Inspiration

The San Juan Islands: how to hike, bike, and live the island life

A few months ago I had the chance to spend a few days in the middle of the week, in early April, exploring the San Juan Islands in Washington. We went without a set plan in mind and in the middle of the off-season, two things I don’t usually do, and it was fantastic.  I learned that if you show up to a tourist destination when its least expected, the so-called off season, you can expect: No lines, no crowds, cheap(er..) prices, and delightful moments when everyone assumes you’re a local too or at least doesn’t treat you like a tourist, because really who else would be touring on a rainy Wednesday in April? I also learned that sometimes (especially when you have time to spare) no plan is the way to go, in fact our trip was so fun, that’d I’d like to recommend our itinerary as a great way to see the highlights of the main islands (even though this in fact violates the spirit of not planning)… here’s how to visit the San Juan Islands:

View on the drive down from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.

View on the drive down from Mount Constitution on Orcas Island.

Well, first a disclaimer, if you know nothing about the San Juan Islands, start by erasing that image of an “island vacation,” from your mind. This beautiful archipelago in northern Washington, just across the way from Canada, is known for spectacular landscapes, rolling tree-covered hills, rocky shorelines, deep blue waters brimming with sea life, and a handful of the cutest, quaintest, quirkiest little towns you might ever see, but the San Juans are not where you go for an island vacation. Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, the San Juans usually serves up chilly, overcast, drippy, gray, layer-wearing-worthy days. But, like most of the Pacific Northwest, even in the crappiest of conditions, this beautiful place will blow you away. Without further rambling, here’s how you do 4 days in the San Juans:

Pre-trip:

  • Book a room on one of the more populated islands, Orcas or San Juan Island, preferably on Orcas where the villages are cuter, there are more hiking routes, and more sweet ladies willing to rent you a house on AirBnB complete with fuzzy tabby cat host, for just $70 a night.

    IMG_4877

    The Rose Cottage on Orcas Island is the best rental for your buck and in a great location just a few minutes from East Sound and steps to the beach.

Day 1: Anacortes to Orcas Island

  • Drive to Anacortes just in time to grab Chinese food, race to the ferry landing, gorge yourself on Chinese food, and wait in line in your car for an hour to catch your ferry to the islands.

    Heading out to Orcas Island past smaller uninhabited islands.

    Heading out to Orcas Island past smaller uninhabited islands.

  • Arrive on Orcas Island, drive your car about 20 minutes over rolling hills past farm houses, each with its own pond and dock and boat, to arrive in East Sound.
  • Slow down through this pretty little island village, check out visiting hippy farmers (WWOOFers) and regular island farmers mingling outside the bar before proceeding to your private studio apartment overlooking the sea.
  • Grab a nightcap just down the street at brand new brewery Island Hopping Brewery, so far the first in the San Juans.

Day 2: Lopez Island

  • Quick the sun is up (if no sun, which is highly likely, proceed to day 3 itinerary and try day 2 again tomorrow), throw your bike in the car and head to the ferry landing to catch the next boat to Lopez Island.
  • Board the ferry with just your bikes because Lopez is the “flattest” island and small enough to be explored in one day. While on ferry, check out the awesome views.
  • Arrive on Lopez, put your pedal to the metal, and by this I mean pedal really hard, because it’s gonna be 10 minutes of grueling hill climbing. Reach the top of the hill and enjoy the now easy-biking past wide open farm lands, Lopez Island Vineyards, and don’t forget to wave at every car that passes because they’ll be waving at you, it’s island tradition.

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    Fairly flat Lopez Island, a few hills but overall the best one for a bike ride.

  • Twenty minutes from the ferry roll into Lopez Village, stick your head in Just Heavenly Fudge Factory and try not to inhale. Leave fudge shop in shame 20 minutes later, toting a backpack of fudge.
  • Bike through the village, grab a cup of coffee at Café La Boheme where they’re whipping up the organic treats of the day from locally grown veggies, then head east.
  • After about 15 minutes of rolling small hills arrive at Spencer Spit State Park. Ditch your bike and take the trail down to the beach. Take pictures,  observe but don’t wander into the off-bounds wetlands, then head to the picnic tables at the end of the spit (a spit is basically a long strip of sand sticking out into the water) to enjoy a morning snack.

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    Spencer Spit State Park, looking over the wetlands and towards neighboring unnamed island.

  • Hop back on bikes and head into town, don’t forget to wave to those drivers, they’re waving to you (…it’s island tradition…) so you don’t want to be rude, arrive back in town.
  • It’s raining, lunchtime. Feed gluttonous appetite at one of several yummy restaurants, the Bay Café and Galley Restaurant and Lounge have served me good grub and northwest brews both times I’ve visited.
  • Pedal fast to catch the ferry, around 3 or you’ll be waiting for a bit. (Perhaps you should’ve planned more… definitely check the ferry schedule before leaving your “home island.”
  • Safely back on Orcas, start driving over the hill and through the woods to Moran State Park.
  • Snap picture of cool entrance sign to park.

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    Yes, we pulled over to take this picture.

  • Pose for a pic at Cascade Lake.

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    Cascade Lake

  • Begin  your ascent (by car! Bike should be stowed away in car by now) up the hill to Mount Constitution, about 10 minutes away.
  • Arrive at the top, enjoy views from Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans. Check out massive Lummi Island to your left (It’s actually not one of the San Juans, don’t know why but it doesn’t seem fair) and see if you can see Canada straight ahead.

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    Posing while facing the wrong direction..whoops! This is the view from Mount Constitution

  • Head back to your humble abode and get some rest.

Day 3: Obstruction Pass and Eastsound on Orcas Island

  • Hop in the car and drive south on pretty much the only road there is until you arrive at Rosario Resort and Marina. Snap pics of the historic resort, views of the bay, and check out (but don’t feed) the resident deer (there’s a lot and they are VERY friendly).
  • Back in your vehicle, continue to the small village of Olga, slow to see the picturesque views along the waterfront, and then continue on your way to Obstruction Pass.
  • Park at Obstruction Pass and choose between the half-mile hike out to the beach, or the slightly longer Sound View hike, and enjoy the views of the other half of Orcas Island to the north and out across the sound.

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    View from the trail overlooking Obstruction Pass

  • Drive back to the center of the island and cop a squat on Crescent Beach where Ship Bay curves in toward the road and you can enjoy looking out towards the other islands and at the two “saddlebag” sides of Orcas Island while eating your crackers and cheese.

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    Crescent Beach in the center of Orcas Island

  • When you’re too full to move, return to your car and continue a few minutes into the heart of Eastsound, window shop at art galleries, quirky boutique shops, and spend at least 30 minutes browsing the handmade crafts at several garden stores.
  • Kill time at the Lower Tavern, the diviest, least cutesy, artsy, or eclectic place in town and chat with a few locals, soak in the friendly-neighborhood-bar atmosphere, and if you skipped out on your picnic grab a bite because you’re at the place that many locals consider the ONLY place on the island that is both cheap and good.
  • Turn in at your island home, curl up with the resident feline, and call it a night.

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    Zumi, resident feline host of the Rose Cottage

Day 4: Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and the beach

  • Get up when you feel like it (you’re on an island vacation after all) and drive the car to the ferry landing to hop a ferry to San Juan Island.
  • 1 hour later (San Juan is the furthest of the islands from mainland and from Orcas Island) arrive on San Juan and enjoy stepping into a cute walkable port town, Friday Harbor, San Juan’s largest “village.”

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    Revealing my true identity as a tourist… I had to pose with the giant whale fin! And don’t be deterred by the gray skies, this is the northwest! You know it will be sunny in just a few minutes anyway.

  • Stop in at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to learn about what the organization is doing to protect marine life and they’re involvement in the Animal Planet show Whale Wars.
  • Browse art galleries, antique stores, and garden shops.
  • Spend a few minutes (say 60?) at the Hot Shop, tasting hot sauces and all things spicy (mustards, salsas, Bloody Mary mixes, salts, etc.) and buy a few bottles to take home.
  • Decide not to decide between pizza and Chinese and get them both at the restaurant that has somehow read your mind, and enjoy a relaxing lunch and escape from the rain (Assuming it’s raining, which is a good assumption…)
  • Head back towards the ferry landing but stop in at the  Island Wine Company for a wine tasting from San Juan Cellars (If you don’t bring your car which might be recommended if you want to visit the tasting room and vineyard at San Juan Vineyards.
  • Board the ferry and head back to Orcas.
  • Back on Orcas, spend your final evening wandering on the beach. Look for wildlife, snap photos, and say “oooh” and “ahhh” when you see passing dall’s porpoises, harbor seals, and bald eagles.

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    One of many harbor seals I scared away in my excitement by over zealously pointing at them…

  • Leave the beach after the sun sets and enjoy your last night on the island.

    Still looking for porpoises.... or dolphins?

    Still looking for porpoises…. or dolphins?

Post-trip:

  • Stop by Deception Pass Bridge on your way home, about 30 minutes from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal and prepare for some jaw dropping.

    This view makes the 30-minute detour worth it.

    This view makes the 30-minute detour to the Deception Pass Bridge worth it.

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