Ranked as one of the top 10 islands in the U.S., the San Juan Islands offer a boater’s consummate playground. The island’s rich history, natural beauty, rare wildlife, and secluded anchorages, make this emerald green paradise a must-see for boaters all over the world.
Regardless of your interests—the San Juans have something for you. Tour an eerie mausoleum at Roche Harbor, spot exotic goats along the savannah-like coast of Spieden Island, take a spa day at Rosario Resort, go birdwatching at a secluded sand spit, or spot orcas off beautiful cliffside vistas. The opportunities (and adventures) are endless!
While most people know about the San Juan staples that can be reached by ferry, like Mt. Constitution and Friday Harbor, here are some of the best boating spots (and best-kept-secrets) in the San Juan Islands—many of which can only be reached by personal boat.
Bonus tip: when exploring the San Juans, we recommend going counterclockwise around the islands—this allows you to better follow the current.
One of the northernmost islands in the San Juans, Sucia is an absolute gem and a must-see for Pacific Northwest boaters. Almost all of the horseshoe-shaped island is taken up by Washington State Park land—offering up 10 miles of beautiful hiking trails, ancient evergreens, and gorgeous vistas. The most popular place to anchor is at Echo Bay—located on the east side of the island; for a more remote anchorage, try Shallow Bay on the west side of the island (this bay’s beautiful sunsets are an added bonus!).
Although once a hot-spot for smugglers, Sucia is virtually uninhabited today—giving you the chance to enjoy her many coves and inlets in peace and quiet (although, you might hear the occasional sea lion). Sucia’s quiet coves also offer shelter from southern winds, making it the perfect place to seek refuge in a storm.
About a mile-and-a-half southeast of Sucia is Matia Island—another incredibly remote and beautiful oasis. Matia spans 145 acres and is part of the San Juan Island Wildlife Refuge. Matia only has two mooring buoys, so if you’re lucky enough to get a spot, you can usually explore the island in seclusion. Camping spots are available on the island, as is a helpful kiosk that details the island’s hiking trails. While exploring, you might even find traces of the “Hermit of Matia”—the infamous squatter who lived on the island in seclusion for more than 30 years.
The northernmost island in the San Juans, Patos sits right above Sucia and offers more than 200 acres of Washington State Park land. The most iconic sight on Patos is the Patos Island Light Station. Built in 1893, the station used to serve as a pivotal beacon for ships transiting Boundary Pass and the Strait of Georgia.
Moorage is available in Active Cove on the west side of the island. Much like Matia, this island only offers two mooring buoys, so get there early if you want a spot! If you’d like to learn what it was like living on Patos, check out Helen Glidden’s novel, The Light on the Island, based on Gidden’s experience living there as a child with her 12 siblings.
Considered one of the best marinas on the west coast, Roche Harbor is a quaint harbor that boasts plenty of art, history, and fine dining! Tour the historic Hotel de Haro where Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed his favorite baths or visit the Lady of Good Voyage Church, built in the 1880s. The Reserve Sculpture Garden is also a site to behold—the 19-acre garden showcases a rotating exhibit of 100 sculptures made from bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass, and clay. You can also tour the McMillin Mausoleum, where the harbor’s original founder and family are buried; the mausoleum’s “Afterglow Vista” is an impressive (and slightly eery) pillared structure that houses a massive limestone table, chairs, and tomb.
Also—don’t miss the Color Ceremony, held every evening from May through October, where the town retires the flags of Roche Harbor, Washington State, Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S., then caps off the evening with a canon blast across the harbor.
Just north of Roche Harbor is the incredibly secluded Stuart Island. By choice, the island has no running water, electricity, or phones—its inhabitants have to supply everything on their own. The island is also home to the historic Stuart Island School—a one-room schoolhouse that had two students in 2008 before closing its doors in 2013. Be sure to take a self-guided tour of the school and its museum.
You’ll also want to visit Turn Point Lighthouse. Built in 1893, the lighthouse offers the perfect spot for enjoying a picnic and spotting orcas. If you’d like a souvenir for your trip, stop by the Treasure Chest—a small shop that runs by the honor system. Take what you want, and then mail a check when you get home!
Get away from it all at this secluded, triangular-shaped sand spit on the northeastern shore of Lopez Island. The spit offers 138 acres of State park land, along with camping sites and some of the best clamming and crabbing on the island. Sun bathe on the spit’s sand and pebble beach, or do some birdwatching at the nearby lagoon.
Rosario Resort is a history buff’s dream. Located in Cascade Bay on Orcas Island, the resort has a rich, 100-year old history. Built between 1906 and 1909 by Seattle shipbuilder and mayor Robert Moran, the mansion takes you back in time with original furnishings, photographs, and displays. The resort was part of a 7,000-acre purchase by Moran in 1904 that also included Moran State Park and Mt. Constitution. While anchored there, be sure to catch the resort’s evening presentation—learn about the history of the resort and enjoy an incredible pipe organ and grand piano concert by the resort’s long-time historian, Christopher Peacock.
If you dock at Rosario, you’ll also get to use all of the resort’s facility, including their pools, hot tub, and sauna! If you’re looking for a little R&R, take a spa day at the resort and then cap off the evening with a locally-sourced (and delicious) dinner at The Mansion Restaurant.
“Safari” isn’t typically the first word that comes to mind when thinking of the San Juans. Unless, that is, you’re talking about Spieden Island. The privately-owned island was a big game destination in the 1970s, stocked with animals from around the world, including African Barbary sheep, Corsican mouflons, Spanish goats, Indian spotted deer, and Japanese sika deer. While the northern side of “Safari Island” is heavily forested, the southern side features open grassland—giving it a savannah-like feel. While the safari tours and hunting didn’t last long (too many people on San Juan Island complained about shots firing at them!), you can still catch a peek at the island’s exotic animals.
Cypress, named after what explorers mistakenly thought were Cypress trees on shore, is one of the San Juan’s largest uninhabited islands. The island offers 5,500 acres of rich forest and grasslands, along with nearly 20 miles of beautiful hiking trails. Almost the entire island is either a Natural Resources Conservation Area or Natural Area Preserve Lands—allowing the island to preserve its natural beauty and protect local wildlife.
Cypress’s main attraction is its hiking trails and small swimming lakes. Stop at either Eagle Harbor or Pelican Beach (both have mooring balls), and then hike up to Eagle Cliff—the perfect place to catch sweeping views of the San Juans and spot bald eagles. Keep in mind, this trail is closed Feb. 1-July 15 to protect nesting raptor and their young.
Located on the southeastern end of Bellingham Bay, Vendovi is one of the San Juan’s newest attractions, as it was just purchased by the San Juan Island Preservation Trust in 2010. The practically untouched island offers a rare glimpse of natural, uninhabited life. Snap photos of the island’s rich foliage and wildflowers, and enjoy several miles of crisscrossing hiking trails.
Feel free to stop by the 80-foot dock located on the island’s northern shore—the couple who live there are more than happy to give you an island tour! While overnight stays are prohibited, you can visit during the day from May 1 to September 30 from 10am to 6pm.
Interestingly, the island was named after a prisoner—Chief Vendovi—who was aboard Charles Wilkes’ Exploring Expedition in the 1800s. Vendovi—chief of a Fijian tribe, was captured by Wilkes after murdering and supposedly eating the crew of a U.S. whaling ship. Although Vendovi was on his way to New York to await trial, he ended up staying with Wilkes’ crew for more than two years, slowly gaining respect and admiration. In fact, prior to his capture, Vendovi lived a regal and, for the time, impressive life, boasting more than 50 wives and sporting a massive hairdo that was maintained by 12 slaves every day. Just one day after arriving in New York for trial, Vendovi passed away. But his name and little-known history still live on in the San Juans.
What do you think? What are your favorite San Juan Island boating spots? Leave a comment below to let us know!
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