Have you given up on the San Juan Islands because of ferry lines and skyrocketing overnight rates? Not so fast. If you haven’t visited in a while, let me assure you: Lopez Island has not suddenly transformed into Nantucket.
Our gorgeous San Juans are as laid-back and charming as ever, especially if you know when to go and where to find the best deals.
My budget-conscious family boards a ferry to the San Juans about once a year, a pilgrimage to emerald isles that immerses our young son in Northwest nature and gently nudges him to slow down to the pace of “island time.” Even the one-hour ferry crossing is an adventure for kids, as sightings of many different types of sea life are possible, from bald eagles to orca whales and harbor seals. Once on the islands, pebbly beaches invite our son to indulge in one of his favorite pastimes, skipping rocks. And clear, dark skies are perfect for stargazing at night.
A few general tips for saving on a San Juans trip:
- The ferry crossing is expensive, so consider options that allow you to leave your car behind (passenger-only fares are much cheaper). If you are taking a car, take advantage of the new Washington State Ferries San Juan Islands reservation system. Reserved spots are now available on all westbound sailings from Anacortes, and eastbound sailings from Friday Harbor and Orcas Island. Snag your spot up to two months in advance, and as late as two days prior to your trip.
- If you are going to stop at multiple islands, go west first to San Juan Island, then stop at Orcas and Lopez on the return trip (you’re only charged when you go west).
- July and August weekends are the most expensive and busiest times to visit, so avoid these if possible.
- Book accommodations that have a kitchen so that you can cook you own meals (with fresh, local ingredients!)
- Pack fixing for picnics to stretch your dollars – dine with a view on an ocean bluff.
- Wait for the off-season (October–April) for incredible deals on lodging.
- Travel with another family and rent a vacation house.
- If you are staying at the same place for three or more nights, ask for a discount.
- And of course, the cheapest sleep is your camping tent.
Here are five pocket guides to the San Juan Islands for families on a budget:
Lopez Island for families on a budget
Just a 45-minute ferry hop from Anacortes are the quiet coves and driftwood-strewn beaches of friendly Lopez Island. The flattest of the main islands, Lopez’s quiet country roads that criss-cross family farms and peaceful pasture seem to be made for riding — bicycles, that is. Got a whole family of pedal pushers? You can even walk your bikes onto the ferry in Anacortes and leave the family car behind. The island’s only settlement is tiny Lopez Village, a few short streets with cafes and a grocery store. Most of the berry farms, public beaches and restaurants are scattered throughout the island.
Where to stay on Lopez
Lopez has just a few lodging options and they’re all homey and affordable. Ravens Rook Lodging (58 Wildrose Lane, from $85) rents out one cabin with a kitchen that’s set in the woods adjacent to Shark Reef Sanctuary, and kids will be enthralled with the post-and-beam sleeping loft with huge skylight windows into the treetops above. One drawback — the cabin is not suitable for toddler-size children because a ladder climb is required to reach the sleeping loft (Ravens recommends ages 4 and older and says to call before reserving for younger kids).
Lopez Islander Resort (2864 Fisherman Bay Road, from $99) is a no-frills place tailor-made for families on summer vacation, with basic rooms that look out to the marina and sheltered bay, perfect for a child’s first kayak paddle (there are boat rentals onsite). There’s also a restaurant, gym and swimming pool.
Families with tents will love both the forested and waterfront campsites at Spencer Spit State Park. Another find is recently upgraded Odlin County Park, located 1 miles from the ferry terminal, with waterfront campsites and beach access.
Where to eat on Lopez
Get your caffeine fix where the locals get theirs — at the funky shack known as Isabel’s Espresso (308 Lopez Road), where you can take in the view while sipping your mocha (or hot chocolate for the kiddos) from a wrap-around porch.
Love Dog Café (1 Village Centr) is the quintessential Lopez Island place to eat, serving local, healthy, delicious food in a casual, welcoming atmosphere (if your kids have food allergies, go here).
What to do on Lopez
Explore tide pools at Shark Reef Sanctuary. Visitors who make the 10-minute walk to this quiet stretch of rocky shoreline are almost always rewarded with the sight of harbor seals lounging lazily on the rocks. You can also rent kayaks or take a guided paddle with Lopez Island Sea Kayak, located on Fisherman Bay.
The Fourth of July is a big deal on Lopez, so bring your flags and sunhats for the parade followed by an alder-smoked salmon community barbecue.
Other San Juan pocket family guides
Orcas Island for families on a budget
The largest of the San Juan Islands, Orcas is about 60 square miles but you can cover the main roads by car in just a few hours. That is, unless you pull over every time you see a sign that says “Berries” or “Pottery.”
This pastoral island is patchworked with swatches of farmland, pockets of forest and small island villages. Orcas comes up short on public beach access, though this con is made up for by a very big pro: the massive Moran State Park with its two freshwater lakes and very own mountain: Hike (or drive) to the top of Mt. Constitution to get a view of the surrounding straits you have to see to believe.
Where to stay on Orcas
The Golden Tree Hostel, located in a restored Victorian farmhouse in Eastsound, is a welcome addition to the budget options on Orcas, with two private rooms (one sleeps six, the other sleeps four) perfect for families, plus a hot tub, sauna and bicycle rentals (1159 North Beach Road, from $85 a night for 2 people).
An old standby is Doe Bay Resort (107 Doe Bay Road, from $105 for a 4-person cabin) on the island’s far eastern shore. No longer the hippie haven it once was, Doe Bay still has plenty of counter-culture vibe and organic charm (yes, those famous clothing-optional hot tubs). Accommodations include cabins with kitchenettes, rustic yurts and campsites. The onsite Doe Bay Cafe is tasty.
After a recent acquisition of a neighboring inn, Rosario Resort and Spa (1400 Rosario Road, from $99) has more affordable accommodations than it used to, with harborside rooms and kitchen suites with spacious decks located right on the shores of Cascade Bay. Outlook Inn (171 Main St., from $99) is in downtown Eastsound and offers a variety of choices for families, from suites with harbor views to European-style rooms with shared baths.
Nearby Moran State Park boasts the cheapest sleeps on Orcas: lakefront campsites just steps from a swimming beach and hiking trails.
Where to eat on Orcas
If your kids love Mexican food, Tee-Jay's Tacos is a good option (112 Haven Road, 360-376-6337) in the basement of the Oddfellows Hall in Eastsound (though it's only open two days a week so check first). Nosh on house-made tortilla chips with many salsas while you wait for your carne asada and eggplant tacos. We love the New Leaf Cafe in the Outlook Inn for a French-inspired breakfast and perfect cup of coffee before a morning of browsing Darvill’s Bookstore and their wonderful collection of children’s books across the street.
What to do on Orcas
Ramble up a lush forested hill at Turtleback Mountain, or circle Mountain Lake at Moran State Park (a Discover Pass is required). Much of the island is made up of small family-run farms, and you’ll find many of them are open (with alpacas ready to be pet) on summer weekends selling eggs, fruit, and pottery (see the list of local farms). The Orcas Island Farmers Market brings all these farms together on Saturdays, May–Sept. at the Village Green in the summer; Oddfellows Hall in the fall.
The Orcas Island Funhouse (30 Pea Patch Lane, 360-376-7177) is an activity center and museum with interactive exhibits on poetry, arts and crafts and more geared towards children of all ages, open on weekdays in the afternoon.
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San Juan Island for families on a budget
San Juan Island is the easiest of the islands to visit without a car (remember that tip?), and thanks to the tourist-friendly town of Friday Harbor, it’s usually the most crowded in summer. (Off-season, folks!)
Depart the ferry and you’re smack-dab in the middle of a town with bustling restaurants, good hotels and indie boutiques. Bring your car if you wish to explore the island’s unique rural beauty beyond Friday Harbor, including a pretty lavender farm and some awesome coastal parks. Or you can get around via San Juan Transit, where an all-day pass will cost you $15 ($10 for 12 and under).
Where to stay on San Juan Island
The best value for families is to book a hotel-style room at Discovery Inn (1016 Guard St., from $109). For a bit of modernist flair, book a room or suite with kitchenette at Earthbox Inn (410 Spring St., from $170) in downtown Friday Harbor, a refurbished motor inn with an onsite spa and indoor pool, plus jewel-toned pedal cruisers for guests to take for a spin around town.
Lakedale Resort (4313 Roche Harbor Rd., from $179) offers a family glamping option – wood-floored canvas tent cabins scattered in the woods along a freshwater lake, fully furnished to sleep four. Public campsites are scarce on San Juan Island, but if you’re lucky you can reserve one with a killer view at San Juan County Park.
Where to eat on San Juan Island
Pick up some gourmet picnic fare at The Market Chef, maker of artisan sandwiches and healthy salads. For an affordable lunch or dinner try inspired Mexican plates like chipotle red snapper tacos or kale empanadas at Pablito’s Taqueria. Stop in at Van Go’s Pizza for delicious thin-crust pizzas the whole family will love, from good ol’ pepperoni to prosciutto & pear.
What to do on San Juan Island
Take a hike! Kids will love exploring the tidepools and interpretive nature trails at San Juan Island National Historical Park. On the island’s west shore, Lime Kiln State Park is known as a great spot to see passing orca whales (more plentiful in summer), but it also boasts 1.6 miles of hiking trails through a hillside forested with madrona trees. Kids will learn all about the amazing orcas at The Whale Museum (open daily 9 a.m.–6 p.m., admission $3–$6, kids under 5 free).
Adventurous kids 8 year and up may enjoy a trip with ZIP San Juan, a new outfitter featuring eight zip lines that take you from platform to platform through beautiful forest, across a pristine lake and over protected wetlands.
Other San Juan Pocket family travel guides
Guemes Island for families on a budget
Haven’t heard of Guemes Island? Neither have most travelers bound for the San Juans, and that’s exactly why this small, quiet escape might just be the perfect choice. Pack all the food you’ll need, sturdy shoes for beach combing and ingredients to make s’mores over a bonfire and you’re all set. Besides leisurely walks on pebble beaches and playing board games on the cabin porch, there’s not much to do on this rural island, and that’s the point. Bring the bikes, though, for the island's quiet roads are perfect for family bike rides.
Getting to Guemes
Accessible only by boat, the Guemes Island Ferry (operated by Skagit County) leaves from Anacortes and crosses the water in just 5 minutes (departures are several times a day and the boat carries both passengers and vehicles, long ferry lines are rare). The fare runs around $15 round-trip for family of four and their car, much cheaper than the ferry to the larger islands.
Where to stay on Guemes
Your lodging choices are limited but good — stay at the island’s only resort or rent a vacation home. The family-friendly Guemes Island Resort (4268 Guemes Island Road, on the island’s northeast side adjacent to Hunt’s Park) hails from the 1940s and faces a stunning view across Samish Bay to snow-capped Mt. Baker. A row of rustic waterfront cabins with river rock fireplaces are awash in nostalgia, while more modern and spacious cabins with steam showers and hot tubs are tucked away in the woods. The most affordable option, though, is “glamping” in one of the resort’s five furnished and heated yurts. Pets welcome.
Where to eat on Guemes
Plan to do most of your own cooking. Anderson’s General Store is located at the ferry dock and is your must-stop for supplies, groceries, ice cream and cold beverages. It also houses the island’s only restaurant / pub, with a menu so diverse it features carne asada tacos next to phad thai noodles.
What to do on Guemes
Hike up the brand new one-mile trail to the top of Guemes Mountain for incredible views to nearby islands, ocean straits, the Skagit River delta, and jagged peaks of the North Cascades. Got your GPS? Guemes is a geocaching hotspot (learn more about geocaching here). The Guemes Island Resort has kayaks available to guests, and on calm days you can’t beat a gentle paddle across the bay to Jack Island and back (2 miles round trip).
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Lummi Island for families on a budget
Skipped by most guidebooks, Lummi is a secret getaway for locals who are passionate about, well, all things local. For those in the know, spot prawn season at the Willows Inn is an annual tradition, and a summertime tour of the island’s sustainable farms and artist’s studios always makes the bucket list.
So what’s in it for kids? An immersion in the eat-what-you-grow, free-range lifestyle, if only for a weekend.
Shaped like a peanut that’s nine miles in length, Lummi is hilly and green on the south end, and flat up north where most of the 820 full-time residents live.
Getting to Lummi
Visitors arrive on a Whatcom County ferry that has room for 22 cars and departs about every 30 minutes from the tip of the Lummi Peninsula near Bellingham. The round-trip fare for a family with a car is about $20.
Where to stay on Lummi
Lummi Island’s famous place to stay (and eat), The Willows Inn, costs hundreds of dollars per night. Don’t despair; there are several other wonderful and affordable places to stay on the island for families on tighter budgets. The Lummi Island Loft at Full Bloom Farm (2330 Tuttle Lane, from $139) sleeps up to six in two comfy queen beds and two twin beds. They also rent a vacation cottage. Kids will absolutely love the farm stay experience; the 14 acres here include a pond, fruit orchard, flock of chickens for fresh eggs, veggie garden and award-winning flower gardens. Another vacation rental, Lummi Island Retreat, (from $110) is a fully-furnished cottage with two bedrooms set near a wetland full of birdlife.
Where to eat on Lummi
A block from the ferry landing is Beach Store Café (2200 N. Nugent Road), housed in a simple house that faces Mt. Baker and gives no indication of the culinary experience that awaits you inside (the owners and chef are the same as The Willows Inn).
Fortunately, they serve kid-friendly fare like great pizza and fish & chips alongside their foraged field greens, famous seafood chowder and Samish Bay oysters. Grab picnic supplies at the Lummi Island Farmer’s Market on Saturdays, or stop in at The Islander, the community general store.
What to do on Lummi
Bring along bikes for a scenic, country-road ride on the island’s uncongested roads (island time is even slower on Lummi than on the other San Juan Islands).
Take your time stopping at each farm and art gallery that piques your interest. Take a self-guided tour through Windy Hill Art Sculpture Park (1825 South Nugent Road), an 8-acre outdoor gallery of kinetic sculptures that interact with the ocean breezes and wetland wildlife. Kids can stretch their legs on a hike up the Baker Preserve Trail on an 80-acre pristine parcel of land owned by Lummi Island Heritage Trust. The 3-mile round-trip hike switchbacks its way up to a west-facing viewpoint above Rosario Strait.
Visitors in August get to witness the ancient, sustainable reef netting technique for catching fish that is practiced by locals here at Legoe Bay, and Lummi Island feasts on the reef-net-caught salmon all month long.
Other San Juan pocket family guides