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The San Juan Islands - by Sailboat

By Edited Dec 20, 2013 5 11

The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the Salish Sea, nestled between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Strait of Georgia.  The islands represent the peaks of a submerged mountain range connecting Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada and the northwest corner of the US mainland.  While four islands can be accessed by ferry – Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan - to really see the area you need a boat.

Catalina 36
Credit: JestMe

San Juan Island

Friday Harbor

We set off from Port Townsend early in morning to catch the wind across the Salish sea/Puget Sound and entered into Friday Harbor in time for breakfast.  [1][2]

A tiny town of around 2000, Friday Harbor is also a bustling ferry port, with Washington State Ferries that will take you to Anacortes, WA, or Sidney, BC. A small, but expensive grocery store within walking distance of the docks can supply you for lunch, but a larger grocery store up the hill is a more affordable option for supplying your trip.  You’ll need to ask for directions, as we saw no signs indicating that this large brick building is a store.

A quick walk-around will show you most of the town, which was delightfully quiet in early April.  Check out the coffee shop across from the ferry dock for free wi-fi.


Friday Harbor in the fog
Credit: JestMe

Orcas Island

Deer Harbor

Deer Harbor was our next port-of-call.  It’s very rocky so we motored, rather than sailed.  This is a tiny little harbor on Orcas Island[3] with some private houses, giant hotels, and not much else.  It is a very peaceful spot to anchor for the night and watch the eagles with their lazy spiral over the hills, looking for dinner.  Have your own dinner on deck while the sun goes down.

Sunset in The San Juans
Credit: JestMe


Eastsound, Orcas Island, is a very pleasant place to spend a couple days.  There is a city dock that you can tie up to for 24 hours, and a nice grocery store just a short walk into town.  This is the second largest community in the San Juans, and the largest on Orcas Island.  The downtown area is beautiful, with several benches placed at prime spots to watch the tide roll in and out.   A small museum looked promising, but there is history scattered throughout the town, so feel free to keep walking.
Orcas Island has a landing strip, and your fellow travelers using the free wi-fi in the coffee shop may have flown to the island on their private plane.  Before you leave the dock, walk the trail to the point (turn right at the dock parking lot instead of left for town). This area is the property of the Lummi Nation, but an islander assured us that walking the trail is fine as long as you respect the land.  

House of Worship, Eastsound, Orcas Island
Credit: JestMe

Marine State Parks

Clark Island, Matia Island, Sucia Island, Stuart Island

Clark Island is a Marine State Park[4] with primitive campsites and no dock.  You can anchor for free, or tie up at a mooring buoy and pay the park service fee.  At 55 acres, Clark Island is small with easy hiking.  No potties or water. In April it was empty of people and full of wildlife. Be careful of the submerged rocks when pulling in to the harbor.

Matia Island (pronounced Ma-TEE-ah, although you will hear MAY-sha) is both a wildlife refuge and a Marine State Park meaning no pets, wood collecting or campfires.  Access is restricted to the Wilderness Loop Trail for hiking and the campground for overnight stays. Moorage is limited to three nights with limited space; pay your fee at the sign on shore. Don't forget to bring your water with you.

Sucia Island is another Marine State Park with several bays that provide good anchorage, for-fee mooring buoys and dock tie-up in Fossil Bay.  Shallow Bay, Echo Bay and Ewing Cove have pebble beaches that you can drag your dinghy up onto.  Be sure to tie it to driftwood, or some other permanent structure to keep your ride back to the boat from floating away on the tide.

A large camping site, covered picnic tables and composting toilets make this a great island for meetups and leisurely lunches.  Water may not be turned on if you’re there out of season; always bring your own ashore until you know.  There are many hiking trails crisscrossing Sucia Island, most with good signage and difficulty indicators.  Sign boards at the main landing areas have maps that indicate difficulty and length of trails.  You could spend several days here.  Be sure to take your trash with you when you leave.

Stuart Island has both private residences and is a State Marine Park.  Reid Harbor and Prevost Harbor have access to potties and water, but be prepared for seasonal closures.  The permanent population of about 15 must fly, or boat to nearby Orcas to get supplies; please don't expect them to haul your trash out too.  Be mindful of trespassing while hiking out to Turn Point Light Station and the one room schoolhouse, both of which are worth the journey. It's a tough hike from the harbors, but you can make it considerably easier by taking your dinghy to the dock down the road from the farm (it'll make sense when you see it).  The road you'll walk up from the dock leads to the landing strip. 

The lighthouse steps (the buildings may be closed) are a great place to stop for lunch, and don’t miss the museum on the school grounds (free and always open).  Find the picture of the current class; when I was there, the wall proudly displayed the most recent graduates – both of them.

Matia Island, San Juans
Credit: JestMe

Cell phone reception around the western islands may be non-existent, or through Canadian carriers.  If you’re sailing around these islands, especially Stuart, be careful not to cross the boundary into Canadian waters – you will be stopped.  Please don’t leave your garbage on the State Park Islands, and do the wildlife a favor, pick up anyone else’s garbage you find.

San Juan Island

Roche Harbor

Finally, Roche Harbor (pronounced like roach) at the top of San Juan Island is a very picturesque, walkable town. For new arrivals from Canada, Roche Harbor is a port of entry, and you can check into customs here.  If there there are no agents on duty you’ll need to call them, but don’t even consider skipping this step – there are US and Canadian border patrol boats throughout the waterways.

Ask at the Hotel de Haro for a walking map, and if you can use their free wi-fi in the lobby.  If you walk up to the mausoleum, take the path through the old cemetery on the hill and wonder about the lives of the people who are now only remembered by a fading stone, or a circle of overgrown rocks.  The entrance to the cemetery is on the right, just after you take the left fork of the road.  Tramp through the old lime quarries and find the section of the bay where they dumped the waste.

Church in Roche Harbor, San Juan Island
Credit: JestMe

That’s our quick tour of the San Juan Islands.  If you don’t have a boat, or friends with a boat, check out your chartering option in Bellingham.  Small private companies also offer extended dinner cruises, whale watching tours, or other water craft activities if you’re only interested in a brief time on the water.  Much of the inner parts of the larger islands can be accessed by bike or moped, which may be rented at the larger ports.  And keep an eye out for the unexpected.

Private beach, Lopez Island, San Juans
Credit: JestMe

The San Juan Islands

Between Victoria, BC and northern Washington State



Feb 11, 2013 12:07pm
Congratulations! A great article with very fine photos. Thumbs up!
Feb 11, 2013 1:00pm
Yay!! Thank you! And the San Juans are beautiful. I highly recommend them as a vacation spot.
Feb 11, 2013 3:14pm
Wow...Great article! It felt like I was there on the boat. Well Done!!
Feb 11, 2013 6:38pm
Great Stuff! Love the last picture lol
Feb 11, 2013 6:46pm
Excellent job you made me wanna go. I also want to buy a boat now, tks.
Great article thumbs up from me.
Feb 11, 2013 11:11pm
Great article make you want to be there and terrific pics too especially the last one. With such good pictures you want to learn how to make extra money using your photos on media.
Feb 12, 2013 4:20pm
I am glad you've all enjoyed the article and although I can't recommend buying a boat, I do encourage to find a friend with a boat -- all the fun without all the stress! :)
Mar 2, 2013 7:55am
That's a huge belly button on that pink bikini lady there.
Mar 2, 2013 9:25am
Yep. She looks as if she's spent a little too much time in the sun, too.
Mar 4, 2013 8:26am
Magnificent photos! And a great sailing destination! I enjoyed the article very much! Thumbs up!
Mar 4, 2013 8:28am
Thank you! The San Juan Islands are beautiful, and even if you're only taking a day trip by ferry, I would highly recommend them.
Aug 8, 2013 11:22am
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  1. "Official Travel Guide." San Juan Islands. 8/04/2013 <Web >
  2. "Travel Guide." Friday Harbor. 8/04/2013 <Web >
  3. "Chamber of Commerce." Orcas Island. 8/04/2013 <Web >
  4. "Marine State Parks." San Juan Islands. 8/04/2013 <Web >

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