We didn’t leave from Seattle when we “popped over” to visit the San Juan Islands. And we weren’t just taking in the needs of our little family of four.
No! We drove all the way from Southern California on an epic multi-week camping adventure set to culminate by connecting with Montana friends to see orcas in the wild – and also meet up with family friends from Bellingham. Figuring out where to stay was something of a puzzle for us. But we knew where we wanted to start our San Juan Island adventure.
With so many interests and personal needs involved, we spent months researching where to stay in the San Juan Islands. Did it pay off? Yes! Looking back, would we have enjoyed ourselves regardless of where we stayed? Well, yes.
Washington Park Campground in Anacortes
We picked this spot because it’s right near the ferry landing and it would allow us to re-stock our camping supplies and do laundry before heading over to the island. I can tell you from experience that the laundromat is awesome. Also, the grocery stores in Anacortes are pretty awesome (The Market at Anacortes being our favorite). Did I mention we came all the way from “awesome” California? You can set your soundtrack by listening to “Turn Off This Song and Go Outside!” by disbanded local band Lonely Forest.
- Econo-Wash Laundry (2022 Commercial Ave)
- Calico Cupboard Cafe & Bakery (breakfast & lunch spot with yummy “Grandma’s Turkey Pot Pie” and for dessert “Lemon Sour Cream Pie”)
- “The Business” record store where we bought our Lonely Forest CD (216 Commercial Ave)
- Safeway grocery store or The Market at Anacortes
- Reserve your Washington Park campsite through City of Anacortes Parks & Recreation
- You need to create an account with the City to make a reservation (highly recommend a reservation!!)
- We stayed in Section A, but Section B is closer to the beach
- There is some elevation at this campground which is hard to tell from the map, but the loop road is down close to the water and many of the A sites are further up the hill
- I wrote in my journal that the “restrooms need a re-do” at the campground — and I just read they are in the process of getting an upgrade! We ended up using the restroom building at the front of the campground nearest the beach rather than the one closest to us.
- Pay attention to whether the site is suitable for tents – or has a pull-through for your trailer
- Sunset Beach is perfect for sunsets and the tides are somewhat impressive with about an 8 foot range
Which Comes First? Don’t Forget Your Ferry Reservations!
Now is probably a good time to remind you of ferry reservations. So, remember, you’re in Anacortes because it puts you close to the ferry. Did you consider booking your ferry to the islands? I think this is the order you should probably proceed . . .
- Check ferry schedule
- Check campsite availability in Anacortes
- Check campsite availability on the island(s) where you want to travel
- Scratch out a potential itinerary with all the info you gathered
- It’s kind of up to you and your comfort level with cancellations, etc. where you start the booking process.
For us, we reserved the campsites for our summer trip in January. We weren’t allowed to book the Washington State Ferry (WSDOT) until May. So that gives you an idea of how you just need to keep your fingers crossed that the campground itinerary and ferry schedule will work together. Pay attention to dates and make sure you book ahead.
The ferry landing is beautiful and has a boardwalk walking trail if you get there the suggested 90 minutes early and park for boarding – then go explore.
Debating WHICH Island?
Now this one was tough! We heard Lopez was the “quiet” island and that the more popular San Juan Island (home of Friday Harbor) held the potential for seeing orcas right from your campsite! We had to weigh the pros and cons – and since we had 4 parties in our group we ended up on both islands. And there’s also Orcas Island!
We stayed at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island which we reserved through Washington State Parks. [If you are keeping track, that makes 3 separate reservation systems so far to book Washington Park, the ferry, and Spencer Spit.] Spencer Spit State Park campground is closer to the end of the island near the ferry landing.
It’s a wooded campground with a nice amount of space between the campsites. We didn’t even know we had neighbors. Deer would stroll by on the road without interruption from cars. The campground has restrooms, but no showers. You need to pop into the public shower building at Lopez Village Park to get rinsed off.
From the map it looks like you are right on the water, but flat maps don’t account for elevations. So although we couldn’t see the water from our campsite, the trail was nearby and we could easily amble down the hill to be the only visitors (even at the height of summer!) to the quiet beach. Driftwood forts lined one side of the spit and inspired imaginative play in the kids. Large clam shells littered the shore and invited us to take off our shoes and wade into the cold water watching the ferries float back and forth from view.
Lopez Island Essentials
Halfway down the island is the main part of town which shutters pretty early, even during peak tourist season. So make sure you get your Lopez Island Creamery ice cream cone early from the Just Heavenly Fudge Factory. Or head towards the main grocery store Lopez Village Market as an alternative where you can get ice cream scoops from Bonnie’s Deli & Bakery.
This is also near where the very charming The Edenwild Boutique Inn housed our family friends from Bellingham.
We met the owner, Anthony, and his family. Charming! And lots of special touches like this amazing bouquet and blankets for sitting on the porch and watching the bunnies on the grounds.
- Lopez Village Market
- Lopez Island Historical Museum
- Restrooms with public showers at Lopez Village Park
- Lopez Bookshop was a highlight and perfectly paired with breakfast pastries from Holly B’s Bakery
If you head away from the Village to the far reaches there’s an even quieter section on the southend of the island where the Makaye Harbor Inn rests along the shore. We loved this end of the island for Shark Reef Sanctuary and hike near Seth Road to Iceberg Point where we hiked out to spot puffins and whales from our lofty spot above the shore.
- Makaye Harbor Inn
- Shark Reef Sanctuary
- Orca whale watching departing from Lopez Islander Resort with Outer Island Excursions
If we had stayed long enough, we could have taken a ferry for a day trip to Friday Harbor. That was always the plan, but then we figured out we could go whale watching directly from Lopez and so saved the time & money of traveling to Friday Harbor.
I’m secretly happy we made that choice because it means we need to return and spend time exploring San Juan Island on a future trip.
San Juan Island and Friday Harbor
That’s exactly what our traveling companions did the following summer! They stayed on San Juan Island. Their experience (read their review of the campground) was true to the tales told the other part of our group who simultaneously camped on San Juan Island while we were on Lopez. Super crowded campground with crows who dipped into even the oatmeal. Campsites right on top of your neighbor. A less intimate camping experience, BUT (and this is a big BUT) who cares because they could watch orcas right from their campsite!!! You can get your whole crab feast, visit the whaling museum, go to Lime Kiln Point, and get good Groupons for whale watching and kayaking with orcas.
(Photo credit: Debi instagram.com/goexplorenature)
Our friends even made a video about Things to Do on San Juan Island. (Spoiler alert! Don’t watch if you want to be surprised by your experience.)
San Juan Island Essentials
- San Juan County Park campground
- The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor
- Stop at a seafood stand in Roche Harbor for a seafood feast
- Lime Kiln Point State Park is another spot to see orcas from shore
- Kayak the west side of San Juan Island with Outdoor Odysseys
- Orca whale watching with San Juan Excursions (our friends used a Groupon and their boat ended up being right next to ours on the whale watching day). However, also had these three operators recommended from friends who live in the area: San Juan Safaris, Western Prince Cruises, and Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching for small groups.
Want to Learn More?
Consult the official travel site for the San Juan Islands called VisitSanJuans.com for answers to all your questions. We leaned heavily on this site for our research. You’ll be able to fill in the gaps by checking out:
- A variety of accommodation options, including vacation homes and hotels on San Juan Islands (which I didn’t cover).
- Information on Orcas Island (which I didn’t include because I don’t have first-hand experience).
The information comes from an epic road trip we took from Southern California to the San Juan Islands and back.