San Juan Islands/Vancuver
Replies: 9 - Last Post: May 31, 2013 2:37 PM Last Post By: chepe
Apr 17, 2013 8:00 AM
San Juan Islands/VancuverHello!
We are looking to go on an 11 day trip starting in Seattle and going to the San Juans and Vancuver in late June/early July. We've already done Seattle so that's more of just a fly in/out destination for us.
Specifically, I'm wondering if anyone has any information about the San Juans - if there is an island in particular that is best to stay at, and how easy it is to get from island to island. Of course we area little late on booking around 4th of july so it may just have to stay anywhere with availability. What sorts of activities are there to do there or what have you especially enjoyed?
Are there any other spots on the way to/around this trip that you would recommend? We love: nature, hiking and food. Followed closely after that we love museums.
Thanks so much!
Apr 17, 2013 8:19 AM
1First, it is spelled Vancouver.
Second, you may not be aware that the San Juan Islands continue into Canada. They are called the Gulf Islands. I've never been to the San Juans so I can't tell you the differences between the Canadian side and the American side. I heard once that the American islands are more developed for agriculture but I don't have first hand experience. What I can tell you is that the Canadian islands - namely Salt Spring, Saturna, Gabriola, Galiano, and Pender - are quite beautiful. Salt Spring is the largest and most "developed." I'm most familiar with Galiano, which has some beautiful hiking trails. Anyway, I tell you this because you can get to these islands from Vancouver and not have go through Seattle. Also, you can easily combine a visit to the Gulf islands with a day or two in Victoria, which you might enjoy for its food and the Royal BC Museum. Enjoy!
Apr 17, 2013 11:59 AM
2The three San Juan islands that have the most facilities and things attractive to visitors are San Juan Island, Orcas and Lopez. Orcas is the biggest and has the tallest hills, but no major settlements. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island is the biggest town and has the most developed tourist infrastructure - accommodations, restaurants, shopping, etc. Roche Harbor, on the opposite side of San Juan Island, is a very picturesque settlement with tourist facilities, albeit more aligned with boaters than land tourists.
Lopez is somewhat flatter than Orcas or SJI, and is much beloved by cyclists. It has a decent amount of tourist facilities, but not as much as either Orcas or SJI.
If I were to pick one island for a first time visit, I'd probably go with San Juan. You can go whale watching, hiking, visit a couple of interesting parks, learn about the Pig War... various activities.
Getting from island to island requires you use the inter-island ferries; they are frequent and relatively inexpensive.
However, traveling around any holidays means (a) you'll find accommodations scarce and expensive, and (b) the ferries will be very crowded, so going from island to island may entail spending a lot of time in the ferry lineups. And getting from the mainland (Anacortes) to the islands and back will need careful planning and pre-booking wherever possible; the San Juans are VERY popular destinations.
I agree on the Canadian Gulf islands. More diversity IMO, but from the mainland USA they're harder to access.
Apr 17, 2013 1:59 PM
3Gardyloo has a great summation of the islands. Really, there aren't that many things to do, but sure is a great way to spend some relaxation time.
If you are walking aboard each WSF ferry, then the cost isn't bad. Taking the car increases both cost, and in the case of Anacortes, a lot more time to get on board in the middle of summer.
Bikes are the way to go if you have them. I live just south on Whidbey, and even I dont get up there as much as I would like.
Apr 18, 2013 9:57 AM
4Gardyloo has a great summation of the islands. So with that said (s)he didn't mention Shaw Island which is least developed in terms of available services. The island is small enough and fairly flat (except some rolling hills but not to steep) to tour around by bike and back for the next ferry out. Makes for a great day trip. Most of the island rural with some private homes nestled in the trees. The only store is the general store by the ferry dock that used to operated by the Franciscan nuns which includes selling ferry tickets and operating the ramp when the ferry comes in. The other non residential buildings are in the center, which are a community Center (Shaw Bay Rd & Blind Bay Rd) Library and elementary school (further down on Blind Bay to Ben Nevis Loop). Unless you have access to the houses on the island or invited by someone who does, the only place to stay are the campground spots at the Shaw Island County Park.
There are other islands even least visited such as Decatur, Blakely, Cypress, Jones Island SP, etc. and that's because they're non-accessible by ferry and require a private boat or float plane to get to. If you know how to safely kayak across some strong currents and know how they flow, or if you have access to a private boat you might still be able to go to these other islands. There are plenty of local outfits (on Friday Harbor) renting kayaks but don't know if there's anybody renting a boat with a least a good sized outboard motor
Gardyloo2 says "I agree on the Canadian Gulf islands. More diversity IMO, but from the mainland USA they're harder to access. " So from Friday Harbor you can get on the westbound ferry (once daily sailing @ 9:55AM according to the spring 2013 schedules) to Sidney, BC (20-30mi/32-48km) north of Victoria on Vancouver Island and than go up to Swartz Bay (3.7mi/6km north) to get on the BC Ferries going to the (southern) Gulf Islands. The #70 or 72 bus goes up from Sidney to Swartz Bay if you're traveling without a car.
Edited by: anyone101
Apr 18, 2013 11:08 AM
5Probably the best route from Seattle through the San Juans is to drive north to Anacortes and catch the ferry to San Juan Island (Friday Harbor). Anacortes itself has a selection of pretty good restaurants and bars and you can rent sea kayaks there (and have a lesson too if you want). Washington Park just past the ferry landing on the northernmost tip of Anacortes is an excellent spot to enjoy sunsets with the sun setting behind the Olympic Mountains and the San Juans flocks of geese, ducks and cormorants fly by making for dramatic sunsets (people take picnic dinners and wine there to enjoy the sunsets).
San Juan Island is well developed for bicycling with bike routes all over the island. It is a pastoral place with homes and agricultural fields (mostly pasture) interspersed with woodlands. Lime Kiln State Park (known as Whale Point) on the west side of San Juan Island is your best bet for spotting Grey Whales, Orcas and Sea Lions, but sightings are spotty so sightings aren't guarnateed. Still, the park is a nice spot to stop and there is a ranch nearby to stay at. On the norhern tip is Roche Harbor with its marina and yachts and American Camp National Park on the southern tip is an interesting stop with it's historical accounting of the English/American "pig war."
Orcas is more residentiai than San Juan, but a drive up Mt. Constitution into Moran State Park is worth the effort for the panoramic views across the San Juans into Canada and Mt. Baker shining in the distance. There's good hiking in Turtleback Mountain. The ferry docks at Orcas Village, but the larger town is on the north side of the island at Eastsound.
In Vancouver be sure to take the gondola to the top of the mountains on the north side of the harbor. If you have time, a nice trip from Vancouver is taking the ferry over to Vancouver Island and on to Victoria and the Butchart Gardens. From Victoria you can take another ferry to Port Angeles in Washington State and drive back to Seattle from there http://www.cohoferry.com/main/
Apr 21, 2013 9:52 PM
Thank you so much for the thoughtful replies. I always get the best information from Lonely Planet - thank you! I had originally thought we would get on the ferry at Anocortes and leave our car there, but it sounds like we may been them on the islands.
The few comments about the Gulf Islands piqued my interest, and I wonder if they may be easier for us to get to since we'll definitely be going to Vancouver anyway. Galiano sounds like it would be a great option for hiking - does anyone have any other suggestions for easy-moderate hikes or for just relaxing at a nice bnb/hotel?
Also, is Vancouver a walkable city or should we just plan on keeping a car for the whole trip? If we were to go to the Gulf islands instead of the San Juans, where is the best place to take a ferry from?
Apr 22, 2013 4:24 AM
7Vancouver is very walkable and public transit is very good. However, I think I would want a car on Galiano in order to explore easily and get to different trails. Biking is possible if you are in good shape; it's pretty hilly. You can see by this ferry map that you'll have to get to Tsawwassen, which is just south of the city. It's easy to get to by car or by bus-skytrain. Alternatively, you can get to Galiano from Victoria (Swartz Bay), if you happen to go there first.
May 29, 2013 5:36 PM
8Update: The bridge along I-5 going over Skagit River 65mi/104km north of Seattle has collapsed. Therefore plan alternate routes going up to the San Juans from Seattle. One possible way is to take one ferry from Mukilteo to Clinton (on Whidbey Island) and drive up through Whidbey Island along WA-525/20 to Anacortes. The point is to avoid getting near Burlington/Mt Vernon as most people are trying to detour through town to get across the parallel bridge over the Skagit River. So the local streets can be one big parking lot.
See Google maps as to how.
May 31, 2013 2:37 PM
9Anyone101, the detour and that area isn't as bad as they thought it would be. My spouse just came down to our place on Whidbey this morning and she said it was seriously no problem.
I do not recommend taking the Whidbey ferry, that would be even longer than going through any detour, with the exeception of maybe a Monday. All other days and the line at the boat is ridiculously long. I know because I do it every day and gave up driving it and now walk on to the boat!
Take Highway 9 if all else. It isn't that crowded either. My boss drives from Mt Vernon to Ballard daily and says 9 isn't that bad at all.
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