These 172 spectacular islands—lodged between the Olympic Peninsula, northern Puget Sound and Vancouver Island, approximately 70 mi/115 km northwest of Seattle—are a must-see for any visitor to Washington. Fishing villages dot the coves, embracing a simpler time, and many artists reside on the islands, drawn by the scenery and solitude. At the very least, take the four-hour ferry ride through the archipelago. The boats depart from Anacortes.
Bald eagles and orcas frequent the cool waters of Puget Sound near the islands, and the west coast of San Juan Island is one of the best whale-watching points in the U.S. Sightings are most common in summer, when orcas hunt in groups (called "pods"). You can sometimes spot whales from the shore at Lime Kiln State Park.
Go bike riding (Lopez Island is the best) along the winding coastal roads, and go beachcombing after storms. Keep an eye out for eagles, deer, seals, porpoises and otters.
San Juan Island National Historical Park documents an anticlimactic clash between U.S. and British forces in the mid-1800s. The "Pig War" started over a hog and ended with a standoff that redrew boundary lines. Another possibility is the Whale Museum (phone 360-378-4710; http://www.whale-museum.org) in the village of Friday Harbor.
Orcas Island is the most scenic of the four ferry stops, with rolling hills and the 2,400-ft/730-m Mount Constitution. The mountain is the centerpiece of Moran State Park, a place of hiking trails, forests and waterfalls.
Sea kayaking is another great way to see this part of the state and allows for up-close observation of the wildlife. The Cascadia Marine Trail, a 150-mi/240-km route from Olympia to the border with Canada, runs through the San Juans.
For more information, contact the San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce. Phone 360-378-5240. http://www.sanjuanisland.org.
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