San Juan Island with kids: a two-day itinerary

We love the San Juan Islands, situated north of Seattle at the very last reaches of Washington State. The San Juans are ideal to visit in summer and fall, but can make for a great (and affordable) winter or spring retreat as well. If you haven’t visited these islands and don’t know where to start, we recommend a two-day itinerary on San Juan Island with kids.

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Base yourself in picturesque Friday Harbor, with lodging and dining just steps from the ferry landing. From here, you’ll be set for a day of exploration of this quaint town, followed by a wider tour of the island on your second day. Ready?

Day 1: Friday Harbor sights and history

From the outside, Friday Harbor looks like the perfect tourist town: pretty and filled with shops and dining picks. It is all that, but it’s also so much more. This town harbors (pun intended) a lot of history. After arriving on the ferry, grab a bite to eat at the food truck RoadRiggers, located right on the pier, then walk into the heart of town. By all means, stop to poke around the art galleries and shops, but make your way up the hill as you go.

 

Whale Museum: You’ll encounter the Whale Museum on 1st Street (right up from Spring Street). This small yet very well-done museum is ideal for all ages. Its exhibits are playful and accessible for young kids, and each room offers deeper exploration for older kids. The emphasis of the Whale Museum is not on whale hunting, but rather on whale conservation. There’s a strong eco-friendly message. Best of all, the Whale Museum is open year-round, and affordable for families at only $3-$5 admission.

San Juan Historical Museum: This museum and historical complex is just a bit further up Spring Street, on the 1894 James King farmstead. The museum itself is open seasonally (summer hours), but the grounds remain open for families to visit. Each outdoor exhibit is well-marked, and include a historical shipwreck, an 1891 log cabin converted to a replica schoolhouse, and a county jail. The back barn has been converted into a history resource center, which includes exhibits on local flora and fauna, native presence, and fishing and logging industry, though not all the exhibits are complete yet.

san-juan-islands-history

Whale watching: We went with Spirit of Orca, and saw whales from two of the three pods in this region, J, K & L­—the Southern Residentsand some transients that can be seen year round, as well as Steller sea lions, harbor seals, bald eagles, and more. Captain Ken was fantastic! Another option is to try to see orcas from the shore, or while on kayak toursThe orca whale population in the San Juan Islands is suffering, and it can be harder and harder to spot orcas on tours. It’s important to be respectful of the best standards of practice while whale watching in this area, which includes keeping all boats a required distance away. Always go with an operator following these practices.

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By this time, the kids may be tired of walking and you all may be ready for some downtime. Head back to the pier and look for Popeye, a local celebrity. You’ll find her in the water…as she’s a one-eyed harbor seal that has made Friday Harbor her home. It is not permitted to feed, her, however, so simply wave from afar. In the immediate area, kids can check out the totem poles recently commissioned to display overlooking the bay, and watch the many boats coming and going. Families can book a whale watching tour, or take a ride in a historic ship.

For dinner, stay down by the water, and grab a bite at any one of the seafood restaurants. You really can’t go wrong!

Where to stay: Get our top picks!

Day 2: Roche Harbor and the Pig War

Any kid would be interested in learning about something called the Pig War, right? Start your day at Roche Harbor, a short drive from Friday Harbor. Here, families can check out the historic site where a lime and cement company once reigned, causing the population of this sleepy area to boom. On the way, stop at the sculpture garden for a nice walk.

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Kayaking Roche Harbor: See the harbor and adjacent islands up close on a kayak tour with San Juan Outfitters. This company operates right off the pier (as well as at Friday Harbor) and offers 3-hour tours perfect for family outings. Our guide Alex kept us all entertained with interesting stories of kayaking adventure, and was able to point out marine life and nautical knowledge along the way. We made our way to giant bull kelp beds, where Alex showcased his talents as a bull kelp musician. (You had to be there!)

After kayaking, you’ll be hungry, so stop at the Lime Kiln Cafe for sandwiches. The lines can get long, which is how you know it’s worth it!

san-juan-outfitters

Exploring English Camp: After lunch, it’s time to learn about this Pig War business. Every San Juan Island school child knows the story: in short, the English and Americans co-occupied the island in the first half of the 19th century. In 1859, an English citizen killed an American’s pig, prompting a stand-off regarding who had control over the island. It was settled peacefully, which means this story has a happy ending. Families can visit both English Camp and American Camp (located at separate ends of the island). Our pick is English Camp, which is a national historic site. Hiking trails criss-cross the park, and families can make their way from the bluffs where the English officers built their homes to the bay, where a garrison still stands. Kids can see what herbs might have been grown in the gardens, and earn Junior Ranger badges (weekends only in the off-season).

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Where to eat:

With the kids, you can’t go wrong along Front Street by the ferry terminal in Friday Harbor, because there’s always something to see. We loved our dining experience at Downriggers, which offers a very nice selection of cocktails, beer and wine and has deckside seating overlooking the ferry.

For a nice dinner out (perhaps without the kids, though they’re welcome), Duck Soup offers a rustic island ambiance with outstanding cocktails and entrees using foraged edibles and the freshest seafood. Be sure to try a white wine from San Juan Vineyards during your stay on the island, as well!

How to get here:

Getting to San Juan Island is half the fun! Families will most likely want to have their car, so a ferry ride on Washington State Ferries from Anacortes, Washington is the way to go. Should you not need a car, it’s possible to take the Victoria Clipper from Seattle or the Puget Sound Express from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, during the summer months.

Have you been to San Juan Island? What do you recommend?

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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