San Juan Island: A Day Trip

What do you do when temperatures soar into the triple digits around the Puget Sound area? Head for the islands, of course. The last weekend in June, we watched with dismay as the region experienced a record-shattering heatwave. It was unprecedented for the PNW, with Seattle hitting 108°F during the four-day blast. Since record keeping began, the area has only seen temps reach 100°F in June once (1955).

Since the heatwave coincided with the end of my parents’ ten-day visit, and they’d expressed interest in checking out the San Juan Islands if time allowed, we decided to make a visit. Figuring it would surely be the coolest spot within striking distance, I jumped online at the exact minute the last batch of ferry reservations was released. I assumed probably everyone in the greater Seattle metro area had the same idea, so I was shocked when I was actually able to secure a roundtrip vehicle reservation to San Juan Island. By some stroke of shit luck, we nabbed a spot on the 9 a.m. ferry out of Anacortes with a 5 p.m. return. With just a few clicks, our day-tripping game was on!

The ferry

I love boats. For me, the ferry ride alone was worth the visit to the San Juan Islands. From Anacortes, the ferry snakes between Decatur and Blakely Islands, around the northern tip of Lopez and southern flank of Shaw Island, and into Friday Harbor. The views of the sound are so tranquil, with tall-masted ships peppering the sapphire water. Looking back toward the mainland, Mt. Baker looks exceptionally imposing. Although the heat was oppressive both on the mainland and islands, the cooling breeze from the water was so refreshing. Standing at the bow of the ship, I was shivering even with my fleece jacket zipped tightly around my neck. It felt amazing, and I have to think I was one of very few people in the Puget Sound area with goosebumps that day.

If you’re traveling without a vehicle, a trip to the islands is pretty reasonable. Fares are $14 roundtrip for walk-on passengers ($7 for seniors) with a $2 to $4 roundtrip surcharge (depending on season) if traveling with a bicycle. Stephan and I joked that if there was another hundred-degree day, we may just go take a little cruise around the islands.

Know before you go:

Washington’s ferry system is fairly straightforward and offers online reservation and ticketing options. That said, there are some quirks and things you should know before you visit the islands (most importantly, that vehicle reservations are pretty much a must during the busy summer season). For a summary of what we learned, scroll down to the WA Ferry Travel Tips.

Friday Harbor

If you’re interested in shopping and restaurants, Friday Harbor is San Juan Island’s main commercial center. The walkable hub is also conveniently where the ferry docks, so you should have no problem with access. If you aren’t traveling with a vehicle (or your own bicycle), there are a handful of shops that rent bikes, mopeds or those super cute two-person scoot coupes.

With our hour-long ferry arriving into town slightly behind schedule, we first hit up Downriggers for lunch. They have a pretty extensive seafood menu and, much to my delight, even had a handful of vegetarian/vegan options. My parents split a grilled crab sandwich and Dungeness crab tots, while Stephan opted for the blackened cod tacos. I selected their Buddha Bowl which – with quinoa rice, potatoes, seasonal veggies, black beans and spiced pepitas – was shockingly filling. After grabbing our food, we headed just a few hundred feet up the street to Fairweather Park. The quiet greenspace has a handful of covered dining tables and sits right along the harbor… it’s a great spot for a picnic.

Pro tip:

Since you need to be in line for the ferry at least an hour in advance if traveling with a vehicle, get in line early and use the time to wander around the historic downtown (just keep an eye on the clock and ferry tracker). Since you could pretty much fry an egg on the sidewalk, we made sure to swing by Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co. for a cool treat while we awaited the ferry’s arrival. They have several dozen flavors to choose from, just remember it’s cash only.

Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park sits along a rocky bluff on the western side of San Juan Island. It’s a fairly popular day-use area, with a couple miles of walking trails and a small lighthouse built in 1919 overlooking the Haro Strait. It’s also considered one of the best spots in the state for land-based whale watching, with orcas and humpback whales frequenting the strait during summer months.

While you’ll certainly be sharing the space around the lighthouse and observation areas, we saw no one on the short, wooded trails. Seeing as it was nearly 100°F even on the island, the shaded trails provided some nice relief from the blazing sun. We also found a beautiful little cove with no other visitors where we explored some small tide pools. We spotted a bunch of crabs, chitons, anemone, and even a lone starfish. If you’re more interested in history than marine life, the trail also leads out to a 19th-century lime kiln for which the park is named.

Plan ahead:

All of Washington’s state parks and state-managed recreation lands require a Discover Pass. You can purchase a day pass on-site for $10 or an annual pass for $30. Passes can be purchased online, by phone, in person, at license vendors, or at retail locations across the state. Pro tip: we purchased our annual pass from a retail location to avoid the extra transaction fee.

Cattle Point Lighthouse

If you’re looking for an equally scenic yet much more secluded spot, take a ride over to Cattle Point Lighthouse. Opened in 1935, the squat little light sits at the southern tip of San Juan Island. From atop the bluff, there are some lovely views out to neighboring Lopez Island and the tiny islets of Goose Island and Whale Rocks. On a clear day, you can even see the Olympic Mountains to the south. Unfortunately, it was so ridiculously hazy and humid when we visited that we could barely make out the silhouette of the peninsular ridgeline. Nevertheless, it felt like our own secret hideaway compared to busier Lime Kiln Point.

Beaches and more

We only made it to one of the island’s beaches during our short day trip. With South Beach, Eagle Cove and Fourth of July Beach all sitting about fifteen minutes south of Friday Harbor, we ended up picking the latter of the three. I can’t say this was an outstanding beach. It happened to be low tide when we visited, and it was more reminiscent of a mucky bog with that putrid, sulfuric stench rather than an alluring shoreline. I’m not sure if the abnormally high temperatures exacerbated that characteristic low-tide smell, but it seemed plausible. Regrettably, the weekend’s heatwave did indeed have devastating effects on local marine life – especially those poor critters stranded during the extremely hot midday low tide.

One point of interest we did not make it to but have heard good things about is the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park at the north end of the island. The 20-acre greenspace has more than 150 pieces of artwork that you can wander around and it’s dog-friendly (always at the top of our list). A $5 donation is suggested for park visitors.

Final thoughts

In sum, we had a great day exploring San Juan Island. While we did find temperatures that were about ten degrees cooler than the mainland, it was still freakin’ blistering. That said, we found some nice shade at some scenic parks, and the ferry rides were a surprising respite from the heat. The island definitely has a quiet charm about it, and it makes for a great little day outing if you find yourself in the Puget Sound region.

WA ferry travel tips

Tickets to the San Juan Islands (Orcas, Lopez, Shaw & San Juan Island) from Anacortes can be purchased in person or online through Washington State Ferries. We would definitely recommend booking your vehicle reservations and ticket in advance, especially if you’re traveling during busy summer months. Here’s the most valuable information we learned:

  • Walk-on passengers and bicyclists do not need a reservation. If you purchase your ticket online, you can just show up at your desired sailing and board the ferry. Space for vehicles is much more limited, however, and should be booked in advance.
  • Vehicle reservations are strongly recommended as space is often quite limited. If you are not sure of your plans, vehicle reservations for Anacortes/San Juan Islands routes can be purchased two days before your desired departure. For these routes, one-third of vehicle reservation space is released two months before the season start date (7 a.m. PST). One-third of vehicle reservations are then released two weeks before the sailing date (7 a.m. PST). The final one-third of space is released two days before the sailing date (7 a.m. PST). If you are looking to visit one of the islands last minute, make sure you have created an account with the state ferry website, and are logged into the system promptly at 7 a.m. PST to secure your ticket(s). Detailed information can be found here.
  • Vehicle reservations are one-way only. Make sure you book both an outbound and return trip. Additionally, if you are traveling to Lopez or Shaw Islands, you can only make an outbound vehicle registration from Anacortes. All return ferries are loaded first-come first-served.
  • Tickets and vehicle reservations are not the same thing. Single-ride tickets are not purchased for a particular date. Rather, they are good for 90 days from the date of purchase (nice flexibility). If you are traveling with a car and additional passengers, you will need to book/purchase: (1) a vehicle reservation for the car, and (2) tickets for all passengers other than the driver.
  • If you have a limited travel window and need to travel with your car and family, make sure you secure a vehicle reservation before purchasing additional passenger tickets. Tickets are non-refundable. Vehicle registrations can be cancelled in advance without penalty; you are only charged if you no-show.
  • Only 10% of vehicle space (Anacortes/San Juan Islands routes) is reserved for stand-by vehicles. If you don’t have a reservation, you do have a chance to get on the ferry, but certainly no guarantee.
  • If you are traveling with your vehicle, be sure to arrive one hour before the time of departure to get in line. If you have not checked in on time, you lose your reservation space (scroll down to on the day of travel for more details).
  • Pets are allowed on the ferries but only in outdoor spaces (or vehicles if it is safe to do so).
  • Make sure you select the correct vehicle length. The WA State Ferries site provides a list of vehicles that are under 14’ and qualify for reduced fare. Most cars will not qualify. Our relatively small Subaru Crosstrek was 14.5’ and just missed the cutoff. A full list can be found here.
  • Once you’ve secured your vehicle reservation, tickets for additional passengers can be purchased here.
  • Keep in mind – the ferries are notorious for running habitually late, and it’s not uncommon for routes to get delayed significantly due to maintenance issues. Thankfully, the WSDOT offers a real-time vessel watch for tracking the ferries so you can stay up-to-date on any delays.

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