Take the Ferry!

Ferry to Explore the San Juan Islands

     Here in Washington State, the Department of Transportation is operating the largest ferry service in the United States! With a fleet of 21 vessels that operate over nine routes, there is timely access to places that might take several hours to drive to. In the case of the San Juan Islands, the Washington State Ferries gives visitors a chance to explore some of the state’s most gorgeous places without the cost of hiring a private water taxi or a plane.


Washington State Ferry History

     On January 1, 1889 the first scheduled ferry carried passengers in Washington on a route taking them from downtown Seattle to West Seattle. These first ferries were privately owned and originally ran for pedestrian passengers and wagons. To compensate for the increased use of motorized vehicles, private ferry systems built vessels that could carry automobiles to and from their destination, thus extending the reach of the state’s highway system. The private ferry system in Washington was bought out by the state in 1951 and has been a public utility ever since. Washington State has used and retired 32 vessels over the years and currently operates 21 vessels. While the pandemic took its toll on the ferry services, ridership has begun to increase once more serving 17.3 million passengers (up from 14 million passengers in 2020). 

     Since 2020, Washington State Department of Transportation has plans to electrify the ferry system, in keeping aligned with the state’s legislative initiatives. The first steps will be to hybridize the largest of the fleet’s vessels. The three largest ferries (class Jumbo Mark II) are responsible for 26% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Washington State Ferries. With their hybridization and installation of charging stations at the state’s ferry terminals, their emissions can be reduced by up to 95% by 2026! By 2040, Washington State plans to have a fully electric fleet and plans are in motion to reach this goal. 

Accessing the San Juan Islands

       The San Juan Island archipelago is made up of over 172 islands! The islands’ sheer cliffs drop into the Salish Sea making these some of the most dramatic features of Washington State’s land- and sea-scapes. Murky, teal waters surround the rugged, rocky coastlines covered with evergreen firs, hemlocks, cedars, and madronas. There is a sense of ancient knowledge, history, reverence, and adventure out in the islands. Thanks to the Washington State Ferries, there is public access to four of the major islands here in the San Juan’s and exploring these islands for a day, a weekend, or even over an extended visit is a fun way to get to know Washington’s Salish Sea. 

      The ferry terminal to access the San Juan Islands is in Anacortes, Washington, off a spur of the state’s Highway 20. From Anacortes, you can choose to walk on, bring your bike, or take your car to Lopez, Orcas, Shaw, or San Juan Island. Each of these four islands have different activities and highlights to offer and each are well worth a trip and a visit!

Which Island Should I Visit?

       Whichever island you choose to visit, make sure you prepare! The islands are all relatively small so whether you are staying for the day or for the week, reserve your spot on the ferry in advance (if taking a vehicle), book your accommodation, and make sure you have done your research to ensure the best experience!

Friday Harbor, Photo Source: Only In Your State

San Juan Island (Friday Harbor)

      While we think that whale watching from Anacortes is the way to go, taking the WSF out to San Juan Island (SJI) is definitely worth your while! Lime Kiln State Park is nicknamed “Whale Watch Park” after its long-standing reputation for the Southern Resident Killer Whales (SRKW) cruising near to shore. The park is on the westside of SJI, where you can look across Haro Strait and see the distant shores of Victoria and south Vancouver Island. The SRKW are known for doing the “Westside Shuffle” (going back and forth along the western shores of the island) during the summer months while they forage off the steep shelf just a few yards off the coast of SJI. However, San Juan Island has much to offer!

     It’s easy to just walk on the ferry for the day and visit Friday Harbor, which is the only incorporated city in all of San Juan County! Little cafés, boutiques, and quaint shops line the streets and the San Juan Island Brewing Co. is only a short walk from the ferry terminal. Friday Harbor is a walker-friendly town so having a car or a bike isn’t necessary for a great day on the island! Even if you wanted to get around to other parts of the island, the San Juan Transit system can get you to most major destination points, including one of my favorites, the Pelindaba Lavender Farm! 

Lavender Farm- San Juan Island, Photo Source: San Juan Islands; visitsanjuans.com

Orcas Island

      Orcas is the island hiker’s paradise! Mount Constitution in Moran State Park is the highest point in the San Juan Islands, standing at just over 2,400 feet tall. The State Park itself has over 30 miles worth of trails networking throughout it and the trails feature both densely forested sections and stunning ocean-views. Get the 360º view of the San Juan Islands, the Cascade Mountains (and Koma Kulshan/ Mt. Baker), the Olympic Mountain range, and the Salish Sea in between from the trails around Moran State Park! 

Moran State Park- Orcas Island, Photo Source: My Backyard and Beyond

Lopez Island

       If biking is more your speed, walk your bike on the ferry and get over to Lopez Island! Known to be the friendliest island for bikers, its topography lends itself to simply enjoying the ride! With over 60 miles of shoreline to explore, bikers flock to Lopez to enjoy a quiet ride and the serene beauty of this island and its coastlines. 

Lopez Island, Photo Source: San Juan Islands; visitsanjuans.com

Shaw Island

     Shaw is the smallest of the four San Juan Islands accessible by ferry. It is truly the island for someone wanting a getaway from the hustle and bustle of regular life. With few public amenities, Shaw is primarily visited for the peacefulness that it has to offer. Day-hiking or camping on Shaw Island will give you the chance to connect with the islands and the natural world in a tranquil sort of way. We recommend Shaw Island if you are needing that well-deserved respite. 

Come Visit

     The beauty of the San Juan Archipelago is part of what makes Washington whale watching season special! The evergreen-filled islands with their dramatic rocky coastlines are a sight that never gets old! So whether you take the Washington State Ferry out to the islands or see the islands through a Blue Kingdom adventure whale watching tour, we guarantee that you will never forget this very special place!


San Juan Island Ferry, Photo Source: Journal of the San Juans