The San Juan Islands in Washington State are one of my favorite travel destinations. Since I live near Seattle, I try to take a trip out there every now and again, especially if I have friends in town.
The easiest way to get there is through the Washington State Ferry, commonly called the San Juan Ferry, although the route to the islands is only one of several that are offered.
If you’ve never enjoyed the beautiful journey on one of Washington State Ferries, now is a perfect time! I mean, you should finish reading this first, but after that.
First, I’ll explain a little about the Washington State Ferry system, then I’ll get more into the San Juan route in particular, and finally, we’ll look at some of my favorite things to do on the islands.
What is the Washington State Ferry?
The Puget Sound “Mosquito Fleet” was a group of small steamships operated by a variety of companies all over Puget Sound for many years until the late 1940s, when only the current Black Ball Line remained.
The company wanted to increase fares in response to their employees’ request to raise wages. The state disallowed the fare increase and the line went out of business. A majority of the assets were then sold to the state’s Department of Transportation.
Today, the Washington State Ferry is the largest ferry system capable of transporting both passengers and vehicles in the United States and the second largest in the world.
The fleet consists of 21 vessels, the largest of which can hold 2,500 passengers and over 200 vehicles. There are a total of ten routes and have an average weekday ridership of over 46,000 people per day!
What Are the San Juan Islands?
When most people think of San Juan, they think of the capital of Puerto Rico. However, in this case, we’re talking about the San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea, close to the border between Washington and Canada.
The name for both locations is a Spanish name that translates as “Saint John,” as in the disciple of Jesus who wrote the book of the Bible named after him, as well as the Book of Revelation.
There are over 400 islands, major rocks, and reefs in the San Juan Archipelago, although only 128 have been named. Some of these are designated as National Parks, and not all are inhabited. The Washington State Ferries only serves four of these islands.
San Juan is a major tourist destination, with kayaking trips, whale-watching tours, and amazing scenery being the most common activity.
How Do I Take the Ferry to San Juan?
The ferry to San Juan leaves from Anacortes, a city of about 17,000 people which is about 80 miles north of Seattle’s city center.
If you don’t have a vehicle or don’t want to rent one, it is accessible by public transit, but it will take three or four hours from downtown Seattle and you’ll have to change buses several times.
There are also two shuttle services to the Anacortes ferry terminal from Seattle Tacoma International Airport. It’ll take a few hours as there are other stops along the way but for around $50 per person each way, it might be cheaper than gas.
This is a very popular ferry, especially in the summertime, so you’ll want to make a reservation in advance. You’ll also want to plan to arrive at the terminal about an hour or so before it takes off.
Once you reach the ferry terminal in Anacortes, you can take a ferry to San Juan Island. It will stop at Lopez, Shaw, and Orcas Islands first, which are also part of the San Juan Archipelago.
The ferry used to have an additional stop in British Columbia, just over the border on Vancouver Island. However, service has been halted for the time being due to logistical constraints, although it may resume in the summer of 2023.
The journey will take you a little over an hour, usually between 65 and 90 minutes, depending on which sailing you’ve chosen. Once you reach Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, you can begin one of the most remarkable experiences in the entire state of Washington!
Getting on the Ferry
Once you arrive at the terminal in Anacortes, if you’re taking a vehicle, you’ll see some tollbooths with attendants in them. You can show them your reservation and they’ll tell you where to line up.
If you’re walking, you can head into the terminal and show your reservations at the window inside.
I should also point out that reservations are not actually required, as there are a limited number of walk-on spots available for each sailing. However, space is by no means guaranteed, which is why I strongly recommend booking the trip in advance.
Once you get on the ferry, crew member instructions will play over the loudspeakers to tell you where to go. The boats are quite large, so you’ll have plenty of space to enjoy the view on the way over.
When planning your vacation in the San Juan Islands, I strongly recommend starting in the west with San Juan island itself and then moving eastward, one island at a time.
This is because the ferry only charges passengers and vehicles going west out to the islands, but heading east back toward the mainland is free. The price of the ticket includes the return journey.
If you can arrange it, you can visit San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez Islands in that order while only paying for one ticket.
However, the inter-island portion of the ferry does not accept reservations and is on a first-come, first-serve basis. You’ll want to get to the terminal early and plan to take a ferry that arrives several hours in advance, so you won’t be late if you have to take a later boat.
The ferry schedule changes seasonally, so I highly recommend checking the current schedule on the state Department of Transportation website.
There are usually around 15 voyages available every day, running almost hourly during the day, which makes life a whole lot easier, particularly if you’re walking on. If there isn’t space on the ferry when you arrive, another one will be on its way soon!
If you don’t have reservations, there are a limited number of walk-on spots available if you happen to be there early enough. There is also the possibility of someone with a reservation not making it in time, which happens on most boats as well.
During the summer, I wouldn’t risk it, though. If you have an activity or a resort stay paid for and need to be there at a certain time, it’s much better to get reservations and make sure you aren’t stuck waiting at the terminal.
If you’re taking a vehicle with you, you’ll also want to check the schedule and make sure you’ll be able to bring your car on this particular boat. Not every sailing will allow inter-island cars to be loaded as part of its voyage.
Things to Do on the Islands: Lopez Island
Let’s take a look at some of the best things to do and see while on your journey. We’ll start with the innermost island and work our way west to San Juan itself.
My favorite place on Lopez Island has to be the Shark Reef Sanctuary. Don’t worry, as far as I’m aware, there are no sharks in the water!
After a brief walk of a few minutes through a wooded area, you’ll arrive at the rocky coastline, which has amazing views of the water. Seal sightings are very common here and, if you’re lucky, you might see a sea lion or an otter as well!
Iceberg Point is another great viewing destination if you’re up for a mild hike. It’s about a three-mile loop out and back, with a total elevation gain of about 50 feet, making it a perfect choice for almost anyone. Orcas are often spotted in the waters here as well!
If you’d like to avoid rocky coastlines and would prefer some sand, Spencer Spit State Park is a 138-acre park that provides amazing views of marine wildlife, birds, and other creatures. If you’ve never seen a starfish in real life, you can probably find one here!
What to Do on the Islands: Shaw Island
Shaw is the smallest of the islands on the ferry route at 7.7 square miles, which also means it has fewer things to do than the others. Still, it’s well worth a visit if you have a few hours!
The Shaw General Store is a great place to pick up some souvenirs from your visit to San Juan County. It is also the only place on the island to buy food, as it is the only real business on the island, which is primarily residential.
The Shaw County Park has a campground, although it is rather small so RVs are not recommended. A few of the sites only allow hammock tents, although it still makes an amazing location to enjoy the great outdoors.
The Shaw Island Library and Historical Society also operates on the island. It’s rather small but there are a lot of opportunities to learn about the local history here. A small donation of $50 allows you to become a lifetime member and support the organization.
Although the island is small, these locations are pretty spread out and if you aren’t up for a hike along narrow roads, the General Store might be the only option available to you while you’re on the island, unless you’ve brought a car or a bicycle.
What to Do on the Islands: Orcas Island
Orcas Island has many wonderful activities and might even be my favorite. As the name suggests, there are several opportunities to see whales while you’re here (even though the name actually has nothing to do with the whales…)
There are a few boat charters available here, including for fishing, scenery viewing, or observing marine life. They range from small sailboats to massive yachts!
The Orcas Island Historical Museums are a group of six cabins that were donated by various families around 75 years ago that contain over 6,000 historical artifacts, photographs, and documents about both Native American and European settler history.
The cabins themselves are also considered to be historical artifacts. If you have any interest in history, this is a must-see. One of the cabins has an intact skull and multiple other bones of a bison antiquus that have been carbon-dated to 14,000 years old!
What to Do on the Islands: San Juan Island
The final island on the ferry system is the largest and namesake island of the archipelago, San Juan Island itself. There are many unique opportunities here, including a few I never thought I’d see in the Pacific Northwest.
Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm is fun for the whole family! The self-guided tour allows you to see the animals up close and personal, while educational tours can be booked in advance. There is also a gift shop with some of the most unique souvenirs in the state!
The San Juan Islands Sculpture Park has over 150 unique sculptures to see in a beautiful outdoor environment for only a $5 recommended donation. It is run by a non-profit charitable organization with only volunteers and no employees!
There are also many tours of the island and the nearby area available. You can take a kayak, a boat, or a bicycle and see some of the most amazing sights in the entire Pacific Northwest!
Summary, Final Thoughts, and Conclusion
The San Juan Islands offer a lot of unique experiences and beautiful views, all of which are easily accessed by the Washington State Ferry System.
The ferry terminal in Anacortes is your gateway to these exciting adventures, available by car, public transit, or shuttle service from Seattle and many other great destinations in the state of Washington.
Four different islands, each with their own unique points of interest and activities, are accessible from these ships. Although they are not required, reservations on the ferry are highly recommended, as is arriving early at the terminal.
If you don’t have reservations and you prefer to be a bit spontaneous, you can arrive relatively early in the day and hang out at the ferry terminal until walk-on space becomes available.
It may take an hour or two to find a ship with availability if it’s a busy day but the journey is well worth it and there are some great views to be near the terminal as well.
If you have the time, my personal recommendation is a three-day trip, with one full day each on San Juan and Orcas Islands and a half-day on Lopez and Shaw. If you have less time, you could make a day trip of it and spend a few hours on each island.
No matter how long you stay on each individual island during your journey, you’ll love the amazing hospitality and scenery of the San Juan Islands. We can’t wait to welcome you on your next island adventure!