Day Trip to San Juan Islands | The Ultimate Guide

Travel & LeisureTravel Spot

  • Author Jess Peterman
  • Published May 29, 2024
  • Word count 1,760

The ultimate day trip to the San Juan Islands is just a quick drive from Seattle. Getting to and from San Juan Island is easy with the Washington Ferry system -they offer a ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island. If you bring your car with you on the ferry, you'll be able to explore the whole island easily.

There are all sorts of wildlife you can look for while visiting - sea otters, bald eagles and whales (depending on the season). Don't forget to include time to stop for lunch and dinner at some of the awesome restaurants before heading back home. Check out our San Juan islands itinerary below!

Morning | Day Trip to San Juan Islands via Ferry from Anacortes

You can fly into the island or take a Washington State Ferry over from Anacortes. The island is best explored by car, I suggest reserving a spot on an early ferry for your car.

I recommend purchasing your tickets for the ferry online before you go.

You will need to take the ferry from Anacortes which takes about an hour and half to get over to San Juan Island. Plan on being at the Washington State Ferry terminal at least an hour before the ferry leaves. It is a busy ferry, especially during the summer months.

If you are doing a day trip to the San Juan Islands from Seattle, the drive to the Anacortes ferry terminal takes about 2 hours. Make sure you add the extra drive time to your departure time from Seattle. Stop at the Whidbey Island Bagel Factory for a bagel and a latte before you get in line.

There is not a lot to do at the Washington State Ferry terminal in Anacortes, so be prepared with things to do while you wait.

Tips for the Ferry Ride on Your Day Trip to San Juan Islands

Once on the ferry, they have a little café and vending machines if you need a snack. There are restrooms available and tables to sit at too but I really loved being able to stand outside on the deck and watch the scenery go by. Have cash on hand if you want the vending machine, we couldn't get any of the credit card stuff to work and was glad to have some cash. We also brought a couple of games and I had my Kindle to pass the time.

As you get closer to the San Juan Islands, I like to go out on one of the observation decks and watch the island go by.

For your day trip to the San Juan Islands, instead of a car, you can also chose to take a bike on the ferry. Getting around the island via bike is easy and great way to spend the day.

The other option without a car would be to walk on the ferry and then take a guided tour of the island. You could also plan on renting a scoot coupe to see the sights.

1st Stop | American Camp

Once off the Washington State Ferry, I would bypass stopping in Friday Harbor unless you need snacks or water. I would start my day by heading on over to American Camp to do some exploring. We thought that a pair of binoculars, a camera and a windbreaker (if you are there in the morning) were great to bring along so that we didn't miss anything while we were out. Starting here is a great way to learn a little of the history of the island and is the perfect start for your San Juan islands day trip.

At the American Camp, they have a visitor's center and you can visit the Officer's quarters. There aren't as many buildings to visit as the English Camp, but there are several trails you can meander and interpretive signs along the way. The visitor's center has some brand new displays installed with the history and people of the island as well as American Camp.

It is really well done and worth the stop in before you start exploring the area. The volunteer staff and rangers are also really kind and can give you some great tips on what you should do while you are visiting.

Grandma's Cove and South Beach

After stopping at the visitor's center, start down the trail towards the parade grounds. Then follow signs to Grandma's Cove. It isn't a long walk, but it's a great little beach where you can swim or check out the driftwood. You can sometimes spot animals there as well - we saw a bald eagle and a sea otter. After exploring the cove, walk back up the trail.

I really appreciated having my hiking sandals for this hike since it was a combo of sand and dirt that I was walking on.

Meander around some of the trails that go along the rugged coast line. They have cliff views, blackberry bushes and sweeping meadow views - It's an incredible hike! From these trails you can make your way towards South Beach , one of the San Juan island beaches and is the longest beach on the island. It has views of the Olympic Mountains and known for having driftwood on the beach.

From South Beach, head back on the marked path towards the visitor's center. Make a stop at the parade grounds and officers quarters to see how the Americans spent their time on San Juan island. After you see the Officer's Quarters, make your way to the parking lot and head on out towards Roche Harbor.

2nd Stop | Roche Harbor

Head over to the Roche Harbor Resort to grab some lunch at the Lime Kiln Café. This place isn't fancy but the food is really delicious and the views of the harbor are gorgeous. I recommend the Café Carvery Dip Sandwich with the fries, so good! There is a lot more to see on your San Juan Island day trip so after your delicious lunch, explore Roche Harbor for a bit.

Some fun things to do are walk along the harbor, check out some of the little shops or sit on the grass and read a book.

You can see where the lime kilns used to be. There isn't much left there but it is cool to learn about why they started processing lime. It was to keep the British soldiers from getting bored and to learn about the process. Over by the kilns, there is are bocce ball courts, play a game and then head out to English Camp.

3rd Stop | English Camp and Alpacas

English Camp is only a few minutes down the road from Roche Harbor resort. It is a great stop to see how different the English were living compared to the Americans. With British territory so close and more support for the outpost there, the English had plenty of supplies. They made the camp look more like home compared to the bare bones American Camp.

When you visit, there is a formal garden to walk through, some buildings from their time there and a cemetery. There is also a steep trail that takes you to where the officer's built their houses while stationed there.

During the summer, the visitor's center is open and some reenactments of the time are done.

After exploring the area, head over to for a stop at The Farm at Krystal Acres to see the Alpacas. For a small fee you can also feed them. There is also a little gift shop where you can purchase Alpaca related items. From there, head off to Lime Kiln Point State Park, your next stop on your San Juan island day trip!

4th Stop | Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park is home to 1.6 miles of hiking trails and a lighthouse. What I was most excited about was that it is also one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. Explore the light house, then walk along the rocky trails to see if you can spot an Orca. There are benches and rocks you can sit on to take you time to spot a whale. That really would make the ultimate San Juan islands day trip! The best time to see the Orcas are from August to late September.

I recommend taking a pair of binoculars with you to better spot some sea life. Also, have some shoes with grip if you are going to explore the rocks or go for a hike.

The views are in the park are really spectacular, we loved our time here! There are also some informational signs you can check out on the trails that has some fun facts about the Orca whales.

Last Stop | Friday Harbor and back to Anacortes

After whale watching, head back to Friday Harbor to grab an early dinner and check out the shops - a great way to finish your ultimate San Juan islands day trip. Friday Harbor is the only town on the island and has plenty of shops featuring local artists.

Don't miss stopping by the Penlindaba Lavender Farm store and the Rookscroft & Company shop, featuring products by local artist and author, Jayne Siroshton.

Grab an early dinner at the San Juan Island Brewing Company. They have a really great menu and of course, a great selection of beers to try. We loved everything about this restaurant and are already talking about how we can’t wait to go on our next visit to San Juan Island.

The space is great if you have a large party or kids that want to run around for a bit.

We really enjoyed the pretzel and the salmon burger while we were there.

Returning from Your One Day Trip to San Juan Islands

After dinner, head to the Washington State Ferry terminal area to get your car in line for the ferry. The ferry terminal is in the middle of town, so you can leave your car while waiting. Grab a beer at Cease & Desist with harbor views or some ice cream at Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co.

Hop on the ferry and enjoy the views of the other islands as you sail back to Anacortes. If you are doing a San Juan islands day trip from Seattle, don't forget you have a couple hours in the car after the ferry.

It really is an incredibly beautiful place - I can't wait to visit again! 

Let me know your favorite activities or if you want help creating your own amazing trip to San Juan I

I am a travel enthusiast & advisor, specializing in crafting customized vacations. I want to help others travel stress free by sharing tips, itineraries and destinations. I also help those who don't want to research a trip but still want a dream vacation - I create the perfect trip for them! Contact me if you want to plan something amazing!

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