Low tide in the San Juan Islands leaves 786 islands dry; few of that number are named and fewer still inhabited, a fact that contributes to their edge-of-the-world sort of appeal. Whales spouting offshore, orca-sightings and beautiful seascapes keep the area flush with visitors during the summer months, who paddle (and sail) around protected inlets, islets rock promontories, or peddle picturesque island trails. San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island have the largest year-round populations and can be readily reached by ferry from the town of Anacortes, which perches on the Puget Sound north of Seattle.
Outdoors enthusiasts will find no shortage of exploratory options on hand, from independent kayak excursions to guided wildlife viewing tours, multi-day cruises to whale-watching day-trips. And then, of course, there is the Washington ferry system, which bills itself out as the state's number one tourist attraction; with whales and orcas visible from deck on a clear day, even your trip out and back can be a sort of sight-seeing adventure. Once on land, the best way to get around is on foot, by bicycle or by moped, the latter two available for rent locally (the former you'll have to bring yourself).
San Juan Island is the largest of the populated big three. The ferry docks in Friday Harbor, a pleasant city in which to enjoy a leisurely wander and a glimpse of local galleries. Anglers can book charter fishing trips out of the marina while divers will find that these chilly seas offer some of the best cold-water diving in the world. Get a feel for the coast before taking the plunge with a multi-day kayaking trip.
Orcas Island is home to Mount Constitution, the high spot in the islands. Workout your legs peddling to the top, then cool down with a stop at Cascade Falls. Finish off the day with a dose of history at the Orcas Island Historical Museum and pitch a tent in Moran State Park once you've exhausted the limits of island roads and daylight attractions.
Grab a bike and join the throng of happy peddlers riding the circuit around Lopez Island, the other major inhabited land-mass in the area. A good 30-minute ride, this won't do much to prepare you for the Tour de France but you will be rewarded with pleasant countryside scenery and friendly locals. Bring your tent along if you're hankering for a night under the stars. Like the other islands, the campsites on Lopez Island fill up quickly in summer, so stake your reservation in advance.
The San Juan Islands are northwest of Seattle, an hour by ferry from Anacortes.