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.