San Juan Island, Washington in the summer: American Camp, English Camp, hiking, restaurants, and the best places to catch the sunset (and maybe even whales)
The best way to have a great getaway to San Juan Island, WA in the summer is to plan way in advance. I know that’s hard for some people to do, but the further ahead you book your hotel and ferry reservation, the easier your trip will be. If you plan on camping at San Juan County Park, try to get your reservation as soon as it becomes available 90 days in advance. I would also recommend dinner reservations at any nicer restaurants a few days to a week in advance if possible. The major holiday weekends (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day) are all going to be especially busy.
Friday Harbor/San Juan Island is the busiest of the San Juan Islands, and has the largest town. If you want to go when the weather is still nice but less crowded (no guarantee for nice weather in the Pacific Northwest, however), try going in May before Memorial Day weekend or in September after Labor Day Weekend. This is the shoulder season and while it is still popular with travelers, most of the families have kids in school then and take their vacations in July and August.
The best way to enjoy San Juan Island in the summer is to get out of town (don’t spend all your time in Friday Harbor). I strongly recommend bringing a car or a bicycle to see the island, as public transportation is limited to the tourist shuttle and doesn’t give you much freedom to get around the whole island. Mopeds and buggies can also be rented, just try to stay in the bike lanes as much as possible when you rent these, and be prepared for glares from locals if you rent the buggies. If cost is a factor, it will be less expensive to bring your car on the ferry than it will be to pay for parking on the other side and rent a moped. Bicycles can be rented at Island Bicycles if you want to bike the island and don’t have your own.
I won’t cover everything there is to do and see on San Juan Island, but I’ll give you my favorite summer adventures. Grab a picnic lunch at King’s Market in Friday Harbor or from the Market Chef Deli and head out for the day.
American Camp and the South End
There was once American and British occupancy on San Juan Island in the Civil War era, and someone shooting a pig on the island almost started a war between the US and Great Britain in 1859. There is a visitor’s center, and lots of details about early settlement of the island on plaques throughout the park.
The history and old military buildings are interesting, but the main reason to come to American Camp is the natural beauty. Miles of unspoiled beaches and golden grassy hills with ample amounts of primitive walking trails comprise the park. This is raw island beauty at its finest, and I used to spend hours walking the trails and coastline here as a kid.
Keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of some of the local island foxes
The best beaches on San Juan Island are on the south end, most of them are in American Camp. South Beach is the largest, with ample parking and pit toilets. When heading through American Camp on Cattle Point Road, the South Beach road will be on the right and is well marked.
Eagle Cove Beach is outside of American Camp park, and is the number one local favorite on San Juan Island. It is one of the only beaches on the island that is sandy, and the tide often goes out pretty far in the summertime. It does get extremely busy in the summer, I would recommend going earlier in the morning to get a good parking space and catch the lowest tides. You can find a tide schedule here. To get to Eagle Cove, take a right off of Cattle Point Road onto Eagle Cove Drive just before the American Camp sign. Follow the residential road and the small grassy parking lot will be on your left.
If you want a sandy beach but want to avoid the crowds, Granny’s Cove in American Camp is another option. Park your car at the American Camp Visitor’s Center (take a right off of Cattle Point Road just after the American Camp sign) and follow the grass trail opposite the Officer’s Quarters down towards the coast. Veer to the right when you reach the coastal cliffs and the beach will be at the bottom of a short but steep trail down the cliff.
The Cattle Point Lighthouse is another one of my favorite sights on the south end. The parking lot is managed by the state, so note that a discover pass is required to park there. The trail is short and easy, and the views are stunning. There is another little rocky beach near the parking lot as well.
On the north part of the island, you’ll find the historical remains of the British occupation of the island in the 1800’s. English Camp is very geographically different than American Camp. Instead of sweeping, wild coastal plains, you’ll find grassy fields and orchards, an English rose garden, a rocky beach home to many shellfish, and several woodsy hiking trails.
There is a visitor’s center with historical information and videos, a decent sized parking lot, and pit toilets.
One of the best view hiking trails on San Juan Island is the Young Hill trail, departing from the English Camp parking lot. The hike is about a mile long uphill, gaining 600 ft of elevation to gorgeous views at the top. Locals call it Mt Young, but it really isn’t much of a mountain.
Roche Harbor and the Mausoleum
Roche Harbor is the only other part of the island where you will find some sort of civilization outside of Friday Harbor (i.e. cell reception). There isn’t a lot there, but you’ll find a harbor, a cafe, grocery store, gift shop, old historic Hotel De Haro, and remains of John McMillan’s lime quarry. McMillan’s Restaurant in the Hotel De Haro is pricey but very good. The restaurant and hotel are rumored to be haunted. Paddy worked with a guy who used to work there and he has stories of lights and radios coming on by themselves when he was alone at night closing the kitchen in the winter. In the summer you’ll find Roche Harbor bustling with wealthy tourists, the harbor full of expensive yachts. It is pretty though, and worth checking out.
If you peer over the edge of the docks you can often see the white sea anemones metridium senile growing on the docks.
Near the entrance to Roche Harbor next to the airfield is one of my all time favorite places to see on San Juan Island, The Mausoleum.
The Mausoleum was built by Roche Harbor founder John McMillan as a final resting place for his family.
Parking is in a gravel lot facing the private airfield, and the trail is just up the road a few feet. An easy half mile hike through the woods takes you past several old tombstones that are gated by wire and picket fences.
A windy little path through the woods meets up with a wide path that leads to the Mausoleum, “Afterglow Vista.”
It is beautiful and eery at the same time. The structure contains symbolism of the Masonic order. Grecian style columns surround a marble and stone table on a stone platform with six chairs surrounding it. Each chair contains the ashes of a family member, as well as his secretary. One of the columns was built purposefully broken.
The West Side
The West side of San Juan Island is the favorite place of many of my fellow island friends. It is most popular for watching the sunset from the rocky cliffs just off of West Side Road. There is parking at Lime Kiln State Park (Discover Pass required) and there are also a few pull off parking spots along West Side Road. There is a light house and the remains of old lime kilns from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. When I was growing up we always called it “Whale Watch Park” because the West Side is the best place to try and catch a glimpse of whales from the shore. At dusk and dark you can see the flickering lights of Victoria, BC across the sound.
Also on the West Side is Pelindaba Lavender Farm. If you like lavender and lavender products, this place is also worth a stop, if only to get a nice photo in front of the lavender fields. They also have a shop in town.
Go on a Whale Watch Tour
If you can swing a reservation (book far in advance for summer), a small boat whale and wildlife tour with Maya’s Legacy Charters is well worth it. Maya’s Legacy has small boats only, so you aren’t on a crowded boat straining to see around all the other tourists. They depart from the West Side at Snug Harbor. Leaving from the West Side where the whales are means you get more time with the whales and more out of your tour. They also have a naturalist on most of their tours to explain more about the wildlife. You can read about my recent tour with Maya’s Legacy Charters here.
Where to Eat
My two favorite places for a nice dinner on San Juan Island are the Duck Soup Inn (about 4 miles north of Friday Harbor off of Roche Harbor Road) and the Backdoor Kitchen in Friday Harbor. Both close down for all or part of the winter season, so if I’m on the island in the summer I usually try to make a point to go to one of them.
The Duck Soup Inn is an old island establishment and recently changed ownership. I haven’t been there since the new owners took over, but hopefully it is still as amazing as it was last time I went. Entree prices are around $28-$37 a plate, but include both a cup of soup and a small starter salad, as well as their delicious signature anchovy spread and fresh bread. For fine dining, it’s a pretty decent deal for the price.
The Backdoor Kitchen is a little hard to find (I think the owners kind of like to keep it that way). One of the owners also runs a landscaping business on the island and the outdoor patio seating is amazing on a nice summer evening. It is a little pricey, but the food is organic and high quality. Cocktails are inventive and the menu has an international flair. Service is always fantastic.
I had the pan seared sea scallops last time I was there and they were delicious.
For lunch, my favorite spot is the Market Chef Deli in Friday Harbor, but they are closed on Saturdays and Sundays so if you are on the island during the weekend, you are out of luck. Their sandwiches come on fresh homemade bread and everything I’ve ever had there has been amazing.
Other restaurant suggestions:
A good place for either pub grub or more upscale dining is the Cask and Schooner in Friday Harbor. Another place for decent relatively inexpensive pub grub is Haley’s Sports Bar and Grill. The Hungry Clam is a great place for a greasy diner breakfast while waiting for the ferry.
I’ve also heard great things about Cafe Demeter (80 Nichols Street) for coffee and pastries, and Tops’l Seafood and Sushi (1 Front Street, above the Cask & Schooner) but I have not yet had a chance to eat at either of them.
In the summer, I would also recommend just packing a picnic lunch and heading out to the West Side for a spectacular sunset dinner. You might even see some whales.
Where to stay:
Being former locals, we haven’t stayed at a lot of places on the island ourselves. However, we know a bit about a few of them and here are my suggestions:
Juniper Lane Guest House
Juniper (the owner) is a friend of mine and has done an amazing job of blending cozy island style with hip, modern decor to create a warm, inviting, and affordable B&B. Juniper Lane Guest House also offers a cabin for rent and two backpacker/family rooms that can accommodate up to 6 people with bunk beds. Children must be 12 or older to stay. The Guest House is not very far from town (a little bit of a trek but still walkable) and offers beautiful grounds and pastoral views.
I used to work at Lakedale Resort many years ago and therefore know it pretty intimately. If you are looking for secluded peace and quiet or a romantic getaway, this is your place. The resort offers 9 lake view lodge rooms with jacuzzi bathtubs and gas fireplaces, as well as 6 cabins and one three-bedroom lake house. Cabins and the lake house enjoy shared use of a hot tub in a centrally located gazebo. “Glamping” cabins and a campground provide more outdoorsy yet still very nice accommodation options.
Be aware that it is four miles from Friday Harbor town so you will need to drive into town for meals if you stay at the lodge. Cabins have full kitchens and accommodate up to 6 people with one bedroom, a loft bedroom, and a futon in the living room.
I haven’t been to the Island Inn, but I’ve heard great things. It is centrally located in town within easy walking distance to everything. The rooms look modern from the photos and many appear to have great views of the harbor. They have some budget friendly-options as well.
Friday Harbor House
Paddy and I stayed at the Friday Harbor House once in November, and it was really nice. The prices in the summer are atrocious, and even in the winter it is a bit of a splurge but much more reasonable. Most rooms offer views of the harbor, gas fireplaces, and jacuzzi tubs. The complimentary continental breakfast in the morning was outstanding, including house made quiche and coffee cake. Location is ideal–easy walk from the ferry and everything in town.
There are a ton of places to stay on the island, including many B&Bs. The above places are just a few suggestions, but there are a lot of other great accommodations as well. A good place to look is on Tripadvisor and http://www.friday-harbor.net/accommodations/index.shtml.
San Juan Island is a great place to visit in the summer, but make sure you plan ahead. Never show up to the island without a hotel reservation in July or August. Growing up on San Juan Island was a unique experience, and I’ve had many magical summers there in my youth. Friday Harbor changes every time I visit, but the beauty and serenity of the island remains the same.