– Ben Martens

Tips for Visiting the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands are a gorgeous place to visit and half the fun is the 1+ hour ferry ride that it takes to get there. However, the islands are a popular destination and it can be a bit of a challenge to plan a trip there. Rather than write this up multiple times in various emails to people, I thought I’d capture it all on a single page that I can share in the future.

1. Plan Ahead for the Ferry Ride

  • Ferry Costs: The ferry ride to the San Juan Islands isn’t cheap, but keep in mind that you’re paying for a round-trip ticket. You’ll pay to get to the island, and the return trip is free. Check the fares ahead of time to avoid surprises. We recently paid $90 for a car, two adults, two seniors, and one child.
  • Anacortes Ferry Terminal: The Anacortes Ferry Terminal is busy. Multiple boats operate from here, so expect queues. Reservations are highly recommended! You can make a reservation for free, and there’s no charge for canceling up to 5 pm the day before. Just ensure you’re in line within 30 minutes of the scheduled sailing time to avoid a no-show fee. Remember, you pay the actual ferry fare when you arrive, not when you make the reservation.
  • Ferry Schedules: The ferry schedules are limited due to the approximately 1-1.5 hour ride each way and multiple destinations. Sometimes, your ferry might even stop at another island along the route. Check the schedules in advance to plan your trip effectively.

2. Timing Your Day Trip

  • Be Prepared for a Long Day: With less frequent sailings, it can be challenging to make a day trip. For instance, we left home at 8 am, got back at 7 pm and had about 4 hours on the island.

3. Transportation Options

  • Driving vs. Walking On: While it’s cheaper and easier to walk onto the ferry and park your car at Anacortes, this option limits your mobility on the other end. If you drive your car, you’ll have more flexibility to explore the island, but be prepared to carry your supplies.

4. Choosing Your Island

  • Shaw Island: Shaw Island is more rural. I’ve never been there and I don’t think that it’s generally a day-trip tourist spot.
  • Lopez Island: We once stayed at an Airbnb on Lopez Island. It’s a bit busier than Shaw but still maintains a laid-back vibe.
  • Orcas Island: This is a big island with plenty of tourist activities, but they’re not very close to the dock. Figure out your transportation in advance. (We always drive our car onto the ferry.) There’s a decent-sized town and a state park with great camping but make your reservations for the campground early.
  • Friday Habor: Friday Harbor, technically part of San Juan Island, is full of tourism options. Many attractions are within walking distance of the ferry terminal. If you have a car, explore three excellent park options. Don’t miss learning about the “Pig War” historical event. There’s a National Historic Park on both ends of the island (one American camp and one British camp). Additionally, Lime Kiln State Park in the middle is renowned for whale watching from shore. Right by the ferry terminal, you’ll find food options. San Juan Island Brewery is a favorite stop for us, offering a variety of good beer and a substantial food selection (including pizzas, soups, burgers, chicken, and sandwiches). They have around 10-15 beers on tap, and it’s kid-friendly. Most entrees are priced at about $17-20.

I had no idea about the incredible Washington State Ferry system when I moved out here, but it’s the second busiest ferry system in the world (second only to the British Columbia ferry system.) They make for fantastic day trips!