Pop quiz: How many San Juan islands are there? Five? Ten? Twenty? Trick question; it depends on the tide. There are around 176 islands and reefs in the San Juan island chain but as many as 743 peek above the water line at low tide. 

But let’s make it manageable: Just a few dozen San Juan islands are inhabited, and public ferries service only the big four—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Others are dotted with private homes and airstrips, reached only by private plane or boat; still others house wildlife sanctuaries and university-run study areas.

The cluster of San Juan islands is home to scientists and second- (or fourth-) home owners, farmers, and tour guides, but it’s remarkably difficult to tell everyone apart. The casual island dress code—fleece, jeans—equalizes millionaires and seasonal workers. The San Juans are Washington’s special, secluded archipelago, a tiny realm barely tucked into Puget Sound’s pocket. And they’re ripe for exploration.

In This Feature:

San Juan Island: What to Do and Where to Eat

The most populated island in the San Juans archipelago is home to the bustling town of Friday Harbor, fine dining, and midnight kayak rides. There's a heavy dose of culture on this hub, but don't stress—it's nothing like the big city.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

Orcas Island: What to Do and Where to Eat

The biggest San Juan island has an artsy heart, a mountain that dominates half its clam-shaped mass, and views that can't be beat. Swim in a millionaire's basement pool and shuck your own clams.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

Lopez Island: What to Do and Where to Eat

Welcome to a biker's paradise where drivers wave at every cyclist and where grocery shopping is done at farm stands. Some of the island's best beaches are tucked at the end of Lopez Island's sleepy roads.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams With Caroline Ferguson

What to Do on Shaw Island—Also Known as the Holy Island

The nuns who live on this quiet San Juan island have been busy farming their bucolic acres, and there's camping right on a sandy beach. And if you can't find something at this island's only store, you probably don't want it anyway.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

What the San Juans Taste Like

Take the islands home with some of these locally made pantry items.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

Helen Loggie, the San Juans' Most Famous Artist

A house-turned museum on Orcas Island, dedicated to island art.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

Secret Pho on Orcas Island

A Vietnamese pop-up on Orcas Island, single-handedly crafted by a Saigon native.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

San Juan Island Ferry Hacks

How to survive the hardest part of the San Juans: getting there

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

San Juan Island's Whale Watcher

Bob Otis has been watching killer whales off the island since 1990. And he doesn't take weekends or breaks.

08/01/2014 By Allison Williams

The Most Famous Event in San Juan Islands History? The Pig War.

Now interpreted for the Internet generation.

08/01/2014 By Matthew Halverson Illustrations by Joseph Laney