An Island Getaway Close to Seattle

Set your watch for island time, and prepare to explore the San Juan Island archipelago, consisting of more than 172 islands, 4 of which - San Juan, Orcas, Shaw, and Lopez - are conveniently served by the WA state ferry system (ensuring a trip with minimal drive time but lots of ferry time!). 

So, take a deep breath, relax, and remember, this itinerary provides suggestions, but you could certainly elect to spend more time on certain islands, or even pick one island and spend your whole week there.  You can also reverse directions!  

But first, some tips about the WA state ferry system:  

It’s ideal to make a reservation for your departing and returning ferries.

  • Reservations are released in batches, with the first ones being released 2 months prior to the travel date. Additional reservations are released 2 weeks and also 2 days prior to the travel date.

  • It is free to make a reservation, although you need to provide a credit card and will be charged a $10 no-show fee if you do not show up for your reservation.

  • Find our more! Get information about reservations and the ferry schedule for the San Juan Islands.

This itinerary starts with the westernmost island, and then island hops east back to the mainland. Ferry customers are charged for westbound travel only, so if you elect to only visit certain islands out of the 4, we recommend starting with the island that is the furthest west and working back to the mainland from there.

Day 1:  Seattle to Anacortes to San Juan Island (86 miles, 3.5 hours, including 1 hour on the ferry)

Set your clock to Island time and head north to Anacortes, and catch your first ferry to the islands.

If you have a reservation (see above), plan to arrive about an hour ahead of your scheduled departure. This will give you plenty of time to get through the toll booth to find your spot in line, while hopefully enjoying some delicious snacks.  If you don't have a reservation, don't worry but plan on a long wait in the summer.  Like hours possibly.  But - you're in a VW Camper Van, also known as "the greatest ferry waiting vehicle ever created".  

If you have time, consider stopping at the wonderful Skagit Valley Co-Op in Mt. Vernon.  It'll be an hour+ to get through Mt. Vernon and shop, so don't cut it too tight if you have a ferry to make.

Detour! Be a van pro and pick up some eats for while you’re waiting for the ferry. If you’re traveling in the morning, swing by the Calico Cupboard for the cinnamon rolls and pecan rolls. If it’s lunch you’re after, don’t miss Gere-a-Deli for great sandwiches and brownies.

Once settled on the ferry, it’s about a one-hour sailing time from the mainland to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Take a moment after disembarking from the ferry to explore town - park the van and set out on foot. Friday Harbor is the largest town on the islands, so if you still need to stock up on provisions, you might check out the local food co-op or Market Chef, which is a prepared food haven. If you arrive on a Saturday, don’t miss the farmer’s market in town (10am-1pm). King’s also has food, but even better - check out the upstairs for great outdoor clothing and sporting goods. Fret not, if your sweet tooth and need for caffeine are kicking in, Friday Harbor also has lots of choices for coffee and ice cream.

Once you’ve conquered town, drive across the island toward your camp at San Juan County Park, about a 20-minute, 10 mile drive. The San Juan County Park campground has water and flush toilets, and reservations are recommended, especially in the summer. Explore the rocky bluffs and the coastal beaches, and you might even spot a sea lion or a whale off the coast.

Day 2:  San Juan Island (choose your own adventure)

Did you know San Juan Island is further north than Victoria, Canada? It’s true!

In 1846, a treaty was signed between the United States and Great Britain, designating the 49th parallel through the middle of the channel as the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. There was a dispute, though, over which channel the treaty referred to, and the San Juan Islands were stuck in the middle. Troops from both British and American forces had camps on San Juan Island, and you can visit the remnants today. History buff? Read more about the history of the San Juan Islands.

Beyond the history, there is so much to do on San Juan Island, you’ll have plenty to to pick and choose from. Here are some ideas, set in a big circle around the island, starting from your campsite. Notice the difference in terrain from the eastern to western sides of the island - the western coast is home to some of the only prairie grassland habitat in Washington.

  • Skip the crowded whale watching boat and instead head to Lime Kiln State Park. Pack and picnic and find a spot of the rocky bluff. Be patient, and you just might see orcas passing through (pro tip - watch for the whale watching boats - if you see them clustered together, there are sure to be orcas nearby).

  • Who doesn’t love lavender? Check out the Pelindaba Lavender farm where you can see tour fields of the purple stalks and visit the farm shop for gifts to bring home.

  • On the other side of the island, check out historic Roche Harbor. Grab a snack at the restaurant on the dock and stroll through the marina, imaging which boat you’ll sail away in. If you need a shower, there are free public showers right at the dock.

  • While in the area, don’t miss the San Juan Island Distillery, where they have 12 (!) different gins and a variety of liqueurs. Tastings are open every Saturday and Sunday from 1-4pm, or by appointment.

  • More into wine? No problem! Head over to San Juan Vineyards, where you can check out the vineyard and visit the tasting room. Grab a bottle (or two!) for the van.  

Tired from all the touring, and don’t feel like cooking dinner? Find your way to the Backdoor Kitchen. Located behind the Friday Harbor freight yard, it’s a favorite spot among the local crowd. Order a cocktail and then go on an international culinary tour, as their menu features tastes from all over the world.

The islands don't have endless camping opportunities, but there are some.  On San Juan Island try:

 

Day 3:  Friday Harbor to Orcas (25 miles, 1 hour, including 30 minutes on the ferry)

Onward! Next up: Orcas. Head back to Friday Harbor, get yourself parked in the ferry line, and grab a cuppa joe at The Bean, right next door. When you arrive on Orcas, don’t be alarmed - the ferry terminal is a bit in the middle of nowhere. After disembarking, head toward Eastsound, the main town on this island.

Detour! Interested in comparing wine as your travels take you from island to island? Make a stop off at Orcas Island Winery on the way into Eastsound.

Once in town, if you need additional provisions, check out the local co-op. If you’re lucky enough to be on Orcas on a Saturday, don’t miss the farmers market (11am-2pm)!  There is a larger grocery store right near the Co-Op.

Hungry? Local favorites abound in Eastsound. Olga’s serves up a tasty breakfast - try one of their baked egg dishes. Head to The Kitchen, where you can build your own rice or broth bowl. Swing by Brown Bear Baking to pick up bread for sandwiches or a nice crusty loaf to enjoy with dinner, and grab some yummy treats while you’re there. Just around the corner from town is Island Hoppin’ Brewery - it’s definitely worth a visit to these local guys to enjoy some of their tasty brews.

While you’re wandering through town, don’t miss Darvill’s Book Store - this is one of the best used book stores anywhere, not just on the islands. Ask for a suggestion! They also have a great collection of kids books. Next door is Crow Valley Pottery, where they feature more than 100 different artists, including many pieces inspired by Northwest culture and wildlife.

Finally, when you’re ready to set up camp, roll into Moran State Park (reservations are recommended, especially in the summer). This is a large campground on a lake, and there are primitive toilets available. Explore a little on the loop hike around the lake, and your walk might reward you with a choice swimming spot or two.

If you weren't able to score a site at Moran (not unusual), check out Doe Bay, just at the other end of Moran State Park.  It's got a wonderful restaurant, nice grounds, and some beautiful soaking hot tubs (clothing optional, FYI).  They often impose a two night minimum in the summer, but it's not a bad place to call home for two nights although a bit pricier than a normal campground.

Day 4:  Orcas (choose your own adventure)

While on Orcas, don’t miss Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands at 2,409 feet. You can hike from the bottom, drive partway up and hike from there, or drive the whole way (yep, you read that right - there’s a road to the top). However you get there, from the summit you’ll have 360-degree views of the islands, Vancouver, Canada, Washington’s Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, and the mainland.

Detour! While you’re out, it’s worth a stop at Buck Bay Shellfish to grab some locally caught oysters, crab, or fish for dinner. These locals are friendly and will be glad to help you make your selections.

Looking for extra adventure? Magic Air has been offering scenic bi-plane rides on Orcas since 1991. It’s a pricey outing, but worth every penny to see the San Juan islands from the air. While you’re up there, you might even spot orca whales swimming in the water below.

Who says you need to eat in the van every night? Head to Eastsound and grab a cocktail at the Barnacle Bar, then head over to New Leaf Cafe for some unpretentious fine dining.

Day 5:  Orcas to Lopez (20 miles, 1 hour, including a short ferry)

Find your way back to the Orcas ferry terminal and set sail for Lopez Island. Incidentally, if the mood strikes, you could stop off on Shaw island and explore for the day, or even stay overnight at the County park. Make sure you are well-provisioned though, because Shaw is the smallest of the San Juan Islands, and other than a small grocery store at the ferry landing, there are no commercial amenities.

If you’ve made a stop off at Shaw, continue on the ferry to Slow-Pez, ahem, Lopez Island. Locals call it ‘Slow-pez’ as it’s the very essence of island time - laid back and friendly. From the ferry, drive 4 miles into town and window shop, browse the galleries, or grab a cup of coffee. A neighborhood favorite is Caffe la Boheme. If you find yourself on Lopez Island on a Saturday, be sure to check out the farmers’ market (10am-2pm), which features local farms and artisans. Oh, and if you need a shower, there a public showers available in town.

The San Juan Islands are known for being quite hilly, but the terrain on Lopez is a bit more gentle, making it great for riding bikes. If you’re feeling adventurous, stop by Village Cycles to pick up rentals for the day. Make sure to swing by Shark Reef Sanctuary during your ride, where you’ll be treated to spectacular views and are likely to spot seals.

A few miles from town, set up camp at Spencer Spit state park. Explore the sand spit around saltwater lagoon, or try to catch your dinner by doing some crabbing. Didn’t catch any crab? Head over to Jones Family Farms for oysters and whatever other seafood strikes your fancy.

Day 6:  Lopez (choose your own adventure)

Today is all about the water! While you absolutely could kayak on San Juan or Orcas Island, it’s worth waiting to do it on Lopez. Lopez Island Sea Kayaks has one of the best launches in the islands, and they’ll set you up with everything you need for a great (and safe) time on the water.

There are only a few camping options on Lopez.  Spencer Spit is a lovely little park, but there's only three spots suitable for vans.  Lopez Farm Cottages and Tent Camping is another beautiful spot, but they don't allow children under 14 so keep that in mind.

Odlin Park is another great spot.  They even specifically call out VW Camper Vans as begin OK for certain sites: "*Small campers, such as VW pop-up campers can fit in any campsites except 1-4 and 25-30. Maximum vehicle size in non-RV sites is 9 feet high by 20 feet long. NO RVs or trailers permitted in campsites 11-30.

While you’re out and about, it’s worth doing a driving loop of Lopez just to take in the sights. Head south toward Mud Bay and take in the farmland scenery, along with the water views. Wave like a local - nearly everyone does - a tradition that dates back to prohibition when locals would wave to indicate the authorities were on the island. Want to continue your comparison of San Juan Island vineyards? Visit Lopez Island Vineyards http://lopezislandvineyards.com and stock up on some bottles to bring home.

Day 7:  Lopez to Seattle (90 miles, 2.5 hours, including 1 hour on the ferry)

Leave yourself plenty of time to return to the ferry terminal, and enjoy the 1 hour-ish sail back to Anacortes. If it’s sunny, head up to the top deck to soak in the rays and reflect on your week. Once back on the mainland, it’s about a 2 hour drive to return to Peace Vans in Seattle - which won’t be nearly enough time to adjust from island time, but it’s a start.