Life in the San Juan Islands, located a 90-minute drive northwest of Seattle, revolves around the ferry schedule.
Medical appointments, class times at the community college and high school sports schedules are all made to accommodate the comings and goings of the ferry. Even the birth of a baby requires a ferry trip to the mainland.
Ferries serve as the lifeline of these scattered islands, bringing supplies, transport, and those all-important tourists. If you are one of those visitors, your life will become tied to the ferry schedule.
The San Juan archipelago of northern Puget Sound includes over 400 islands, some no larger than a rock, some privately owned, and only four having ferry service: San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw.
The islands sit in what is known as a “rain shadow” created by the Olympic Mountains and receive only half the rainfall of Seattle. They offer a quiet, rural ambiance and an array of activities that include sea kayaking, whale watching, hiking and fine dining.
Getting to the islands can be half the fun — or part of the frustration. Several options exist, including flights from Seattle via Kenmore Air, or taking the Clipper, a passenger-only ferry from Seattle to Friday Harbor.
However, most visitors opt for the car/passenger ferry service operated by the State of Washington from the town of Anacortes.
If you plan on taking your car, you will need to make reservations, especially during the busy summer season, and arrive at the terminal in Anacortes at least 30 minutes in advance. Or, if not taking your car, you may park in one of the lots near the terminal and walk onboard without a reservation.
You need transportation once you arrive on the islands. If traveling to San Juan Island, the ferry terminal is in the center of Friday Harbor, the island’s main town, and from there you can walk to many accommodations and restaurants.
However, if you desire to see more of the island’s attractions, consider using taxi, car or moped rentals, or a bus/shuttle service operating from May to Labor Day that stops at all the major sites.
San Juan Island receives the most visitors. It can be a day trip outing from Anacortes with the ferry ride taking only an hour and 20 minutes each way. This leaves plenty of time to explore the many shops, have a nice lunch, wander around the marina, and perhaps pay a visit to the Whale Museum.
However, it’s best to spend a few nights on the island to explore its rural side and other attractions. On the ferry ride to the island, you’ll encounter racks of tour brochures covering everything from visiting lavender farms to renting sea kayaks, making it easy to select interesting activities and adventures.
San Juan Island National Historic Park, covering over 2,000 acres, memorializes the infamous Pig War when General George Pickett landed his ship with troops to protect the rights of American citizens against the British. Thankfully, there were no casualties except for an American pig. The park includes miles of trails and beaches.
Other island itinerary musts include the charming, historic town of Roche Harbor, and Limekiln Lighthouse Park.
The largest and hilliest of the islands is Orcas, just about an hour’s ride on the ferry from Friday Harbor. The ferry landing is a good distance from the main town of Eastsound so taking a car is desirable; if you are traveling without a car, pre-arrange for a taxi pickup.
In summer months, a bus shuttle service and car rentals are available. Highlights on the island include a drive to the top of Mount Constitution for a stunning view across the water to the Cascades and Mount Baker; on a good day, you can see Mount Rainier. Several pristine, freshwater lakes dot the island and Moran State Park offers good hiking opportunities.
Lopez is the flattest island, making it the best choice for bicyclists. Settled by Scandinavian farmers in the 19th century, agriculture remains an important part of the landscape. The island is also known for its lively art community.
The smallest and least developed of the ferryboat islands, Shaw is less than 10-square miles and offers few amenities. There is a small general store, plenty of solitude, and pretty picnic sites.