Friday Harbor, and the rest of San Juan Island is such a great little getaway for adults and families. There is SO much to do! Or many places where you can simply do nothing! When you think about Island lifestyle, you’re probably thinking something a BIT more tropical than the San Juan Islands. However, you’ll notice that things do run a little bit differently even on these islands. It’s a true change of pace from the mainland!
Since we live so close to the ferry terminal, heading out to San Juan Island is a no brainer! We head out there as often as we can remember to book ferry reservations! But even if you are heading from Seattle, it’ll take you a little longer to get there, but still just a small journey for a fun little adventure.
The most common, and budget-friendly option for getting to San Juan Island is by taking the ferry. The ferry departs Anacortes and goes to Friday Harbor several times a day, and takes about an hour to get there. Alternatively, you can take a flight from Seattle on Kenmore Air or from Bellingham on San Juan Airlines, or one of the many water taxi services. We are leaving from Anacortes so the ferry makes the most sense, and we’ve been happy with the schedule and service for our visits to San Juan with toddlers.
Drive-on or Walk-on?
When taking the ferry, you have the option to walk-on or drive-on. The biggest advantage of walking-on is that you don’t need to get to the ferry terminal as early as you would driving. No reservations are required, and no waiting for cars in front of you to drive on or off the ferry. You can rent a car, or take a taxi on the island, but when visiting with kids, we find it infeasible. When walking on, you’ll generally want to just plan on sticking around Friday Harbor.
Driving on the ferry gives you the flexibility to explore the island freely, including the many parks, and sights to see outside of Friday Harbor. However, the ferry generally books up completely, especially in summer, and advanced reservations are required. When looking to make a reservation, keep in mind that the first portion of reservations is released 2 months in advance, the second portion is released 2 weeks in advance, and the last portion is released 2 days in advance. Reservations open at 7 am on each release day, so you’ll want to be quick for popular travel days. For car reservations, you’ll need to arrive 30-45 minutes before the ferry departure time.
Our Ferry Tips
- The ferry will be breezy and quite cool. Even on warm days, you’ll want a jacket if you plan to be outside on the deck for very long.
- If you are driving on, plan something to do in the car. You’ll end up spending some time at your car while waiting for the ferry to load, and waiting on the ferry for your turn to exit. At the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, once you’ve checked in and been directed to your spot, you’ll have time to get out and walk around a bit. The Ship Harbor Interpretive Preserve Trail follows the beach down from the ferry terminal, onto a boardwalk. It’s a perfect spot to get out and explore if you have time before your ferry departs.
- Make the ferry ride part of the trip! Even if it’s not your kid’s first time on the ferry, it can still be a fun experience to check out the views, and explore the ship. Our 3-year-old-twins have been on lots of different ferries, but they still genuinely enjoy taking the ferry to Friday Harbor
What To Do
There are just so many things to do on San Juan Island. And with ferry reservations and a schedule to keep, we always seem to run out of time quickly, no matter how long we stay. These are a few of our favorite activities on San Juan Island with toddlers or young kids.
1. Lime Kiln State Park
The Lime Kiln State Park has SO much to do. Start at the Interpretive Center, which is EXCELLENT. A metal orca greets you before you enter, and inside, you’ll see a seal ‘swimming’ down from the ceiling. The Interpretive Center has a great section for kids to touch and explore. My kids loved it so much, they didn’t want to go look at the actual tide pools. The rangers there were super knowledgeable and helpful, and on our last trip, one of the fabulous rangers guided a trip down to the tide pools.
Next, head out to Lime Kiln Point on a 0.4-mile loop. The point is one of the best spots in the world for watching whales on land. Orcas, porpoises, salmon jumping out of the water, or even humpback whales can be spotted from this spot with a little patience and a little luck.
Or, head down to Deadman’s Bay at low tide, either walking along the road, or taking the trail (less than a mile roundtrip). The trail is a bit tricky, so young toddlers may struggle a bit. Off to the left of the rock and sand beach, you’ll find an excellent area for exploring tide pools. Kids love looking for tiny crabs, and parents will love searching for brightly colored anemone, fish, sea stars, limpets, barnacles, etc. When visiting San Juan with our little guys, hiking and checking out tide pools is the perfect day for us!
Stopping to visit the alpacas is always a favorite activity of ours. This farm is BEAUTIFUL- extremely clean, and the alpaca are happy, friendly, and hilarious. The alpacas will walk right up to you and interact. Those that aren’t right up on the fenceline just have hilarious little mannerisms and are super fun to watch. Head into the sweet little country store to find some alpaca yarn, or a homemade alpaca yarn item to take home with you.
3. The Whale Museum
Whale Museum in Friday Harbor is a great little museum for big and little kids. The museum holds the attention of littles with enormous whale skeletons all over the place. It does a great job of explaining the stories of these animals and allowing older toddlers or preschoolers (and older) to learn a little bit more about whales.
4. Roche Harbor
Roche Harbor is an adorable little area that feels like a perfect summer vacation for a family. For a longer visit, stay at the Roche Harbor Resort, which has condos or houses to accommodate families. The resort includes a beautiful swimming pool, playground, climbing structure, and a picnic area to keep families with young children happy and entertained.
For a day trip, be sure to check out the Sculpture Park to see tons of large, outdoor sculptures. Younger toddlers may be frustrated that they cannot climb on these sculptures, so avid climbers may want to skip this stop.
The highlight of Roche Harbor for us was walking around to see the huge luxury boats docked there. We’ve seen ginormous yachts, historic sailboats, and tons of really neat boats here. Walking around the docks, and the area is quite pleasant as well. You’ll find a great little grocery store, and some fun little shops and restaurants in the area as well.
5. Explore Friday Harbor
Friday Harbor is a super cute little town jam-packed with great restaurants, and adorable shops. Though there are a lot of great little art shops, or high-end shops that are NOT toddler-friendly, you’ll also plenty of shops well suited for littles. Our kids loved the Toy Box- a cute little toy shop suited for babies through kids-at-heart. Friday Harbor is a great place to get a meal. We love Cask and Schooner for a kid-friendly place, but still a nice sit-down meal, or Friday’s Crabhouse for a casual open-air dining experience- though it does get pretty hectic during peak season. And don’t forget Ice Cream. Check out Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co., a cash-only shop so tiny only one person at a time can walk through, right near the water.
Boat lovers of all ages will enjoy walking around on the docks and checking out sailboats, yachts, and maybe even a seaplane. And keep an eye out for seals. They love hanging out near the docks because they know that fishermen will clean their fish and discard the scraps there.
6. Cattle Point
Cattle Point is the perfect spot for animal viewing of all kinds. The area has eagles, foxes, deer, and seals, among others. The beach is full of driftwood and is tons of fun for littles to climb and explore. Plus, the rocky area is fun to explore or a great spot to relax and take in the view. Be sure to check out the Cattle Point Lighthouse, which is a short 0.25-mile walk from the picnic area.
7. English Camp
Check out the gardens, and wander around some of the historical cabins. While toddlers might not appreciate the historical relevance of this site, they’ll still enjoy checking out the gardens, totem poles, and beautiful beaches.
In the summer, when the lavender fields are blooming, this place is stunning. Exploring rows and rows of lavender fields is quite an experience, and – even better- the lavender MIGHT actually calm your kids down a bit. No change for my toddlers, but who knows, it might just work for you :). Let the kids try the lavender ice cream for a fun little treat.
9. San Juan County Park
The San Juan County Park is a smaller park with a campground, a day-use area, and a small beach. It faces west and is an excellent spot to watch the sunset. Bring a bbq or a picnic and let the kids explore as you wait for the sun to set. Or, if the sunset is too late for your family, just go and picnic during the day. It’s a beautiful spot anytime.
And the great thing about San Juan Island is that you can easily just pick one thing, or just drive around and see the island, and you’ll be happy. The island is full of wildlife, and the entire island feels so laid back and relaxing, you are bound to have a great time.
A few other tips for exploring San Juan Island
- For the best experience with kids, we recommend bringing your car. The island has so much to offer! For my outdoor-loving toddlers, spending too much time in Friday Harbor becomes a test of their patience (and mine!)
- There are so many things to do on the island. Make a plan before you go so that you’ll be sure to bring the right clothing and footwear. Many of the trails and beaches are rocky, so you’ll want good footwear and comfortable clothing if you plan to hike or check out beaches and tide pools
- Outside of Friday Harbor, options for picking up a meal are limited. Make a plan ahead of time, or just bring a picnic lunch with you to prevent hangry toddlers.
- Even convenience stores are pretty limited on the island. Bring plenty of snacks and water for your family.
Who else has been out to San Juan Island with your toddlers or even older kids? What favorite activity are we missing?