Lime Kiln State Park

Lime Kiln State Park is one of the best places in the world to watch whales from shore, and is the inspiration for The Whale Trail.

Three pods of southern resident orcas (J, K and L pods) frequent nearby waters from May to September, and often come spectacularly close to shore.

The 3.6-acre day use park is on the west coast of San Juan Island, abutting Haro Strait. A meandering path along the rocky shore connects the Karen Munro Outlook at the south end of the park to the Lighthouse on the north.

The park also features an interpretive center with hands-on exhibits and displays about orcas. The interpretive center is near the parking lot and is open during the summer months only.

  • The Lighthouse is a center for ongoing orca research. It is also open for tours during the summer.

The views from the Park are awe-inspiring, even when the whales aren't there.  Looking southwest from the park, the Olympic Mountains tower over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Looking west across Haro Strait, Vancouver Island is etched in deep blue across the horizon. The lights of Sidney B.C. are sometimes visible in the distance.

Where the Whales Are

The best place to see whales from the park is...anywhere along the shore.

  • Don't forget your binoculars. Though the whales are sometimes very close, they are often further out in the Strait.
  • During the summer, check the sign at the Lighthouse to learn when the whales last passed by, and which way they were headed.
  • During the peak of the season, orcas may turn around and pass Lime Kiln twice or more in a day.

Minke whales, Dall's porpoise, harbor porpoise are also commonly seen from Lime Kiln. Humpback whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins occasionally pass by.

Research and Interpretation

Bob Otis has been conducting research from the Lime Kiln Lighthouse for over 20 years. He and his students document orcas and their behaviors, as well as the boats that are in the area.

The Whale Museum hosts a hydrophone at Lime Kiln as part of the sea-sound network. Both the Whale Museum and the Center for Whale Research offer onsite interpretation during the busy summer months.

OrcaSing

On the Saturday closest to the Solstice each year, Fred West and the City Cantible Choir perform a concert for the whales at an event called OrcaSing.

Orca enthusiasts come from all over to listen to the choir, learn about the whales, and share a spectacular summer evening.  The event is free, open to the public, and a unique Northwest experience - especially if the whales pass by!

OrcaSing was started in 2001 by Fred and People for Puget Sound. It has come to be a beloved and much-anticipated event, a song-filled gathering in appreciation for the whales. The gathering often includes by a pass-by from orcas, who seem to have a favorite song. For years, the resident pods appeared as if on cue when the choir started singing Amazing Grace.

Natural History

Lime Kiln State Park is a rocky outcropping on the western edge of San Juan Island. The sea floor drops steeply just offshore. Scientists theorize that the orcas use the rock faces of the underwater cliffs to to herd salmon against. The area is rich with fish and invertebrates, including a rare species of rock cod.

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  1. donna : 27 August 2013 9:09PM

    Hi Dan,
    Orca Network is the region’s main sighting network. I’d recommend checking their Facebook page, especially the public comments section, where people note where the whales have been seen. They also send out email summaries of the reports they have received, but those are after the fact, not real-time.
    Most years, it would be a safe bet to take a day trip and have a good chance of seeing them. But this year they have been much more absent than usual. That said, it is a beautiful place to visit whether the whales are there or not. Commit, bring your binoculars, and watch for other marine mammals like otters or mink e whales!
    — Also check out other viewing spots at San Juan National Historic Park and San Juan County Park. And if you see a flotilla of boats, note which way they are going – they are likely following whales! Good luck, and let us know what you see if you go!
    Donna (The Whale Trail)

  2. donna : 27 August 2013 8:56PM

    Hi Lynette,
    Most years, this is an easy question to answer. The best time to see whales from Lime Kiln is during the summer. At least one pod is usually around May through September. Peak months are July and August, when superpods (gathering of all three pods) are very common.
    This year, however, is an exception. While the whales have come into the Salish Sea, and past Lime Kiln, they have been absent more days than they have been present – a total flip from the way it usually is.
    I’d still recommend making the trip – it is a beautiful place to visit even when the whales aren’t there. You might see other marine mammals (harbor porpoise, minkes whales, seals…) and you might also see the orcas!
    Hope that is helpful. If you go, let us know!
    Donna (The Whale Trail)

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The Whale Trail

Address / Contact

1567 Westside Road

Friday Harbor WA 98250

Hours

Open year round 8 a.m. to dusk

Park Information

Marine Mammals Commonly Seen Here

Marine Mammals Occasionally Seen Here

Marine Mammals Rarely Seen Here

Travel Tips

Thousands of visitors come to Lime Kiln each year, drawn by the chance to see the orcas.

  • Tread lightly! 
  • Stay on the paths, and don't trample the tidepools.

Lime Kiln is a great place to picnic, whether the whales are there or not.

  • Bring a book, a pair of binoculars, and water.
  • Don't forget the sunscreen!
The Whale Trail is a nonprofit organization in partnership with
Partners NOAA Seattle Aquarium People for Puget Sound Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife The Whale Museum National Marine Sanctuaries