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San Juan Island

Hi,

We are planning to visit San Juan Island in Sept for a few days and I’m wondering about the need for a car while there and the logistics of arriving in Seattle and taking the ferry from Anacortes.

We will be flying in from Toronto and Seattle seems like a better option than Abbotsford BC (no shuttle, have to cross the border) or Bellingham ($$$$).

I am debating renting a car when we land vs taking the shuttle but it seems like getting on the ferry with a car is much more of a process than going over as a pedestrian.

If we need a car on the island then it makes the decision easy. Thinking to spend 2 days there essentially to see the orcas, so biking or renting a moped could work just as well.

I wish there was a ferry from Seattle to San Juan!

Thanks very much.

Posted by
564 posts

We visited the San Juan Islands last August and I'm glad we rented a car. Without one, we would have been limited to Friday harbor and it would have been harder if not impossible to see the sights on the other side of the island and to go a free Shakespeare performance on a farm outside of town. Sure, you could stay a local hotel in Friday harbor and eat at the local restaurants and take a whale watching tour all from Friday harbor without a car. But a car opened up the rest of the island to us, and since you will only be there a few days, a car gives you more choices
Wife and I flew into Seattle and arrived by 10 am. Got rental car and drove to Anacortes, which took about 2 hours. You will need to book your ferry ticket ride in advance or risk not getting you and your car on the ferry. Got in the ferry line. Locked car and went to find something to eat and visited the nearby beach. Ferry left around 4:45 and we arrived in Friday harbor at 6 pm.
Once at Friday harbor, we stayed in the Trumpeter Inn B&B. I recommend this place, it's outside the town, so a car was essential.
One night we had dinner at a very nice restaurant called Duck Soup. It was also outside of town, so a car was essential
With a car we were able to drive to Roche harbor, see the sculpture garden, visit San Juan Island National Historic Park, English Camp, Lime Kiln State park, the Pelinda Lavender Farm and American Camp, San Juan Island National Historical park in one day.
While there, we attended a FREE Shakespeare performance on Wold Road, which is on a farm in the middle of nowhere, so you will need a car. The performance was excellent.
You also have to book the ferry ticket ride back to Anacortes. We got the 10 am ferry back.
I recommend renting a car.

Posted by
7465 posts

There’s the Victoria Clipper that goes from Seattle to Victoria, B.C. It’s just for passengers and takes about three hours. Then after visiting Victoria, you could take the ferry through the San Juan Islands.

It still would be easier to get around with a rental car, but this is an option.

We lived near Seattle for 30 years and would take the car ferry from Anacortes through the San Juans and over to Victoria. But one time my cousin from New York was vacationing in the San Juans, and they had us join them. They rented a large sailboat, and we met them without our car. We all rented bikes on one of the islands.

Posted by
118 posts

Definitely take a car - and it really is not difficult to take a car on the ferry. As mentioned, book a time in advance, pull up in ferry lane, lock car and enjoy walking around beach until time to load. Once on San Juan, you'll be so happy to have a car. It's been a few years, but you can stop into the whale museum in Friday Harbor and hear about sightings and then drive to places where you might see the orcas on the move. They were very good at predicting when/where they might be seen. I ended up driving to a spot they said to check out and a whale specialist was there and told us where they were last seen and that it could be 1 hr before coming that way. So, I drove to a scenic overlook spot to have a snack and in about 1/2 hour, a group of about 20 orcas (with babies) swam by and did some spyhopping right in front of me (I was above on land but they were not far out in the water). It was the most fantastic thing. It's a beautiful island to drive around and you could also plan to take a day trip on the ferry to Orcas Island which is my favorite. Drive up the mountain on Orcas on a nice day for great views. I also took a whale tour from Orcas and it was a great trip - seeing some gray whales, sea lions, etc. So a car is well worth it - and all the islands are wonderful to explore.

Posted by
11529 posts

https://wsdot.wa.gov/travel/washington-state-ferries

WSDOT has no service to BC.

For service Port Angeles- Victoria, this is the choice-- https://www.cohoferry.com/schedule-fares

We lived near Seattle for 30 years and would take the car ferry from Anacortes through the San Juans and over to Victoria

Please be advised that international service to and from Sidney, B.C. is out of service until at least Spring 2030 due to vessel availability constraints. ( from the first above link)

With the state of decay in the boats and crewing issues, say your prayers there is a boat running when you want/need it to get from Anacortes to the Islands and back

I wish there was a ferry from Seattle to San Juan!

Ain't gonna happen in this century

Posted by
6670 posts

Victoria's a fine destination but not on any reasonable route between Seattle and San Juan Island, especially with the Sidney ferry service gone.

Here's what the visitor bureau has to say about transportation on San Juan Island if you don't have your own car. Renting one at Friday Harbor would maximize your flexibility. I think there are local buses, and certainly taxis and van tours. To see the orcas, I'd suggest a whale watch out of Friday Harbor or perhaps Edmonds on the mainland. Or Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island. But the orcas who hang out around there are down to about 70 and the outlook isn't good, so the chances of seeing one or a few might be less than you think.

Posted by
8651 posts

I just wanted to really clarify the purpose of your trip. If your sole purpose is to see Orcas, you may want to rethink your strategy and take a whale watching excursion instead. If it visiting the San Juans and exploring the island is top priority , than I would rent a car and make ferry reservations.

Posted by
355 posts

Thanks everyone for your input.

Derek, thanks for sharing your experience with taking a car over (and restaurant suggestions). I wasn’t aware that we could leave it on the dock before boarding. I am still working on the itinerary of what we’d do on the Island aside from whale watching and think having a car would be necessary for some things. I plan to stay at either Bird Rock Hotel or Earth Box Inn in Friday Harbour and while I would be happy to cycle everywhere, the daughter that I will be travelling with would not.

Jean, I read that the Clipper used to go right from Seattle to San Juan and would think that would be a popular route so not sure why it was cancelled.

Connie, thanks for the tip about the whale museum in terms of knowing where to spot the orcas after. How lucky you were to witness such an amazing sight! I am following a group on FB related to sightings on San Juan in preparation as well. I would love to visit Orcas Island while there but this is just the start of a longer trip so we won’t have time.

Dick, thanks for that link to the info about transportation on the island. If we opt not to take a car, renting a moped from Suzie’s is the plan. Never driven one but it looks like a lot of fun. Re: the whales, my understanding is that the residents are few and far between but the transients are more commonly seen and increasing in number, if only slightly. The FB group mentioned above seems to report sightings on a regular basis.

Carol, whale watching is the primary reason for this trip but, in reading about the island it has become a destination in and of itself that we’d like to visit. Seems very unique. I take each of my daughters on a mother-daughter trip when they turn 30 and this trip will be with my baby who has been fascinated by orcas all her life so San Juan Island seems to be the place to see them.

Posted by
8651 posts

If seeing Orcas is a priority, don’t count on being able to see them from shore. Make sure that you sign up for a whale excursion as well. I have to say that I felt the whale museum was a major disappointment, but that was 10 years ago. I’ve been to San Juan several times since but always avoid the whale museum as the memory of that other visit lingers.

Posted by
6670 posts

I was at the Whale Museum in Friday Harbor a few years ago and I liked it. Pretty low-tech and small compared to a big city natural history museum or a big aquarium, but interesting exhibits and a local focus. Also a good source of current info on where whales are.

Bxrlover, here's a link to current whale sightings in Puget Sound and northern waters. If you save this now and put it on your phone when you start your trip, you may find it useful. And you're right, the transient pods are healthier and more numerous, but may be harder to find because they're ... transient.

Posted by
564 posts

Here's the whale watching company we used. They were good and we liked them. There are other boat companies that are probably just as good also. We chose this one because the boat size was bigger, had an inside area, in case we got cold- and we did. They had a naturalist? on board who imparted great information about the whales and they had their own photographer with a great camera and lens who shared all their great close up pictures with the passengers via a website link after the trip.
https://www.watchwhales.com/_whale_watching_tours.html
As for seeing whales, they go out into the strait, (sometimes in the Canadian side of the strait) and all the boat companies share their information by radio. So if one boat company spots a whale or pod of whales, all the other boat companies know and all the boat companies converge on the area.

As for leaving the car at Anacortes, I don't see the point. If you rent a car at the airport and leave it at Anacortes, you are paying for day that the car sits in Anacortes. Take the rental car on the ferry over to Friday harbor. It's really a unique experience (at least for us, we don't have car ferries where we live in California) and it couldn't be easier.

I suppose you could moped, but it's not a small island, and using a moped will take time, and on the back country roads, there is no shoulder.

Of course, if you don't think you will leave Friday harbor, then a car isn't needed. But you would be missing seeing some of the things worth seeing on San Juan Island.

Posted by
118 posts

I forgot to mention that I also did a whale watching cruise out of Anacortes in 2021 and saw orca whales as well as a humpback on the tour. So, orcas can be found throughout the area. On San Juan, I saw them from land as there are places where it is deep right up to the island, so the whales get closer than you might think. I didn’t need binoculars when the small pod swam past my snack stop! So you don’t necessarily need to plan a boat tour, but that is another way to get to where they are being spotted. The whale museum is nothing special, IMO, other than getting the news about where the sightings are that day. I hope you get to see them.

Posted by
8651 posts

Don’t count on Orcas swimming by at the moment you are there if seeing them is a priority. Do the whale excursion.

Posted by
118 posts

Carol - I was just pointing out that you can see the whales from shore IF you know where to look (and when). I had the information from the whale watching team on when and where they were expecting the whales to be. Their information also comes from the boats in the water so is current for that day/time. With their information in hand, I was strategic about where I was going. I wasn't expecting them to swim by right when I was snacking as I was thinking about moving to a different spot that was mentioned by the whale watchers. The whales did swim past that other spot as well as I went there after seeing them and people at the new location said they also saw orcas. Yes, boat tours are a great way to see many marine animals - but not the only way (as sometimes the boats don't find the orcas the day you are on the tour). If staying at San Juan a couple days then maybe do a boat tour one day and gather information about places you might see them from land on another day. I remember another time seeing some orcas from the ferry - so there are many ways to try and experience orcas in the San Juans.