As I pick my way between the crazily-shaped logs, to the water of South Beach on San Juan Island, it’s a driftwood lover’s dream come true. Some pieces are propped up to make primitive shelters.

People running on a highway alongside ocean coast.

I’m here to run a half marathon and see some fellow runners huddled inside these shelters, appreciating the windbreak as we watch gentle gray waves and await our start time. Only an hour off the Washington coast by ferry, the crowds and tall buildings of Seattle seem very far away.

Related: Green-roofed vacation home embraces old-growth trees in the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands include 172 named islands and reefs. But only a handful are well known, even in Washington, and only a few are served by ferry. I recently spent a September weekend exploring San Juan Island on the hunt for nature experiences and a look at island culture.

A coastline with buildings pushed up against the waters.

Outdoor adventures

My friend and I drove up from Portland and took the ferry from Anacortes to San Juan Island on a Friday morning. Since the road around the island is only 41 miles, we figured we’d have plenty of time to see everything. However, once we started dilly-dallying on island time, the hours evaporated.

We started by driving up to Roche Harbor at the north end of the island, where we visited the San Juan Island Sculpture Park. The park covers 20 acres and displays more than 150 works of art, many made from recycled materials like sheep crafted out of old fishing nets.

Sheep sculptures made out of old fishing nets.

The garden area around the entrance is more manicured, with sculptures surrounded by plantings. But our favorite part was the Whimsey Woods, a forested trail full of art surprises like garlands of old LPs strung between trees, or a strange little outdoor living room with colorful, broken-bottomed chairs arranged around a creepy monkey jack-in-the-box. The park displays an ever-changing collection of work. If you’re an artist, you can find out about submissions here.

Visiting a mausoleum is not everybody’s idea of a good time, but Afterglow Vista draws an impressive number of tourists. This mausoleum is the final resting place of John S. McMillin and his family, who monopolized the limestone trade on the west coast in the late 20th century.

The huge round structure features seven columns (one broken, to represent life cut short) with a limestone table surrounded by six stone and concrete chairs. The ashes of the family are in the base of those chairs. McMillin was a Mason and the huge structure reflects Masonic symbolism as well as that of various spiritual and architectural traditions.

Mausoleum with six stone chairs and a table in the center and four columns behind them.

While we didn’t manage to work whale watching into our trip, it’s one of the reasons I most want to return to the San Juan Islands. The Southern Resident Killer Whales who frequent the waters of the islands include three pods: J, K and L. They follow salmon and are most often seen in the summer months. The best ways to view them are from land, on a whale watching cruise or in a kayak. Or you can do like we did and visit the excellent Whale Museum on a rainy afternoon. If you do venture out by boat or kayak, follow these Whale Wise guidelines so you don’t harm or disturb the orcas and other local whales. Lime Kiln Point State Park on the west end of San Juan Island is considered one of the world’s best whale watching spots.

Biking, hiking and running are other good ways to get outside and see the island. San Juan Island has both forested and beachy trails. Biking is very popular. Some people bring bikes on the ferry and get around on two wheels. But watch for cars—the roads are narrow and some have little in the way of shoulders. I participated in Orca Running’s annual San Juan Island Half Marathon, which is a fun way to check out the scenery with running support like periodic electrolytes, gels and portable toilets.

Scenery of lavender fields

Visit the lavender farm

If you like the smell of lavender, stop at Pelindaba Lavender Farm. When we visited in September, the flowers in the organically certified fields had turned an inky purplish charcoal, rather than the typical purple. Turns out, that’s the time to harvest lavender for its oil. Culinary harvesting happens earlier.

We got a lavender education and saw the distilling process in action.  The grounds are open for picnicking and wandering. Pelindaba’s website lists an impressive number of ways the public are invited to use the space free of charge, no reservation necessary: book club meetings, vow renewals, elopements, photo shoots and yoga in the fields.

But I found it impossible to leave without a sack full of lavender souvenirs—salve, lip balm, essential oil, dark chocolate lavender sauce, to name a few—as well as, consuming a cup of lavender/lemon sorbet on the premises.

White house with the name Salty Fox Coffee as signage.

Dining out

Mike’s Café & Wine Bar is a phenomenal restaurant with a sleek, modern look and an all-plant-based menu. It’s a happening place on a weekend night and draws way more than just the vegan crowd. Locals stop in for Northwest beer and wine.

Visitors like me are thrilled to see a big menu of tacos, interesting salads, sandwiches, bowls and fancy hors d’oeuvres. Since the islands are known for seafood, I was drawn to the crabby tacos made with vegan crabby cakes. We also got an appetizer of heirloom tomatoes with plant-based mozzarella and some delicious shishito peppers.

The Cask & Schooner Public House also has several clearly marked vegan items, including an eggplant and red pepper spread sandwich, and a chickpea and leek saute. For coffee, we got hooked on the Salty Fox, which is in a big white Victorian house. Not only was the coffee good, but it’s perfectly situated on the harbor to watch the ferries and other boats come and go.

People looking out at the horizon of the sea.

Getting around

We took our car on the ferry and then drove around the island, as many visitors do. But there are much more eco-conscious ways to go. You can leave a car in Anacortes and walk onto the ferry. Or take Amtrak to Mount Vernon, Washington, then get to Anacortes by Uber or public bus. Once you arrive on San Juan Island, you can get around by shuttle bus, or rent a bike, e-bike, scooter or electric car. Be sure to reserve your ferry passage ahead of time, especially if you’re bringing a car during the high season of June through September.

Amy Nesler, stewardship and communications manager for the San Juan Islands Visitor Bureau, would like to see more visitors arrive car-free. Her ideal visitor “patronizes local shops, restaurants and tour operators, while being patient, kind and appreciative of service workers. They respect traffic etiquette, stay on marked trails, leave campsites/picnic areas better than they found them and maintain a respectful distance from wildlife, whether on land or sea.” 

A woman looking at wildlife.

Where to stay

Islanders are conscious of their island ecosystem, so many hotels have green initiatives. One of the best is the Island Inn at 123 West in Friday Harbor, the main town on San Juan Island.  Once the site of a fuel and storage facility for the local fishing fleet, cannery and ferry, the hotel is now Silver LEED certified. They reuse rainwater, supply extremely lightweight towels and sheets to save on laundry energy and stock refillable bath amenity dispensers to cut down on waste. Plus, they feature a custom blend by San Juan Coffee Roasting Company packed in recyclable materials.

If you venture over to Orcas Island, the Pebble Cove Inn & Animal Sanctuary will serve you vegan food and prepare your room using cruelty free, natural cleaning products. You can meet adorable rescue animals like Dolly the mini horse and the Dread Captain Redbeard, a turkey who escaped the brutal American Thanksgiving tradition.

Doe Bay Resort & Retreat, also on Orcas Island, offers yoga, massage and outdoor hot tubs. Doe Bay has a long history of being an alternative to the mainstream, from the time a mixed-race couple raised their family on 175 acres in the 1870s to hippie types discovering it in the 1960s and beyond.

Photography by Teresa Bergen / Inhabitat