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72 Hours in the San Juan Islands

How to Use the Ferries with a Car & Day 1 Orcas Island


72 Hours in the San Juan Islands

Crescent Beach Reserve on Orcas Island

© Courtney Shannon Strand

As the seasons turn warmer, Pacific Northwest waters glisten and dance, and the inviting sea mist beacons travelers to the San Juan Islands. The ferry-serviced islands in Northern Washington are the biggest draw for locals and visitors: Orcas, San Juan (Friday Harbor), Lopez and Shaw. And each island offers something different.

Each June the ferries run on a summer schedule departing from Anacortes, WA. And when the summer schedules start the islands swell with visitors.

The best time to visit the San Juan Islands is between April and October. July and August are the warmest months to visit the San Juan Islands and also the busiest. The summer months are peak prices for exploring the islands. To know how to visit the islands efficiently can help you enjoy your time there without draining your pocketbook.

If you plan to take a car on the ferries to visit more than one island there are additional summer costs or spring costs to consider depending on how you map out your stay, when you plan to visit, and the length of your vehicle.

The most cost-effective way to visit more than one island is to know how the ferry schedules and fees work.

Ferries take off from Anacortes; plan ahead for a two hour drive north from Seattle and arrive at the ferries at least two hours before your ferry leaves, especially during the peak summer season. The quickest way to squelch your island trip is to miss a ferry and have to wait for the next one. Wait times in between can be long. Once at the ferries you have two options.

  1. Pay to park your car and walk on the ferry.
  2. Or pay to take your car on the ferry.

You are charged for you car on Westbound travel only. That means to keep your costs down you'll want to begin your stay as far west as possible. The two farthest islands west of Anacortes are San Juan Island and Orcas Island. San Juan Island (also known as Friday Harbor) is a foot friendly island. Meaning you can walk on interisland ferries from where you are staying and not need a car to explore San Juan Island, saving you transportation money.

The most cost-effective way to explore more than one island with a car is to pay the applicable fees to take your passengers and car on the ferry headed to Orcas Island first from Anacortes. By starting your island trip on Orcas you can then walk on an interisland ferry for free and do a day trip to San Juan Island (otherwise known as Friday Harbor) while staying on Orcas Island. After one or more nights on Orcas Island you can take a ferry from Orcas Island to Lopez Island without getting charged again for your car. This is because you will be headed Eastbound. After staying one night or more on Lopez Island you can then catch a ferry from Lopez back to the mainland at Anacortes to conclude your time in the islands on a ferry budget.

If you plan to go to any of the other ferry-serviced islands first then you will get charged again for your car every time you head Westbound with a vehicle.

Just keep in mind after you initially pay to take your car on a ferry from Anacortes then as long as you stay Eastbound in your travels of the islands you won't be charged again on interisland ferries for taking your car around to the different islands. Then when you return to Anacortes from whatever island you are on the fee is covered since you are headed Eastbound. According to the Washington State Ferries for the San Juan Islands "Every time you go Westbound you pay and traveling Eastbound is free."

Here is a cost-effective plan for spending 72 Hours in the San Juan Islands:

Day 1 Orcas Island's Eastsound

Orcas Island is spread out and requires a car unless you are an experienced and fit cyclist. The ferry dock is not near town (the Eastsound). In order to get to the Eastsound from the ferry drop off point you'll have to arrange for someone to pick you up if you walked on the ferry or at the very minimum at least bring your bike to get to town. If you take your car you can depart the ferry and drive into town. The drive into Eastsound after getting off the ferry takes about 20 minutes, sometimes more during peak season due to traffic.

The historic Orcas Hotel is the first building you see when getting off the ferry at Orcas Island. If you want to stay closer to town within walking distance of stores (called the Eastsound) stay at Eastsound Suites (they offer water views with a deck and modern-designed home features including a kitchen); The Outlook Inn (offers views of the water); Eastsound Landmark Inn (also offers water views and kitchenettes). Rosario Resort on Orcas Island is another popular wedding venue on the island near Moran State Park.

And there are plenty of places to dine while staying on Orcas Island.

Things to Do on Orcas Island

If you enjoy hiking don't miss Moran State Park on Orcas Island. You can also drive to the top of Moran State Park to see panoramic views of the island and surrounding mountains. Orcas Island is not as busy as the other islands and is one of the most peaceful and serene to visit.

Darvill's Bookstore in downtown Orcas Island offers water views while you shop for books or enjoy a coffee inside. Tres Fabu! in downtown Orcas Island offers chic women's clothing and accessories. The Country Corner Cellars on Orcas Island offers daily wine tastings and sells Northwest wine too. And the Crescent Beach Reserve on Orcas Island is a great place to relax and take in the beautiful beach surroundings of Orcas Island.

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