As a resident in Seattle’s Pike Place Market neighborhood, urban life can get overwhelming sometimes. One of my favorite retreats near Seattle is Lopez Island, located in the San Juan Islands archipelago just north of Seattle Washington.
Lopez Island is one of the smallest San Juan Islands that receives regular ferry service from Washington State ferries. Seemingly a world away from urban Seattle or tourist-centric Orcas Island, there are so many things to do on Lopez Island.
In this article, I’ll share a few of the activities I’ve enjoyed during my visits to this island.
1. Fly a Kite at Spencer Spit State Park
Spencer Spit is a secluded beach with 360° views of the Puget Sound and surrounding islands. The walkable sand spit separates a quiet inlet from the open water of the sound, so a short walk across the large sandbar will give you the choice between enjoying the quiet lapping waters of the inlet or the sound of stronger waves crashing from the sound.
While in the summer this beach is popular with swimmers, for 10 months of the year this beach is nearly secluded and is the perfect spot to read, fly a kite, and watch ferries in the distance as they trudge past the head of the island.
Spencer Spit features a historical site, a reconstructed settler’s cabin, plenty of picnic tables, and some of the nicest public fire pits I’ve seen in the PNW.
It’s the PERFECT spot to fly a kite and taking a moment to enjoy this nearly forgotten hobby is a chance to be mindfully present to the unique location and experience.
Although the state of Washington is known for its many beautiful state parks, Spencer spit State Park on Lopez Island is one of my personal favorites. Located on a just-above-water-level spit that juts out into the Puget Sound, this state park features 360° of extravagant views. Read More on the WA Parks Website.
2. Expore the Tide Pools at Shark Reef Sanctuary
(Don’t worry, there aren’t actually Sharks!) One of my favorite things to do on Lopez Island is to visit the tide pools at Shark Reef Sanctuary. This park offers a nice, short hike and such an epic overlook that we once did it twice in one visit! After a short hike through dense but level woods, the path emerges on the coast and follows the shoreline for another half mile or so.
This spot is almost magical- from the overlook you can often spot seals sunning on the rocks below and eagles soaring overhead. If you continue down the trail as it gets a bit rougher, you’ll find yourself in rocky tide pools where, when the tide is out, you can explore sea-dwelling creatures unearthed by the receding waters.
Be sure to pack hiking boots, not sandals, for this portion of your trip to Lopez Island, and before adding this to your list of things to do, check the Island’s tide tables so you’ll know when you can safely explore the tide pools.
This beach provided some of the most dramatic photography and wildlife. Both times we visited we spotted seals in the water and on the exposed rocks just offshore.
Shark reef trail didn’t provide any benches or firepits the last time I visited, but I’d absolutely visit again. Take a towel or mat to sit on if you plan to stay for a bit, as the rocky ledges are somewhat uneven.
3. Birdwatch Bald Eagles at Iceberg Point
Bald eagles are a common sight in western Washington, but hiking on Lopez Island is the only time I’ve ever witnessed eagles doing their mating ritual of free falling through the sky with talons interlocked. If you’re visiting from an area without Bald Eagles, these majestic birds are well worth taking time to watch.
The longest hike I’m aware of on Lopez Island is Iceberg Point, an uphill walk over a terrain that felt unique for the Pacific Northwest. Instead of typical PNW rock outcroppings, hiking Iceberg Point on Lopez strikes me differently. Here, the wind howls over Moorish hills and flats in a way that feels like I’m thousands of miles away in Ireland or Scotland instead of a Pacific Northwest Beach.
4. Pitch a Hammock at San Juan Islands National Monument
This 1,000 acre national park on Lopez Island features many things to do including kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, and even whale-watching tours (leaving nearby). But if you’re on Lopez for vacation, I recommend leaving a little time to really rest in the atmosphere of this unique seaside park. Find a few trees and set up a hammock, whether you read or just listen to the water lap the beach, this is a place to let the water soothe you.
5. Cook Over Open Fire at Odlin County Park
One thing I love about PNW beaches is that, when conditions are right, firepit fires are allowed. Oldlin County Park makes the experience of cooking outdoors over open flame easy. Although there are many things to do on Lopez Island, there aren’t a lot of restaurants, so planning a few meals picnic or outdoor-cooking style can be a fun way to have an experience and dine well.
6. Try Wine tasting on Lopez Island
Although technically a less family-friendly activity, wine tasting is a popular thing to do on Lopez Island. Lopez Island Vineyards offers locally produced winds grown from organic grapes grown on both Lopez Island and nearby Yakima Valley. Visit the winemakers and schedule a tasting at lopezislandvineyards.com
Getting to Lopez Island
Lopez is only accessible by ferry, but the ferry ride is half the fun! Riding ferries on the Adriatic sea between Italy and Croatia, and ferries in Patagonia, has made me realize just how nice the Washington State Ferry System is. The boats are clean, on time, and (except with the San Juan Islands in the summer) never full, so you can check in just a few minutes before departure. You can check the schedule on WSF’s Website. If you are planning to travel with a vehicle during peak season (May-July) you can reserve a space in advance online or on the WSF app, which is worth downloading for convenience.
Confession: I am currently in the midst of a long-term love affair with the Washington State Ferries. This escape to Lopez Island was, partially, just another excuse for riding a new ferry route. Living in downtown Seattle, the ferries are a constant rhythm as they come and go from the downtown ferry dock. Since my very first ferry ride in Seattle, the ferries have represented escape, rest, and retreat from urban life.
Ferries are one of my favorite things to do in Seattle. From the crowds and crushed atmosphere of downtown Seattle, hopping an $8 ferry is a guarantee of at least a half-hour to breathe deep in wide-open spaces and be delivered to a coastline with a completely different vibe. From time to time, I’ll hop a ferry in Seattle just to enjoy the round trip- never getting off on the other side.
Friday Harbor and Orcas Island are two of the most popular ferry-serviced island retreats for Seattle locals, and I had the opportunity to visit both during my first year in Seattle. On the return voyage from Orcas Island, our ferry stopped briefly to load a few cars at a lesser serviced island. I stood on the upper, outside deck as the ferry approached and docked at this tiny and very wild-looking island named Lopez Island.
Even though I was planning to sell my car within the next few weeks to try out the urban car-less life, I vowed to return to this wild little island with the ferry dock that had whispered to me of adventure. It was nearly a year later that I began planning my trip to Lopez Island.
Why Lopez Island?
Lopez Island is part of the San Juan Islands. Most of these islands are popular vacation spots for Pacific Northwesterners but Lopez is NOT. While the other islands are slowly becoming overgrown with tourist-targeting shops, resorts, and high-priced restaurants, Lopez Island has remained relatively untouched- retaining a wild and solitary feel with many farms and many quiet, undisturbed beaches. This island was perfect for a relaxing retreat after a busy semester of grad school. Long days, long walks, and hours spent reading on secluded beaches were exactly what my heart needed after a challenging season.
I wanted to write this post to share with you a few of my favorite shots from my picturesque trip to Lopez Island in 2017. We loved Lopez Island because it was easy to navigate, affordable, and full of spectacular hikes that didn’t have extreme elevation gains.
Where to Stay on Lopez Island
Lopez Island has a kitschy hotel or two, a scattering of traditional BnB’s, and one nice hotel, but since being an Airbnb host when I lived in Missouri, I love staying at Airbnb’s. So we rented this adorable “Ship Supply Cottage Airbnb” in the main village on Lopez.
Eating on Lopez Island
Lopez Island doesn’t offer many dining out options- especially off peak-season or on weeknights. There is, however, a traditional grocery store and a natural market, both of which offer sandwiches. If your lodging offers a kitchen, I’d recommend bringing groceries with you or picking them up on arrival, and planning to prepare most of your meals. Grocery store sandwiches worked well for daytime adventures, and cooking in our AirBnB or grilling over a firepit was a fun way to relax while waiting for Lopez Island’s spectacular sunsets.
Lopez Island definitely doesn’t enjoy the mild celebrity status of the other San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound, but its laid-back atmosphere makes it my favorite. If you’re looking for low-key adventure that includes rest and beauty without all the intrusion that tourist-centric economies bring to a place, Lopez Island fits the bill. Long beach walks with wildlife sightings (and no other-human sightings) put Lopez Island top on my list of PNW getaways.
For More information on getting to and from Lopez, see the Ferry Schedule:
What to Pack for a Trip to Lopez Island
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In addition to a standard packing list for beaches, consider adding:
A beachtowel, waterproof picnic blanket, or yoga mat, so you can sit and enjoy the beaches
Binoculars for watching seals, bald eagles, and the elusive but occasional sightings of Orca whales from the shore. Modern travel binoculars like these are lightweight and low cost, making it affordable to add a pair of kid’s binoculars to your Lopez Island packing list.
Artist, digital nomad, and highly sensitive person, Lynli started traveling full time as a digital nomad in 2018. Writer and Illustrator by day, remote-destination explorer by other-days, Lynli is passionate about pushing the boundaries of her own comfort zone, exploring the world as a plus size, one-bag traveler, and journaling it all on WanderBig.com