San Juan Island vs. Lopez Island: The Differences

by | Jan 12, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

When people come out to Lakedale, they often want to island-hop, and with good reason! In San Juan County, there are technically 172 islands and reefs, although most don’t offer ferry service. One that does is obviously San Juan Island. The other two ferry-served islands, Orcas and Lopez, are fabulous destinations in their own right (Shaw Island has limited ferry service). Use us as your home base for a day trip or make a whole adventure out of it. For the purposes of this blog post, though, we’re going to focus on Lopez Island, fondly called “Slo-pez” for its pace and access to a snack bar immediately upon arrival at the ferry terminal. Before we get into why we love visiting Lopez Island, though, here’s a short refresh about San Juan:

A few key things to know about San Juan Island

Of all the islands in the archipelago, San Juan Island is the busiest and most populous (a little under 7,000 year-round residents, which doubles in the summer), although Orcas is bigger. San Juan is perfect for whale watching and offers visitors the highest probability of seeing orca whales, based on the sheer amount of wildlife tour outfitter options alone. You can see our guide to whale-watching tours here.  

Two popular destinations on San Juan Island are English Camp and American Camp, on opposite ends of the island. These two camps were a compromise between the British and the US while they worked out the water boundary between who owned what (wild to think about, honestly). Ultimately, the US prevailed and the two superpowers almost went to war on the island over the shooting of a pig. Head to the two National Historical Parks to learn more about it all—it’s a fascinating history. You may recognize some of the names you read about, too, like Roche.  

Cattle Point Lighthouse on San Juan Island

Beyond a self-guided history tour, there are quite a few other points of interest on San Juan Island worth exploring:

Lopez Island: slower-paced and very friendly

Lopez Island, on the other hand, is less itinerary-driven. That’s not to say you couldn’t just sit back and do nothing on San Juan Island, however, on Lopez, you’ll find yourself easing even more into island time. It’s a much smaller island—about 30 square miles compared to San Juan Island’s 55—with about a quarter of the population of San Juan Island. 

Lopez Island ferry terminal

If you’re taking the ferry from Anacortes, Lopez is the shortest ride, which cuts your travel time down slightly. It’s an interesting dichotomy, though, because Lopez—with its expanses of rolling farmland, forests, and beaches with views to Mt. Baker—feels the furthest from the daily grind.

Of the “big three” islands, you’ll see Lopez is where people wave to you the most. Here, everyone still knows everyone, it’s full of farms and small bays, and a very well-known destination restaurant, Ursa Minor (currently open for takeout only). Commercial development is virtually non-existent on Lopez, which further endears its slow-paced, right-at-home feel. 

Ursa Minor restaurant on Lopez Island

Staying on Lopez? Prepare yourself for fewer accommodations

While you can take a day trip (it’s free if you walk or cycle onto the interisland ferry), especially if you’re already staying with us on Lakedale, it is really nice to enjoy a few overnights to fully immerse yourself into the Lopez lifestyle. There are a few AirBNBs and the like; Lopez Islander Resort (a 30-room motel with a marina on Fisherman Bay); and the serene Lopez Farm Cottages, which don’t allow any guests younger than 14. If you’re the camping type, reserve your spot at Odlin County Park and Spencer Spit State Park. Reserve well in advance if you’re planning a summer visit. And, if you want to get a taste of the farm life on Lopez, book your time at Midnight Farm, a diverse 100-acre ranch that is very kid-friendly. 

Lopez Village

The main town on Lopez Island is Lopez Village, and its slow bustle is about as busy as it gets. Rent a bike from Village Cycles and take yourself on a tour of the island. If you’d prefer a more hosted experience, check out Edenwild Island Adventures, which offers everything from wildlife tours to kayak rentals and a bed and breakfast. There is an annual Tour de Lopez, too, which riffs off of the famous Tour de France, always on the last Saturday in April. Read these bike tips to prepare for both your trip and your rides around the island. 


               bike riding on Spencer Spit on Lopez Island

Lopez Village Market, open under its current name since 1975, started as Lopez Store in 1959. And Blossom Grocery, open since 1977, prides itself on stocking top-notch products across produce, health, and wellness. Stop by the Lopez Island Historical Society & Museum to learn about the coastal tribes that lived on the island before Scandinavian settlers landed in 1850.

Lopez Island Historical Museum

There is a Community Arts Center, a golf club, a winery, and a visitor’s center that can help steer you in the right direction, but whatever you do, take your time with it. There are a lot of public access trails and beaches, too.   

Lopez Island Farms

Lopez Island was settled by Scandanivian farmers in the 1850s, drawn to the island’s gentle topography, and, today, Lopez Island farms raise everything from cattle to produce to clams. To that end, there’s a robust farmers market on the island from May until September every year.   

If you take yourself on a self-guided, backroads farm tour, you’ll find lots of roadside farm stands and you-pick berry farms. This is farm-to-mouth at its purest. You’ll certainly breathe a little more deeply on Lopez! 

sheep farm on Lopez Island

However you build your itinerary, Lopez is surely worth a visit. While we love Lakedale and everything San Juan Island has to offer, we pop over to Lopez a few times a year ourselves. They’re like orcas and humpbacks, San Juan Island and Lopez are—equally enchanting—and entirely worth the visit. 



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