Written by Matia Schwartz
Here in the San Juan Islands we think that island hopping is one of the best ways to get the full experience of what our islands have to offer (as each one is so different from the next). Our charming waterfront town is the best base for day trips or single night stays on Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw islands, due to our proximity to the ferry. As the county seat, we offer more lodging, dining, and shopping options as well.
From Friday Harbor, the Washington State Ferry offers free walk on passes to and from any of the main islands. If you are taking your car, departing from Friday Harbor is free, while your return will incur a small fee. San Juan Island is the most populated and second largest island in the archipelago, therefore will make up the bulk of your vacation time. With its historic sites, hikes, shops, restaurants, and tours, San Juan is worthy of two or three days. So come stay here and find yourself enjoying these different spots on the other islands as you continue island hopping off the beaten path.
This is one of the lesser known state parks on Orcas Island due to its proximity to a much larger neighbor, Moran State Park. Despite its size, Obstruction Pass is a must-see. Its quiet forest and small beach make it the perfect getaway spot from all the hustle and bustle of Moran. The park has 10 primitive first-come first-served camp sites that are only accessible by hike. To get to them, there is a half-mile long trail that takes you to the campground, as well as the beach. The park is located on the very southern-most point of the eastern side of Orcas Island. Pack well because the nearest store is a half an hour drive away! It is one of the best escapes to feel like you have a spot in nature all to yourself.
When you think of islands, you typically think of white sand. Not in the San Juan Islands where you’ll only find pebble beaches ringing the shorelines. Despite their wildness, they still should be a staple of your trip. Crescent Beach is the largest on Orcas Island–right next to the village of Eastsound, which makes it quite popular.
If you’re looking for something a little more scenic during your island hopping experience, a little quieter, and farther from the road, then skip Crescent and make your way to Judd Cove Preserve. The San Juan County Land Bank owns this land and they make sure that the public has the ability to enjoy it. It’s located on the western side of town and is only accessible by foot. Do not feel dismayed though, you’ll find the walk to be only about five minutes long! As you’re walking through this forested preserve, the trees will suddenly open up to a picture-perfect view of a bay that sums up the beauty of our islands. Off to the side of the path you will find a partially-restored kiln that was used for firing limestone back when it was regularly mined on the islands.
Mountain Lake is a slightly smaller, slightly colder version of Cascade Lake, and both are located in Moran State Park. Cascade is more accessible due to its lower elevation and proximity to town. The lower elevation also means it is warmer and because of it, everyone flocks to Cascade for swimming. At Mountain Lake, the water might be a little colder — but it’s also clearer — the most beautiful blue water that you will find on any one of the San Juan Islands. Mountain Lake does offer camping but its limited with 10 quiet sites with water views that are better for fishing and serenity.You will also find a 3.8 mile trail that rings the lake, complete with a rope swing for jumping in and cooling off. For the more adventurous, there are a number of little islands — if you’re up for a swim!
Next on your island hopping list it Iceberg Point on Lopez Island. This park on the most southern tip of Lopez Island has sweeping views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Island, Cattle Pass, and the Olympic Mountain Range. Iceberg Point is usually surprisingly empty mostly do mostly due to the hike to reach it. Once you reach Agate Beach, there is a bit of a walk to the trail head from the parking lot. This is a perfect spot from the water by kayak where you can float over beautiful (but cold) water and get some of the best low angle views of the straight.
As a hike, you’re looking at about a three mile round trip. Some of the trail will be on shoreline, and some skirts private property. (Please be mindful and respectful of the neighbors.) The handmade signs directing you will then take you into a meadow surrounded by Douglas Fir Trees. Keep your eyes out for whales passing by and maybe bring binoculars for a better chance of sighting wildlife. On Iceberg Point, the views are unmatched and you will feel like you have found a place where the world drops away.
If you’re looking for a camping spot with an incredible beach and amazing views — then look no further than Spencer’s Spit. It is one of the few vehicle-accessible state parks in the San Juan Islands, and features east-facing views of Decatur and Blackly islands. The park is located on a rare sand spit enclosed by a salt-chuck lagoon. It offers crabbing, clamming, saltwater fishing, swimming, diving, bird and wildlife viewing and two miles of hiking trails.
Also, between July 5th and Labor Day they offer a junior ranger interpretive program for kids. Spencer Spit has it all, whether you’re looking for a day trip or somewhere to stay overnight. The park offers kayak rentals, moorage buoys, large private camp sites, and primitive camping sites best for hikers, kayakers, and bikers. The Spit has views on either side and is a great place for a picnic or dip in the cold waters.
Hummel Lake Preserve:
Lopez’s largest lake lives on the southern side of the island. The 80-acre preserve, owned by the San Juan County Land Bank, includes 1,450 feet of lakefront shoreline, wetland, meadow, forest, and habitat for many bird species. It is a public lake and to access it you will need to follow a trail. Start at the parking lot and disappear into a small cedar grove. Follow the path through the forest and continue along the edge of a meadow until you get to the the lake with a small dock on it. Although swimming isn’t allowed, fishing is, so be sure to bring your pole and try your hand at catching stocked Rainbow Trout, resident Bluegill, and Largemouth Bass. The beautiful sunsets from this lovely spot are unforgettable.
Shaw Island is another ferry-served island and it is by far the smallest at only 10 square miles large. This sleepy pastoral island is a great spot for cycling, as it is relatively flat. Although Shaw does have a small general store by the ferry landing that is fully stocked, it doesn’t have any restaurants for hotels. If you’re looking for more than a day trip, there is camping at the county park where the sites are nestled into a tree line above a stretch of shoreline and beach.
Home Again to San Juan Island
Make your base the Harrison Houses Suites or Tucker House Inn for all of your island experiences and travels. We are always more than happy to help arrange any transportation you might need, or help point out the best spots to hit while you’re out there island hopping. If you’re doing an overnight, we are also happy to hold your larger bags for you here for your return back at the inn for the next night.