The San Juan Islands: mellow, car-free adventure from Portland

I may have finally killed off my camera on this trip (it can handle being dropped, but apparently can’t handle getting too wet), but James’ phone came to the rescue to catch us having fun in the San Juan Islands, albeit in somewhat grainy fashion:)

Moran State Park bike camping

I’ve gotta say, the San Juans are kind of the shit. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to get up there, especially considering how easy it is to do from Portland and how awesome the payoff.

Aside from the healthy mosquito population on Lopez Island and the flesh-eating bug that flew down my shirt and stung me a bunch of times on the ribs and stomach before delivering one last death sting to my finger when I finally succeeded in slapping it out of there (all while maintaining my biking composure, I might add), there were no large predators on any of the islands. Which is kind of nice when you’re camping. The most obnoxious thing was the raccoons, who have clearly been trained to sniff out things like energy bars you’ve forgotten to remove from your panniers and then, under the guise of night, sneak into your campsite, drag your pannier into the woods, and happily dispose of all of them (punks!).

But the super awesome, for-us-exotic animals vastly outnumbered the annoying raccoons, stinging insects, and mosquitoes. We woke up one morning to orcas playing in Haro Straight: the whoosh as they came up for air, the splash as they dove back down, dorsal fin followed by tail flop. In the early-morning quiet, it was almost the only sound, and the only movement in the glass-smooth water: so amazing.

San Juan County Park orca-spotting(oatmeal with the orcas, binoculars in hand. San Juan County Park hiker/biker)

Later, as we kayaked across Griffin Bay, harbor seals popped up behind our kayaks, porpoises leapt far to our east. Eagles wheeled and called above us. (Have you ever heard a bald eagle call? It’s one of my favorite things.) This hodgepodge of frolicking animals may sound like some straight-from-Pocahontas bullshit, but I kid you not. And I haven’t even mentioned yet the barred owls we heard nearly every night, the great blue herons hunting in the shallows and the twenty million other kinds of waterfowl, the candlefish throwing themselves from the water as though their sole purpose was to leap exuberantly, haphazardly through the air.

Again. It was awesome.

Griffin Bay kayak trip(staging ground for a kayak adventure:)

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the facts of travel, of camping, of bike adventure itself.

The San Juan Islands is such an easy car-free trip from Portland. James and I just put our bikes on the Amtrak Cascades, no boxing required: bike to the train station in Portland, wheel your bike to the baggage car, pick it up in Mt Vernon, and pedal off. The timing of the train vs. the timing of the ferries in Anacortes, about 20 miles away from Mt Vernon, is a little awkward, so we opted to stay in Mt Vernon for the night–though you could also camp in Anacortes.

ferry to shaw island(ready to board the ferry!:)

 washington ferry bikes(bikes on the ferry– a fairly typical number)

Ferries, I think, are my new favorite form of public transit. It was so rad to get to Anacortes, buy a ticket, and then, just like Amtrak, wheel our bikes onto the ferry no big deal. Cyclists and pedestrians board first, actually, then people with cars, so not only do you get first dibs on seating in the ferry but you also don’t have to worry about showing up early to make sure you get a spot (like people in cars do). Plus, interisland travel is free, so once you buy your initial ticket, you can island-hop to your heart’s content:)

Since we had a week and wanted to see all the ferry-serviced islands, we spent two nights each on Lopez, San Juan, and Orcas islands, in that order, and took a day trip to Shaw Island on the way back to Anacortes at the end of our trip. Each island has at least one spot with hiker/biker sites, so even though we’d been warned that finding places to stay in the midst of high tourist season would be a challenge, it was no problem. In fact, the rangers and county officials in charge of camping at each park we went to were so super friendly and helpful that it was kind of hard to imagine we’d worried about it–but then again, that’s often the case when you’re traveling by bike.

Spencer Spit hiker-biker (one of the many hiker/biker sites at Spencer Spit State Park, Lopez Island)

As always, I could spew for hours about how amazing our trip was, how many rad things we got to do and see, how fricken lovely it was to travel with James too instead of by myself, but for that I will direct you to my pictures (here), where you can pick and choose what you want to hear about:) (Though if you go through them in order, it makes a handy little travelogue, if I do say so myself:)

Some teasers?

Coleville Point State Park(Coleville Point State Park, Lopez Island)

Lime Kiln Point lighthouse(Lime Kiln Point State Park, San Juan Island)

Moran State Park(Moran State Park, Orcas Island)

shaw island(my are-you-serious-that-basically-100%-of-this-island-is-privately-owned? incredulous face, Shaw Island:)

More here:) Enjoy. But better yet, go have your own adventure:)


  1. The San Juan Islands are my favorite place. Allison and I went there for our honeymoon.

    • aw:) What an excellent place for a honeymoon!:)
      (If I’d known before we left, I would have hit you up for recommendations! :)

  2. Steph and I went there for our honeymoon too, as well as our first trip together after we started dating. What a magical place!

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