A winter road trip to San Juan Island – The Seattle Times


There’s an ethereal, magical beauty about visiting Washington’s islands in winter. The summer’s tourists have long gone as you drive to board a ferry for a ride that’s either mist-shrouded or blue and bright with views of our state’s spectacular mountain ranges. San Juan Island offers the perfect low-stress winter retreat and slightly better weather — the islands receive half of Seattle’s rain.
Start your journey by reserving your car’s spot aboard the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. In winter, sailings depart Anacortes once an hour or so on weekdays. A direct ride only runs about an hour, but for a more extended, cruise-like feel, book a sailing that stops at Lopez, Shaw and/or Orcas Islands, which stretches your ride to about 90 minutes to two hours.
De-board at Friday Harbor, the islands’ cultural, commercial and social hub since the early 20th century. This historic seaport makes for a leisurely walking tour, so park the car and stretch your legs.
Among the town’s shops, find poetry gardens with engraved works at four locations and a community theater‘s live drama and music performances. Locally made pieces from more than 75 artists are on display through mid-February at the San Juan Islands Museum of Art.
Friday Harbor’s museum options are relatively substantial, considering the town’s size. The still-evolving San Juan Historical Museum is open for self-guided tours middays Tuesday-Friday; other options are available by appointment. Don’t miss the eerie 1894 jail and quaint 1890s cabin showcasing a recreated classroom. Add to your oceanic knowledge at the free, floating Spring Street Landing Aquarium or more comprehensive Whale Museum.
Many people do visit the SJI to go on whale watching, fishing, kayaking and other boating tours — however, many of these offerings are on hiatus until April or May, when the temps are warmer. It’s an acceptable trade-off for the reduced crowds. Consider scaling the walls at Climb San Juan and birding — many avian island visitors only vacation here during the winter.  
Bird-watching and hiking trails get a little roomier in winter, too. Head to popular destinations such as the 3.5-mile round-trip ramble of Mount Finlayson and the view-laden Young Hill. The bare winter beauty of Lime Kiln State Park provides a photogenic trail next to twisting madrona trees, a lighthouse and potentially an orca or humpback in the surrounding Salish Sea. Or get a nearly five-mile-long workout (and peak views) at one of the islands’ newest hikes, Mount Grant Preserve.
For storm-watching or sea-glass seeking, head to the beaches at Lime Kiln, the gray sand and pebbles of South Beach (facing the Olympic Peninsula) or up to quaint Roche Harbor to watch boats bob in winter winds and rain.
Use Friday Harbor as a base for your self-guided driving tour of San Juan Island. Head south to San Juan Island National Historical Park, where you can walk the trails of one of Washington’s last intact coastal prairies. Further south is Cattle Point Lighthouse, part of the San Juan Islands National Monument. Then meander along the Island’s western flank for the newer Westside Preserve, Lime Kiln Point State Park, and San Juan County Park.
En route, get hands-on at Alchemy Art Center with a one-day workshop; winter workshops include making “big head” planters, beginning pottery wheel throwing and botanical dyeing. The Center also offers more unconventional artist-made pieces to paint at Salty at Heart Apothecary.
Stop at Roche Harbor for lunch, or stay overnight at the Victorian-era resort. You’ll find a handful of boutiques, a 19-acre outdoor sculpture park in a grassy field (bring boots), and the 19th-century Hotel de Haro. Only a few of the hotel’s rooms are en-suite, so book ahead for a room with a bathroom or stay in one of the more contemporary condos, cottages or homes.
Then, return to Friday Harbor via one of two roads: the fastest is Roche Harbor Road, at 17 minutes. A slightly longer route is via Beaverton Valley Road, about 20 minutes through quiet farm country.
Find the best rest at one of the island’s upscale hotels, Airbnb stays or bed and breakfasts. If you can, prioritize cozy — such as the gas fireplace-equipped suites at Tucker House Inn and Harrison House, or the saltwater hot tub available to Lakedale’s log cabins and lake house guests. The resort also offers year-round luxury yurts and lakefront lodge rooms.
Warm your belly with sizzling fish and chips at The Bait Shop; San Juan Island Brewing’s flights and burgers or wood-stone pizza; butternut-squash soup and Berber-spiced chicken at upscale The Restaurant at Friday Harbor House.
For breakfast, tuck into Swedish pancakes with lingonberries at Cynthia’s Bistro, sweet acai bowls or savory breakfast bowls with rice and egg at Salty Fox Coffee or a simple croissant or coffee cake from Bakery San Juan.
What to know: Island operating hours may vary in winter; always check before assuming a restaurant or attraction is open.
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