Island Hopping with Kids
A weekend jumping from Orcas to San Juan Island.
Watch the sun slowly dip down from the comfort of your own balcony after you’ve scrubbed the dirt and washed the sand off your little ones from a long day of exploring. Instead of battling crowds and waiting in lines, introduce your children to the finer things in life like clams caught mere steps from where they are eaten. Spend your mornings walking out to an island made accessible only by low tide.
Listen in awe at the excited squeals from each discovery of sea stars, sea cucumbers, and crabs. Spend the day whale-watching and the evening on a sunset sail. From Lopez to Orcas and San Juan Island, each has its own distinct sense of place and will have a unique draw to visitors. When you cannot decide which island is right for you, don’t. Instead, plan an “island-hopping” adventure, combining the best of what a couple of islands have to offer.
I once read an article that stated you get 940 Saturdays and you are done. Put succinctly, this is the time between when your child is born and when they turn eighteen. After reading that article I made a conscious decision that once I had children, I would never let a weekend go by without unstructured exploring, adventure, and family time. Every parent desires to instill certain values into their children and for me, a top priority is a love of nature.
Living in the Pacific Northwest, we are fortunate to be surrounded by forests, oceans, beaches, mountains, and everything in between. As a parent, I want to take full advantage of my surroundings. So rather than spoil my children with trips to Disneyland and plastic toys they will easily lose interest in, I have spoiled them with ferry rides, whale watching trips, kayaking adventures, and hours upon hours of beach time.
On this trip we visited both Orcas and San Juan Island. Orcas is great for small-town vibes and offers many diverse places to hike, shop, camp, and beach comb. When I think of Orcas Island, I picture the white picket fences of Eastsound, moss-laden Moran State Park, and acres upon acres of farmland.
San Juan Island is a great hub for ad- venturing and experiencing the beauty of the San Juans while still enjoying all the modern conveniences right at your fingertips. With the San Juans, picking a favorite island is difficult, so you really have to experience them all for yourself and see what fits your personality best.
Start on Orcas Island
Wake up to the sound of waves in your perfectly appointed Water’s Edge suite at Outlook Inn. Make the short jaunt across the street to New Leaf Cafe for a hearty breakfast of waffles, biscuits and gravy, or eggs benedict to fuel your day. Next, load up the car and head out to Moran State Park to be amongst the trees and hike Cascade Loop Lake or Mountain Lake Loop. If you find your- self without little ones, make a full day of it and hike up Mount Constitution.
If hiking is not your idea of time well spent, then take the easy route and drive your car up to the top of the mountain instead. Mount Constitution is the highest point in the San Juan Islands, rising nearly half a mile above Orcas Island, and offers breathtaking scenery. At the top, make a game of it and see who can spot Canada first or who is able to name the islands in the distance.
One of my favorite parts of traveling with children is how they encourage you to constantly learn. Children think of their parents as endless sources of knowledge. So do your due diligence and learn about the places you visit ahead of time.
When I visit a place, I want to see what makes it unique. So we made certain to checkout Orcas Island Pottery and perused the wonderful array of locally made pieces. There is also an amazing treehouse where your children can play and swings they can enjoy, should pottery not hold their attention for as long as yours. Support the local art scene by selecting the perfect serving bowl, mug, or dinner platter as a reminder of your memorable visit.
Stop by Buck Bay Shellfish, a third-generation family farm established in the 1940s known for some of the freshest seafood around. You’ll be treated to a fresh, satisfying meal with a killer view. Choose from Halibut sliders, fish and chips, steamed clams, fresh salads, and Dungeness crab. Or do what we did and go back twice during your stay and order one of everything.
Children, like adults, are motivated by treats. So make certain to stop by Clever Cow Creamery for a scoop of small-batch, locally-made ice cream. Encourage your child to be adventurous and choose from an array of flavors like blackberry, pistachio, or coconut.
The best part is how they nestle the ice cream in a freshly made waffle cone and can top it with an array of toppings. When the hardest decision of the day is selecting which beach to camp out on for the remainder of the evening, you know it was a good day.
Wake up bright and early (whether by choice or by children alarm clocks) the next day for baked goods from Brown Bear Baking Co. Then, check out the beach under your Water Edge Suite at Outlook Inn. If your trip happens to coincide with low tide, make the short trek out to Indian Island for tide pool exploring and to see more sea life than you have ever seen in such a concentrated area before.
No trip to the San Juans is complete without some time on the water. Head out on a whale-watching trip with Outer Island Excursions and spend the day searching for eagles, seal pups, and the ever-popular orcas on your three-hour adventure. Pack a lunch, more snacks than you think you will need, binoculars, a camera, and a light jacket so you can camp out on the front bow and not miss a single sighting.
Plan ahead and turn your whale watching tour into a fun family BINGO game. See who can spot the most items. Let the winners (your kids) pick where you go for dinner or what you have for dessert. If you have a little extra time before dinner, stop by Printshop to make your own souvenir t-shirt adorned with local artwork. Go to bed early because your next stop is San Juan Island and you want to be rested for all that awaits.
Keep Exploring on San Juan Island
A quick hop, skip, and a jump, and you will find yourself on San Juan Island. Set up home base at one of the most central spots on the island, Bird Rock Hotel
in Friday Harbor. Bird Rock Hotel is conveniently located three blocks from the Washington State Ferry Terminal. This makes it the ideal home base for exploring Friday Harbor, especially for little legs who often get tired of walking.
Bird Rock is a stone’s throw away from amazing local restaurants, like Coho, which feature sustainable farm-to-table food, unique shops like Pelind- aba Lavender, and many local galleries. What could be better than bragging to your school friends about how you ate lavender in cookies? Or sharing how you were brave and tried everything on your plate at dinner, even the things you weren’t excited about?
After a leisurely morning, make your way to Cattle Point for a picturesque bluff walk and some tide pool exploring. But, check the local tide chart first. It is best to hit the beach when the tide is heading out so you can avoid getting stuck while walking back along the beach.
Stop by the grocery store to pick up provisions (read: more snacks) before going on your kayaking trip with San Juan Outfitters. Make certain to pick up some locally made cheese, chocolate, or preserves to give your meal a local flare. For bonus points, encourage your children to pick something from every color of the rainbow. This helps them try something other than their old stand-bys. After your kayak trip, get back with just enough time to meander over for dinner on the patio at Coho and make certain to save room for dessert.
Wake up early and head over to Susie’s Mopeds to rent a scoot coupe or try the hop-on-hop-off trolley for a new vantage point of the island. Stop by Roche Harbor to check out all the yachts and pick out your favorite from their 377 slips.
Step back in time with a visit to the Hotel de Haro, built in 1886 and named after one of the first Europeans to discover the San Juan Islands. Pick up some donuts from Lime Kiln Cafe before popping by Lime Kiln Lighthouse to see if you can spot whales from shore.
When visiting the San Juans, it would be a shame to not spend a majority of your time either on or in the water, so make an essential stop at Fourth of July beach so your children can frolic and you can decompress. If you are fortunate, you might just find you have the beach all to yourselves.
To remind yourselves of the wonderful time you’ve spent in the San Juans, treat yourself to a piece of local art and let your children select something for their rooms. If art isn’t your thing, make certain to pick up a bag of lavender shortbread cookies or a jar of lavender-infused chocolate sauce before heading over to peruse what is available from local authors at the book- store. I have found books are an essential and fun way to reinforce all we have learned on our trip. Enjoy dinner at Duck Soup Inn before calling it a night and falling asleep just as fast as your head hits the pillow.
If you are feeling reticent to leave the islands, extend your stay by paying a visit to Lopez or Shaw Island before heading back home. Better yet, let your children pick and plan another trip to look forward to in the coming year.
More Fun Things to do in the San Juans
Top Things to do With Kids in Friday Harbor
With 247 average days with sunshine, a reputation for wholesome fun, and more than 6 places to get freshly made pastries — Friday Harbor is the ultimate kid-friendly getaway destination that the whole family will love.
Top Rainy-Day Activities in the San Juan Islands
The lush forests and fertile farmland are proof that San Juans get their fair share of drizzle — especially during the cooler months. Luckily, there are a plethora of things to do in the San Juan Islands when it rains.
San Juan Island Day Hikes Worth Your Boot Leather
San Juan Island’s rich with great scenery, both ashore and at sea. And with its temperate climate, it’s the perfect place to hike year-round.