San Juan Islands (and Skagit County Too!) Tour report, Part One: Getting there and San Juan Island

I’ve been wanting to do some touring on the San Juan Islands for quite some time. The San Juans are an island archipelago in Washington State north of Seattle, between Vancouver Island and the mainland, in the meeting spot between Puget Sound, Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan de Fuca. These hilly islands, while touristy, are supposed to offer rustic charms and great views. While I had never set foot on any of the San Juans before this trip, I had been through the San Juans a few times, as the international ferry between Vancouver Island (Sidney BC) to the Washington State Mainland at Anacortes passes through the islands.

The one tantalizing issue with a San Juans tour is getting there. While the San Juans are close enough to Portland to make it work for a five-or-so day tour, it still is far enough away that it would take a full day and change to get to, and then a good part of a day to return. While there is a direct train connection from Portland to Mount Vernon, the closest stop to the Anacortes ferry terminal, the train only runs once daily, departing from Portland around 3pm and arriving in Mount Vernon around 8pm. In September, this is after dark, and the ferry terminal is 20 miles from the depot, so realistically this would work if I wanted to stay in Mount Vernon for the night. But I wanted to stay in Anacortes so it would be only a couple mile ride to the ferry in the am.

Bikes in the baggage car.

Instead I decided to take the morning Amtrak Cascades from Portland to Seattle, then take local transit to Mount Vernon. So I woke up early on Thursday morning, September 12th, to haul ass down to Union Station to catch the 8:30am train. Thankfully I had pretty much packed up the Long Haul Trucker the night before, so getting out of the house was quick and easy.

And to make things even easier, I managed to pare my touring load down to my “minimalist” setup, meaning front rando/handlebar bag (my custom North Street bag), rear saddlebag (Carradice Nelson Longflap, tent strapped to exterior), and to augment my carrying capacity, my small Jandd frame bag. I had been wanting to test my minimalist setup beyond the one overnight I did to Oxbow Park in June, and I felt that this tour was a perfect time to try. There are three reasons for this:

  1. I knew that while the San Juans are “rural”, they are “West-of-Cascades, not-in-mountains” rural, meaning NOT wilderness. There would be enough grocery stores and markets that I knew I would be able to resupply food on a daily basis, so I didn’t need a heck of a lot of food carrying capacity.
  2. The weather would still be mild, so I could bring “just enough” clothes (and raingear.)
  3. I didn’t want to check baggage on Amtrak (and I wouldn’t be able to do this on the return anyway), and I didn’t want to haul around a lot of stuff between trains and buses.

The train ride passed without much incident (and not much to say about it either, as I’ve passed this way three times in the span of about a month!) I got into Seattle around 12:30pm, just enough time to get some coffee and lunch before I caught the express Sound Transit bus to Everett at 1:50pm. Originally I planned on taking the Sounder commuter rail train from Seattle to Everett, but I would have to wait until 4pm to catch the first one, giving me less time to get to Anacortes before dark. And now the first afternoon Skagit Transit express bus from Everett to Mount Vernon bus departs at 3:10pm, which meant I could get into Mount Vernon by 4!

Upon arrival in Mount Vernon, I had a quick bite to eat at the food co-op, and then rode the mostly flat 18 miles across the Skagit Valley lowlands westward to Anacortes. (To make up for the relative ease of a flat ride, I was riding into the sun, with a headwind, and I almost bonked half-way down the road.) So I got to Anacortes well before dark, and found the house of my Warmshowers host, who put me up in their “guest cottage”. I had a great view of the sunset over the water. I would be sharing the cottage with another bike tourist, Beven, a New Zealander who just finished riding around the islands and would be taking transit south down towards the Bay Area.

On Friday morn (September 13) I awoke early to a foggy morning (to be expected for such a maritime area.) It was a quick ride to the Ferry Terminal, and I made the 9:45 am ferry to Friday Harbor, the “big town” (actually, only town) on San Juan Island, the most populous of the archipelago. Still foggy, I decide to ride the north portion of the island first. The road out of town is busy for a mile or so, but traffic then drops off, and a decent shoulder appears. Not only that, they’ve made special “Bike Turnouts” for us two-wheeled travelers to stop. One of which is basically a bike rest area! The landscape is rolling farms and woods, a bit inland from the water for now. The fog finally breaks when I get to the west side of the island. The road becomes narrower and hillier, and I stop for my first attraction: the English Camp unit of San Juan National Historic Park.

English Camp comes from when the San Juans were jointly occupied by both US and British (Canadian) forces, as there was a dispute where the boundary between where Washington Territory (US) and the Vancouver Island colony (Canada). English Camp lasted from 1859 to 1872. More info about the whole business here. English Camp was a more “deluxe” encampment than the American base on the SE corner of the island, but little is left of it today, just a few buildings. And a great view. Here at English Camp I ran into a couple of other bike tourists, the first (but not the last) ones I would run into. I forget their names, but remembered that they are from somewhere in the SW and they’ve been touring around the islands and sounds for a few weeks. Basically they’ve been doing the tour I wanted to do but couldn’t due to time constraints. (Sigh…) Anyways, the Surly Long Haul Trucker has been…interestingly renamed. (Somehow I can see Surly coming out with a model name like this.)

From English Camp, it was a fairly short ride to San Juan County Park, my camping spot for the night. At this point I had done a little over 20 miles of riding on the island, and it was about 2pm. Early enough that I could set up camp and go explore a little. So I did just that. A few miles down the road was Lime Kiln Point State Park, with its titular lime kiln and also a small and cute lighthouse. Lime Kiln Point is one of the best points to see whales out on the water. Unfortunately I didn’t see any, but there had been an orca sighting the day before.

And then I was back at camp. San Juan County Park has a hiker/biker site for $10 per person a night, a very good deal in these parts. It’s got possibly one of the best views I’ve had from any hiker/biker site I’ve been to, overlooking Haro Strait and Vancouver Island in the distance! You bet I watched the sun set from here. The only drawback to the hiker/biker site here is that it’s right next to the day use area and there is 0% privacy or separation from the rest of the campground, but it was a small price to pay. Besides, most of the campground is pretty open, meaning no one had privacy.

There were two other couples camping in the hiker/biker area. One was a younger couple doing a quick getaway on San Juan, the other an older couple from Lake Oswego who rode up from the Olympia area.

I had an enjoyable evening in camp, making dinner, listening to both Environment Canada’s forecast on the weather band and the CBC station from Victoria on the FM, and watching the sun rise and the stars come out.

More photos here.

3 thoughts on “San Juan Islands (and Skagit County Too!) Tour report, Part One: Getting there and San Juan Island

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  1. Enjoyed your travel tales.Last year for my 60th birthday I flew the family to Seattle where we hopped on light rail to downtown then ferried to Victoria where we rented bikes for a week. The San Juan's were easily accessible from the Lochside Trail.

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