brew inspired by a place or story from life on Orcas Island, the brewery is homey and full of character. Brandon and I shared a couple of pints while toasting our incredible weekend, and then grabbed a growler to go—we had a ferry to catch, after all.

Moran State Park is a great option for both camping and hiking on Orcas Island. Photo by Christy Reynolds.

We sailed through the darkness, the final rays of sunlight glowing on the edge of the islands as they became distant behind us. Another collection of memories to hold onto until our next visit.

Brandon and Rachel are the hikers behind Beers at the Bottom. Check out their new book, “Beer Hiking Pacific Northwest,” for 50 more local trails and ales pairings:


Guemes Channel Trail and Ship Harbor Trail: These connected scenic shoreline trails provide an excellent leg stretch while waiting for the ferry in Anacortes. Walk east along the beach from the Anacortes ferry terminal to reach the Ship Harbor Interpretive Trail boardwalk. This short, easy trail traverses sandy beach and wetland for 0.35 mile before connecting with the Guemes Channel Trail at a cul-de-sac (accessible by vehicle at the end of Edwards Way). Continue east along the paved trail for a mile or so. This trail will eventually wrap around the north end of Fidalgo Island and link up with the Tommy Thompson Trail. For now, enjoy 2.7 roundtrip miles of waterfront walking.

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Photo by Brandon Fralic.

Lime Kiln Point State Park: Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island features 1.6 miles of hiking trails. From the lower parking lot, take the trail behind the bathrooms south to reach the park’s famed whale-watching site. May through September is the best time to view passing pods from land. Then follow the rocky shoreline trail north to the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse, constructed in 1919. Turn inland and follow signs north to the park’s namesake 19th-century lime kiln. Then retrace your steps, or loop back via the alternate upper trail to the parking area.

Little Summit (Moran State Park): From the parking area and picnic shelter next to Mountain Lake on Orcas Island, the trail to Little Summit takes off steeply uphill. This route gains about 1,000 feet in 1.2 miles one way, making for a short but challenging climb. Retrace your steps back to Mountain Lake, or follow the signs to reach Mount Constitution—an additional 2.2 miles from Little Summit. With so many trails to choose from, the best option is to grab a park map and choose your own adventure.

Cascade Falls: Dropping 40 feet, Cascade Falls is the largest waterfall in the San Juan Islands. It can easily be reached from Mount Constitution Road on a signed 0.2-mile trail. For a longer 3.1-mile route, check the WTA website: hikes/cascade-falls.

Find more hikes: WTA has more than 50 hikes to explore in the San Juan Islands

Photo by Michele Hoffman Trotter.

Where to stay

Moran State Park: Featuring 151 tent sites in five different locations, Moran State Park on Orcas Island offers some of the best camping in the San Juans. The park has a variety of sites, including primitive bike/ and walk-in sites and sites that can accommodate RVs. Shoreline sites are even available along Cascade Lake and Mountain Lake. The campground has flush bathrooms and showers, but no electric hook-ups are available.

San Juan County Park: Overlooking the Haro Strait, San Juan County Park offer 30-plus camping sites, including “human powered” sites for hikers, bikers and kayakers. The campground offers a picnic area, flush toilets, beach access and a boat launch.

Friday Harbor Hideaway guest suite: Just three blocks up Spring Street from the ferry dock, the Hideaway Guest Suite on San Juan Island offers the convenience of a downtown location mixed with quiet privacy. Featuring a kitchenette, queen bed and sofa bed, plus soaking tub, the suite is great for families. It’s even pet friendly!

Orcas Island Getaway @Bracken Fern: Aptly named, this two-bedroom, two-bathroom vacation rental is tucked back into the woods, providing solitude during your stay. The full kitchen is stocked with utensils and a coffee maker. This property is ideal for families.

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A beer sampler from San Juan Brewing. Photo by Brandon Fralic.

Where to eat and drink

San Juan Island Brewing (Friday Harbor): This shiny new brewpub is the only full-service restaurant and brewery in the San Juan Islands. Come for the beer and stay for the pizza from a wood-fired oven. Kids are welcome, too.

Cask and Schooner (Friday Harbor): One of the first restaurants you come to when getting off the ferry at Friday Harbor, Cask and Schooner offers locally sourced seafood and pub fare in a nautical-themed restaurant.

Cynthia’s Bistro (Friday Harbor): A local favorite, Cynthia’s provides everything you could ask for in a breakfast joint, including brunch all day. Located in a renovated 1920s home, Cynthia’s Bistro is a warm and inviting place to fuel up for a day of adventure.

Orcas Island Farmers Market (Orcas): During summer months, the farmers market is an excellent place to peruse island-made crafts while enjoying locally produced foods. Open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday from May to September on the Village Green in the heart of Eastsound.

Island Hoppin’ Brewery (Orcas): The oldest brewery in the islands has an especially laid-back feel, like walking into a friend’s living room. Enjoy crisp, snappy brews in their cozy, familyfriendly taproom in Eastsound. Light snacks available.

Map by Lisa Holmes.

Getting there

By car: Ferry reservations are recommended for travel between Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, especially during summer weekends. Check schedules and rates.

Walk-on passengers: Save money by walking on the ferry. Walk-ons don’t need a reservation. You can leave your vehicle at the Anacortes terminal (check the website for rates) and walk on the ferry with your luggage and bicycle or kayak. Walk-on passengers can rent bikes or scooters on Orcas and San Juan islands. Or ride a seasonal shuttle. 

By bicycle: Biking is a great option for those seeking an active and environmentally friendly alternative to driving. The bicycle surcharge is $2–$4 on the Anacortes/San Juan Islands route, depending on the time of year.

This article originally appeared in the May+Jun 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.