The Washington State Ferry System takes RVers to four islands located between Washington State and Vancouver, British Columbia.
By Denise Seith
Looking for that million-miles-away-from-it-all feeling you get from visiting far-off islands? Usually that kind of downtime means leaving the motorhome behind and boarding a plane bound for a remote location. Not so if you’re in the Northwest and visiting the Evergreen State. More than 700 rural islands make up Washington’s San Juan Archipelago, and four of those “” Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan “” are reachable in about an hour by auto ferry. Your motorhome can go, too. Each island has its own distinct personality and special sights that will especially appeal to lovers of the great outdoors.
From the gateway city of Anacortes (technically on Fidalgo Island, which is also part of the San Juan chain and connected to the mainland by a bridge), the Washington State Ferry system is easy to use, and the scenery along the water route is magnificent. After parking your motorhome onboard, you can choose a comfortable seat next to a large window on one of the ferry’s upper decks. Then sit back and relax with a snack or a beverage as the ferry sails past lush wooded islands, hidden coves, and marinas. Keep an eye out for marine wildlife and enjoy the distant panoramas of Mount Baker and the Olympic Mountains.
Thanks to the “rain shadow effect” created by these grand peaks, the San Juan Islands enjoy an average of 247 sunny days each year “” that’s more than Tucson, Arizona. It’s rarely too hot here, either. Highs average 75 degrees in the summer, and temperatures rarely fall below 35 in the winter, making the islands a pleasant destination any time of the year.
Alongside the spectacular scenery and comfortable climate, the islands’ main attraction is the wildlife “” mainly the orca or killer whale. From mid-April through early October, about 80 orcas live in the waters of the San Juan Islands. These graceful animals are frequently spotted right from the shore, or by taking a whale-watching excursion. One whale-watching tour provider is San Juan Excursions (800-80-WHALE or www.watchwhales.com).
Harbor seals, sea lions, otters, cormorants, murres, gulls, sea stars, and a great many other marine creatures also call these waters home. On land, you’re sure to spot deer, great blue herons, raccoons, rabbits, and more. And don’t forget to look up to find majestic bald eagles soaring overhead. It’s fairly common to see this national symbol while on the islands, since Washington has the largest bald eagle population in the Lower 48.
Lopez Island is the first stop as you take the ferry westward. The first recorded exploration of the San Juan Islands began here in 1791 under the direction of Spanish explorer Francisco Eliza. Lopez Island is named after a member of that expedition, Lopez Gonzales de Haro. Lopez Island is the first ferry stop from Anacortes, and is dubbed the “friendly isle,” because of the local custom of waving at everyone one passes on the road. Regardless of whether you’re a longtime resident or a first-time visitor, everyone waves, so join in! Laid-back Lopez is the flattest of the main islands, so it’s particularly popular with bicyclists. But since “flat” is a relative term, depending on how challenging you like the terrain, expect some hills as you pedal past a blended landscape of woods, water, and farmland. If you’re an avid cyclist, you’re invited to ride in the non-competitive Tour de Lopez each April.
You may wish to save money and ride all the way to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, and then island-hop, visiting Lopez on your return trip. If you don’t, you will have to pay a separate fare from here to the remaining islands as you visit them. (See the accompanying ferry sidebar for more information.)
The commercial core of this welcoming island is Lopez Village. Here you’ll find a small art gallery, a garden center, a bakery, a grocery store, and even an old-fashioned soda fountain inside the pharmacy. Try the mud pie or moose tracks ice cream on a waffle cone.
Spencer Spit State Park is located on Lopez Island, but it offers only tent camping. You may wish to visit just to explore the many spots for clamming, fishing, crabbing, or sight-seeing.
Shaw Island is next on the westward journey. This place is loaded with peace and quiet; it’s absolutely true that there’s not much to do on Shaw Island. It’s the least visited of the four ferry-served islands, and in fact, even the island’s namesake, Captain John D. Shaw of the U.S. Navy (famous for fighting the Barbary Coast pirates), never came to Shaw. One business operates on the island “” a general store run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. The island’s 200 permanent residents (and a few friendly alpacas) make this an ideal destination if relaxing with a picturesque view is the only item on your to-do list.
Horseshoe-shaped Orcas Island was not named for the resident orca whales, as you might expect. Instead, it was named for the Spanish viceroy Don Juan Vincente de Guemes Pacheco Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo Conde de Revilla Gigedo (what a mouthful!), who financed Francisco Eliza’s 1791 expedition. Covering more than 36,000 acres, Orcas is the largest and most diverse of the islands and is dotted with charming towns, art galleries, and resorts. Many artists and artisans make their home here, so it’s easy to find one-of-a-kind pottery, painting, weaving, and more.
Eastsound is the center of the island. Food options range from pizza and picnic items to fresh seafood and organic produce. There’s also a little of everything else a city has to offer, but on a much smaller scale “” boutiques, a church, a grocery store, a museum, and even a small movie theater.
The Orcas Island Historical Museum in Eastsound (www.orcasisland.org; 360-376-4849) opens for the season at the end of May, and is closed Mondays. It is easy to find, for the collections are housed in six original homestead cabins that were built during the 1870s and 1890s. Displays feature objects, documents, and photos depicting the lives of the island’s original inhabitants.
Also among the treats on Orcas Island is Moran State Park. Even if you aren’t camping here (but with so much to see and do here, you may wish to), spend time exploring the park’s 5,252-acre wilderness, which includes five freshwater lakes and miles of hiking trails. The highest point in the San Juan Islands is in Moran State Park “” 2,409-foot Mount Constitution. You can drive to within 100 steps of the top and then walk up to a stone observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. Besides taking in the incredible views of neighboring islands from the top, you’ll learn about Robert Moran, patron of the park.
Another interesting stop on Orcas Island is the Rosario Resort and Spa, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s fun to go there and poke around in the island’s history, not to mention enjoy a meal with a pristine view of Cascade Bay. Originally built as a dream house in 1906 by shipping magnate Robert Moran (the same man who donated the land that became Moran State Park), the mansion is filled with antiques, such as a working 1,972-pipe Aeolian organ and a Tiffany chandelier. Mr. Moran surrounded himself with such luxuries after being told he had just another year to live. Interestingly, he outlived his doctor’s prognosis by 40 years and enjoyed a long, happy life on beautiful Orcas Island. Many of his personal photographs and original furnishings are displayed in the informal, free museum on the resort’s third floor. For more information, call (866) 801-7625 or visit www.rosarioresort.com.
San Juan Island
Dynamic San Juan is the most populated and popular of the four main islands. Ferries arrive on the east side at busy Friday Harbor, the only incorporated town in the island chain that is also the county seat. Upon disembarking, you’ll find an old-fashioned walkable downtown that is the best place on the island to stock up on camping supplies and groceries, grab a bite to eat, and shop. A few interesting stories explain the name Friday Harbor. One such legend claims that the name came about accidentally when a sailor inquired, “What bay is this?” Supposedly someone thought he had asked what day it was and replied, “Friday.”
The Whale Museum on San Juan Island is the best place to learn about this area’s most popular mammals “” orca whales. Orcas live in family groups called “pods” and the J, K, and L pods (totaling approximately 80 orcas) live in the waters surrounding the San Juan Islands. Each killer whale has a scientific name that denotes its pod and birth order, such as J-22 or K-21, but they are also fondly referred to by fun names such as Oreo, Cappuccino, and Mega. Whale-watchers and locals can easily identify each orca by the size and shape of its dorsal fin and its black-and-white saddle patches. Once you listen to the “songs” of whales and watch a 30-minute film about Pacific Northwest orcas, you just might want to participate in the museum’s Orca Adoption Program (funds are used to ensure the long-term well-being of the resident pods). The Whale Museum also covers the history of marine mammals and has a collection of exhibits, including real whale skeletons.
For more information about the Whale Museum, call (800) 946-7227 or visit www.whalemuseum.org.
Once beyond Friday Harbor’s city limits, commerce and crowds are replaced by pastoral farmlands; forests; gently rolling hills; and, of course, miles of gorgeous waterfront. You’ll likely see more grazing alpacas and llamas than cattle when driving around the 15-mile-long island.
Lime Kiln Point State Park, also called Whale Watch Park, is approximately 10 miles west of Friday Harbor, situated on a rocky tip facing Haro Strait (the waterway that divides the United States from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada). Lime Kiln Point is the best place on the island to view orcas from the shore, as these mammals feed in the area in spring, summer, and early fall. Chances are one in four that you’ll spot orcas from here on any given day, and chances are even greater for seeing porpoises, seals, sea lions, and otters. Deer often meander along the park’s wooded trails, too. In 1860, a lime-producing business operated here. Kilns were built to fire the limestone that produced lime, giving Lime Kiln Point its name.
In addition to state and county parks, San Juan has a national park with an odd history; it commemorates the “Pig War” of 1859. For more than 10 years, Americans and Britons lived on the island, each with hopes of taking possession of the San Juan Island group. Since tempers already were short from years of haggling for control, when an American shot a pig belonging to a Brit, annoyance escalated into aggression. For a few months, American soldiers and British Royal Marines were on the verge of war, but officials on both sides restored order before casualties occurred. Both nations continued to jointly occupy the island until Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, acting as arbitrator, awarded the islands to the United States in 1872.
Appropriately, the national park is split into two camps 13 miles apart, with American Camp on the south end of the island and English Camp up north. Together they interpret the Pig War crisis and celebrate how Britain and America proved it is possible for nations to settle their differences without violence.
Visitors today can hike, picnic, and explore the area; no campground is available, however. The park’s visitors center has cases full of artifacts from both American and British camps. For more information, call (360) 378-2902 or visit www.nps.gov/sajh.
The cool ocean water helps create a good climate here for growing lavender. Owners of a local lavender farm call their place “Pelindaba,” which in Zulu means “place of great gatherings.” Quite fitting for an organic lavender farm founded to preserve the rural island’s farmland from development and pollution, create employment opportunities, and provide a destination of natural beauty for all to enjoy. The owners, Susan and Stephen Robins, have definitely succeeded.
Visitors may stroll freely through Pelindaba’s demonstration gardens and fields, where dozens of varieties of lavender plants permeate the scenic surroundings with sweet fragrance. Bring your camera, too, and capture endless rows of purple hues. A particularly great time to visit is in July during the farm’s annual Harvest Festival.
Beyond appealing to the visual and olfactory senses, Pelindaba Lavender also pleases the palate with a delightful and unexpected culinary line: lavender pepper, lavender honey, lavender sugar, and lavender herbal vinegars, from which a variety of appetizers, sweets, teas, and other foods can be made. Cookbooks are offered for sale, and if you’re lucky, samples of Pelindaba’s homemade lavender biscotti will be available when you stop by. Even if you’re not a shopper, Pelindaba Lavender is an unusual place in a beautiful setting and is definitely worth a stop.
For more information about Pelindaba Lavender, call (866) 819-1911 or visit www.pelindaba.com.
Another must-see spot on San Juan Island is Roche Harbor Resort, which lies at the north end of the isle. The resort is on the former site of the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company. Filled with quaint country charm, it’s a tiny, self-contained village complete with a historic hotel, formal Victorian gardens, a fine dining restaurant, a casual café, a full-service marina, a seaplane base, an airstrip, a grocery store, and small boutiques. Kayaking and whale-watching boat tours leave right from the docks.
Roche Harbor started as a company town around 1886 when John McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, turned the largest deposit of lime in the Northwest into a large-scale business. McMillin built the 22-room Hotel de Haro, and within a few years a well-established town grew around the magnificent hotel, complete with a modern lime factory, a barrel works, a warehouse, docks, ships, piers, offices, a company store, a church, a school, and homes for workers and their families. At its peak, Roche Harbor was home to about 800 residents.
Eventually the lime works closed and the full-scale town was dismantled, but Hotel de Haro continued to provide casual elegance for vacationers, and the marina became a popular destination for boating families. Take a peek at the hotel registration book in the lobby — it contains the signature of President Theodore Roosevelt, a guest of John McMillin in 1906.
Roche Harbor’s fantastic formal gardens make an unbeatable backdrop for weddings. But even if it’s not a special occasion when you visit, take a stroll and enjoy the myriad fragrances and color. The hanging baskets attract every hummingbird within flying range.
Although the resort is not pretentious, it very much stands on ceremony. Each evening at sunset the “Retirement of the Colors” dazzles visitors, whether they are seeing it for the first time or the 10th. The non-military observance is taken very seriously by resort employees and has been a tradition at Roche Harbor since 1957. It can be viewed and heard (especially the booming cannon) from almost anywhere on the grounds. For more information about the resort, call (800) 451-8910 or visit www.rocheharbor.com.
Just across the road from Roche Harbor is an outdoor art museum filled with more than 100 sculptures by noted Pacific Northwest artists. You’ll find works in bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass, and ceramic scattered across the 19-acre site. Even without the artwork, Westcott Bay Reserve is a tranquil retreat. Situated on the edge of a pond, it showcases San Juan Island’s ecology: forests, meadows, freshwater wetlands, saltwater wetlands, and rocky outcroppings. Especially in the cooler evenings, it’s a great place to observe deer.
You can take a virtual tour of the preserve by visiting www.wbay.org. Admission is by contribution, and the reserve is open from dawn to dusk.
From the first scenic ferry trip to the last rays of an evening sunset, a visit to the forested San Juan Islands is like a breath of fresh air. You’ll want to inhale deeply and often!
State Ferries To The Islands
To reach the San Juan Islands, you’ll need to travel aboard a Washington State ferry that leaves from the city of Anacortes. Anacortes is approximately 85 miles north of Seattle and 85 miles south of Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
Ferry fees are based on your motorhome length; if you tow a car, the fee is based on the combined length of both vehicles. Check the fee schedule against your situation, as it may be more cost-effective to unhitch the towed car, and it may not. Fees can range well above $100 for the round trip. As noted in the article, it is less expensive for those who want to see all islands to travel to San Juan Island, the farthest point, and then visit the other islands on the return trip.
Separate fees are charged for passengers. A senior discount is applied to the passenger fee, but not to the vehicle fee.
Rates vary depending on peak/non-peak seasons (non-peak season starts the second Sunday in October and goes through April 30). Fares also are less expensive if you travel between Sunday and Tuesday. Although several sailings are scheduled daily, you’ll want to arrive plenty early to ensure your place in line, especially on summer weekends. The wait can be long.
For more information, contact:
Washington State Ferries
2901 Third Ave., Suite 500
Seattle, WA 98121-3014
From within Washington, phone (888) 808-7977
For recorded schedule, from within Washington: (800) 843-3779
From outside Washington: (206) 464-6400
San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 1330
Friday Harbor, WA 98250
Camping is a popular pastime on all the islands, and reservations are recommended. For campground listings, use the information sources above, your campground directory, or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at FMCA.com. It’s also possible to use RV parks in the Anacortes area and tour the islands by towed car.