An Intentional Autumn Guide To The San Juan Islands, A Gem Of The Pacific Northwest

November 17, 2020

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Floating in the Salish Sea, the San Juan Islands are a remote and cherished gem in Washington State. Few know about them outside of the Pacific Northwest, but that makes them all the better. Most tourists who visit them come in the summertime, when the berries are ripe and so heavy that they fall off the vine. While this is a magical time of year to adventure up there, the local favorite season is the autumn. This is when everything slows down and the tourists empty out. Fall is ideal for soaking up the natural wonders that the Earth has to offer up there, and the wild that thrives without all the foot traffic. The fog rolls, the feathery rain comes, and the pines intermingle with brilliantly shaded leaves. The best way to take this all in is to spend a weekend. While a week or a month would be best (having lived there myself for years, I can attest to the fact that there’s never enough time to see everything—it’s filled to the brim with beautiful corners), taking a weekend to explore this northern corner of the world is a peaceful way to take a remote vacation, reconnect with nature, and meet new animals.

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Arriving on a Friday, the first stop will be Anacortes. Being my hometown, I know just how stunning and picturesque this town is. The best place to stay is the Ship Harbor Inn. Complete with scarlet red tin roofs, a perfect view of neighboring islands and the ferry landing, and fireplaces all around, this inn is pristine. Enjoy watching the ferries drift in across the indigo waters, while you sip on the oaky espresso from the comfort of your cabin. Being not too far from town makes it a great home base, since you can walk everywhere from there. This is also a fantastic spot to look for whales, so consider taking a picnic down the hill to watch the channel (though if you’re wanting a sure thing as far as spotting whales goes, book a tour with Island Adventures—I worked as a tour guide with them and not once was there a trip where whales weren’t seen). Take in the sea air, and breathe it in deeply. Reconnect with the ocean, and just take an hour or two for yourself and nature. 

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Whenever you’re getting hungry, head on over to the best eatery in the state—Gere A Deli. These are without a doubt, the best sandwiches in the country (I would know—I make it a priority to try a sandwich in every state and none have compared). Order the Fresh Mozza without the cheese (by far the best creation they offer), the Hummus wrap, or the Large Green Salad. The eatery itself is covered in vintage signs and adorned with lots of natural light.

If sandwiches aren’t your thing, check out the artsy Frida’s! Their flavorful Sopa Dona can easily be made vegan, their salsas are mouthwatering, their mole enchiladas are incredible, and among other things, their hibiscus dressing is sublime. Other favorites include A’town Bistro (their Daikon Radish Piccata is quite good—while the vegan options are few, the ambiance is worth experiencing), Rockfish Grill (a favorite among locals for live music and big portions—their chili is perfect for autumn), Nonna Luisa Ristorante (all the bruschetta and pasta one could dream of), Drink Your Veggies (wraps, salads, acai bowls, galore), and Village Pizza. That last one is an absolute must to visit at least once during your trip. Not only do they have a plethora of toppings to choose from (including mandarin oranges), but their crust is vegan and, best of all, if customers bring in their favorite vegan cheese, they will use it on your pizza! The brick interiors, quality ingredients, and amazing customer service are all added bonuses. Enjoying locally sourced food is so important when traveling. It can connect you to the land, and teach you a lot about the natural wonders around the area. Consider fitting in as many meals as possible, to get a bigger picture of this area’s grown offerings. 

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Among a few other must-sees in town, Pelican Bay Bookstore is an absolute treasure. This used bookstore has a wide range of books, a beautiful piano, a fireplace, and the best coffee in town. This is a great spot to relax and pick up some local treasures. Make sure to walk up and down the historic downtown and window shop! The olive oil bar is a great spot to stop in and pick up tasty treats, and Johnny Picasso’s Coffee and Art Bar is a local establishment (if you have the time, it’s a great place to stop and make pottery and enjoy that famous Washington coffee). Connected to it is the Red Snapper—the best place in town for gifts and unique finds. If you’re wanting snacks, the Co-op is a great place to support as well! Shopping local and taking in regionally made art and goods will slow you down, and help you understand the region as well. People too often forget to slow down when they travel, and it’s a missed opportunity to get to know a new corner of the world. Don’t make that mistake!

If you’re wanting amazing views and the chance to take in nature from above, head up to the view point at Cape Sante to take in views of the marina and island (this is also a favorite spot for watching the faint northern lights and stars), the top of The Majestic (if you’re wanting a fancy rooftop dinner, this is the most gorgeous spot in town, and their Sun Dried Tomato Pesto Pasta is wonderfully vegan), the top of Washington Park, and the summit of Mt. Erie (which you can drive up, if you don’t have time to hike). Take in the sweeping oceanic views and pine-studded horizons, and just breathe it all in. A change in perspective is good for the soul, and if you’re feeling physically up to it, doing it at sunrise is breathtaking. Consider walking the Washington Park loop before dawn, and when you get to the top, doing sunrise yoga. The walk itself is stunning, being hidden in pines and intersected by many hiking trails on this protected land. There are lots of rocky beaches along the way, in case you want to stop there instead along the shores. It is the most beautiful place on the island, so it’s not to be missed. 

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When you’ve had your fill of Anacortes on Fidalgo Island, take a day or two to explore neighboring islands. You can hop the little walk-on ferry to Guemes first, just fifteen minutes across the channel from downtown. This is the best spot in the islands to collect sea glass, so bring canvas bags to fill up. While you’re there, be sure to stop in Guemes Island General Store and pick up some drinks and snacks. If you want to slow down a bit, enjoy some of their delicious local food and views of the Guemes Channel. Their salads are especially good (The Seedy Bunch is chocked full of local greens and veggies, and is topped with the best teriyaki dressing). If you’re feeling especially adventurous, try exploring the little island (which you’ll probably need a car for since it’s very remote). The island offers stunning views and isolated beaches, all perfect for grounding and having quiet time in nature. 

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If you’re wanting to go a little further, head over to the main ferry landing near Ship Harbor Inn (taking your pre-loved books with you). Sit in the ferry booths and watch the crystal waters roll by. Autumn is the rainy season, so if you’re lucky, you’ll get to enjoy the sea rain. It’s the best smell in the world, so bundle up and walk along the deck to take in the scent and beautiful island views slipping by. Keep your eyes out for marine life! Where you go is obviously up to you, but an absolutely unmissable place is Orcas Island (which is actually named for a captain and not the whale). Land in Orcas Village, and grab a coffee or grain bowl from Orcas Hotel, a stunning overlook on the ferry landing. Here you can watch the ferry roll through the fall time fog and listen to the ferry horns. After, make sure to head over to Eastsound—the most beautiful town in the San Juans, and only fifteen minutes away. The little shops and galleries are worth exploring, and the beaches all present excellent sea glass collecting spots. Consider buying some pottery or seashell art. These are beautiful tributes to the island, and stand in as unique trinkets to take home with you that support local artists and the land they’re from.

If you’re hungry, a powerful nod to the island is The Mansion. Their vegetable and grain plate and marinated olives in lemon will give you an authentic taste of the region. If you’re craving something more casual though, The Kitchen has build-your-own masterpieces, organic wraps, and sipping vinegars among other locally sourced goodies. Once you’ve had your fill, make sure to fit in a trip to Moran State Park, to see the famous view of all of the islands from the top. It’s an unforgettable testament to the beauty of the sea.

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As a kid, I loved walking around the galleries of Orcas!

If you’re up for an overnight here, you can’t skip Doe Bay. This is the most remote, romantic, and natural place to stay in the islands (and I’d argue, the region), and it’s the perfect place to have a quiet and centering experience. Being on the quiet side of the island, you can enjoy the sound of lapping waves, an optionally nude hot tub overlooking sea cliffs, Adirondack chairs, and the most woodsy little cabins. The stars are bright, and if it’s raining, it’s the coziest place to enjoy nature. They even have a little cafe there, where you can enjoy ingredients that they grow in site, seasonal favorites of the region, great coffee, and incredible tangerine cocktails outside among the pines and seabirds.  

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If you’re wanting to fit in more islands, San Juan is the most popular, and Lopez is stunning. Consider renting bikes, kayaking, camping, or just earthing on each. Connecting to the land is powerful, and these islands offer the perfect setting for it. Make sure to slow down and notice the splendor around you. Take in the smell of sea salt, the rustle of island tall grass, and the cackle of gulls. I miss it everyday, and I feel enormously lucky to have grown between island wild berries and crashing waves and the smell of evergreen. The thing is though, you’ll seldom meet a local who feels differently. We all feel very connected to our islands because slow living is widely practiced. Find out for yourself for the reasons why this is so enjoyed, and why people choose to live so far from the rest of society. Maybe the protected woodlands will speak to you, or the colorful, sea-glass strewn beaches, or maybe it will be the calm that allows you to hear the whispers of the tides and planet. Whatever it is that calls to you, hold on to that. After you leave the islands you’ll be armed with a rejuvenated connection to the natural world, and a firmer grounding within yourself. You can’t take the sea home with you, but you can take a piece of its wild spirit. Protect it, and protect the places that gave it to you.

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Im lucky to be an island child with my siblings.

Also by Emily: Dreamy Ways To Incorporate Witchcraft & Slow Living Into Your Autumn

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Photo: Emily Degn

Emily Iris Degn
Emily Iris Degn is a multilingual travel and freelance writer, editor, professional artist, model, and published poet. She is from the San Juan Islands, but currently lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains with her incredible partner and dozens of plant babies. She is also an ecofeminist activist, and works to focus her professional work on those issues. You can find her in many spaces on Instagram: @emilyirisdegn @wildearthgoods @happyvegansfeed @emfallstoearth @emilydegnart OR at Em Falls to Earth.

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