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Cruise the San Juan Islands – Sample Itinerary, Trip Plan, Info Guide

      Talk to ten San Juan Island cruisers and you will get ten different answers to the question, "What's the best place to go or thing to do in the San Juan's."   Each will be correct, mostly. To support their answers, they will offer first-hand exciting personal experiences.  That is why you must gather the best information, inject your wants and quirks, and then chart your own course to the San Juan's.  

Our experiences and local knowledge have been earned the old-fashioned way – one cruise at a time. Sailing, hiking, biking and gunkholing, all while immersed in nature has been our reward. 

     This website is a compilation of our travels in five sailboats and two trawlers spanning over two decades.

     Along the way we published a cruising guide, “San Juan Islands Cruise Guide,” followed later with a Land and Sea Guidebook, “San Juan Islands Travel Guide.”  My goal for this website and these books is to help boaters, travelers, sailors, and families enjoy the good times we have enjoyed for many years.

     What is the best five-day itinerary?  That's like asking what's the best color.  But there are certain things that our experience and local knowledge will help with.  Sometimes, one just needs a little push in the right direction to get on the right tack, so to speak.  It is impossible in an essay or article to cover everything important to everybody or all the possible places to go.  However, this website does cover every state park, every county park, every public dock, and much much more.  You will find many links to pictures and specific posts, all composed for San Juan Island boaters.  Be sure, while reading to click the links and follow your interests. Be sure to use the search box at the top of this page on the left side.

You're invited!

     To help you muddle through this dilemma and provide some interesting reading, please come along with us on our summer cruise in the San Juan Islands.  Of course, you will be taking your own boat since ours is full.  

     Today, we use our laptop as a chart plotter, I only use the GPS function. The program was free online Free chart plotter software but I had to buy a USB antenna for $19.95.  You can get by with a small handheld GPS or even your cell phone but I enjoy the big screen.   I don't want you to get lost if we get separated, or your battery is dead, so you should pick up a paper chart and a compass.   chart #18421 I carry a colorful roadmap with us as well.

    Let's get on the same page and assume this is your first boat trip to the San Juan's, and you are in a trailerable sailboat with a 5-6 mph speed.  There are five or six starting points we have used but only three are preferred.  They are Cornet Bay in Deception Pass, Cap Sante in Anacortes or Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham.  If you have a fast powerboat or are coming up from the Seattle direction you will want to make time and distance adjustments.  We will plan to sleep on board but use bathrooms on shore. Okay, let's go. ----- We have narrowed it down to about twenty parks to choose from for the first night, and that's not counting the marinas at Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor, or Rosario.   Not to worry, I have a plan >>>  all the parks and then some

      Sometimes when we plan a vacation trip to the San Juan's,  we try to make a great circle route because it saves time and resources. But this time we're going to decide where we go, as we go. We will see how that non-plan works out.  Certain people on the boat have expressed a desire for hot showers, I guess we will see how that works out too. Since we may travel all the way across the San Juan's and back, your boat will need a minimum 75-mile range. Fuel is readily available everywhere but smart skippers figure one-third of the miles out, one-third back, and a third as a cushion.  If your fuel tank is a little small you can tie a five-gallon can on deck.  Knowing you have reserve fuel will ease anxious thoughts and ensure you have a great visit.  Shall we also assume that you have a seaworthy vessel with all safety gear?  If not, correct it before we head out, or stay home.  Life jackets for all

Plan as we go itinerary:

Cornet Bay boat launch San Juan Island's
Cornet Bay Launch Ramps

        Let's begin at Cornet Bay in Deception Pass Park.  However, after reading this post, I suggest that you search this website and check out the other launch locations. Some may fit your plans better. launch points Also, search the other parks and marinas and things to do.  It is easy to overlook a great place or mini adventure that will make your cruise the best of all.  I chose to launch at Cornet Bay this time because I really enjoy the pass scenery.  The dock and the long-term parking are ideal.  Plus being able to take off or return from both directions 24/7 opens up even more possibilities when not having a firm plan. If I was heading for the Sucia area first off, I may have chosen Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham but where we end the cruise may dictate where to begin.

Read the rest?

       Day # 1 - We launch at Cornet Bay and head for James Island - 9.5 miles right up the center of Rosario Strait.  This could be 9.5 miles of current for or against us. currents the dumb way vs the smart way And possibly fog, and we will need to time our departure for slack water in the pass.  slack water in the pass

        Alternatively: We can head through Swinomish Channel - 29 miles is much longer but as a backup plan it makes sense.  We usually make our final decision at the last minute based on the weather and sea state.  And then change our entire itinerary accordingly. Changing your plans may seem drastic but not changing them may be a very foolish and dumb mistake.

     When we cast off on day number one we will have full tanks and full provisions and so should you. Both Bellingham and Anacortes have large major grocery stores.  Out in the islands, are well-stocked stores but it makes no sense to take off with half your gear or half your provisions.  Ice lasts in coolers for about three to four days so I suggest heading for a state park first, not a marina or resort.  The first and closest park to Cornet Bay or Cap Sante is James Island State Park, a distance of about nine and a half miles, give or take depending on your steering. James Island has a small 4-6 boat dock, two somewhat protected coves, and a handful of anchor buoys.  On shore are two campgrounds including a third one designated for kayakers.  If you are driving a fast boat or, you are starting out early, you may want to run much further to Jones Island State Park, about twenty-one miles, or Sucia Island State Park, also about twenty-one miles, both have larger docks and campgrounds.  It is very important that you give yourself enough time to get to your evening's destination well before sunset.  Seasoned cruisers avoid navigating or arriving in the dark. As a newcomer in an unknown area, the simplest mistake will potentially ruin everything. 

     Sail boaters and puttsters should familiarize themselves with the currents and the effects an opposing current has on their vessel.  I suggest slow boaters go online and print out current charts for the area and time they will be there.  At the very least, secure tide forecasts for local landmarks. Remember, as a rule of thumb,  in the San Juan's during a flood tide (incoming or rising tide) the current generally flows north and during a falling or outgoing tide, currents flow south.  There are local exceptions where it is hard to tell what constitutes north and south flow.  After a few passages, most skippers will learn what to expect out of their boats and to plan accordingly.  Fast boats, generally can get anywhere regardless, but no one is immune to fuel expenses. Current charts  When anchoring you must know the forecasted tide range or you may choose a poor location. Anchoring is something that even seasoned boaters may not have experience doing or doing well.  I suggest reading some anchoring posts to review the basics.  basic anchoring post  

James Island - San Juan Island's
James Island
      We always expect to anchor upon arrival.  There is competition for dock space with a lot of turnover until about 3pm when cruisers tend to settle in for the night.  Many places have docks that only hold four boats so bringing a dinghy is mandatory.  Hopefully, we found an open space at the James Island dock but we can raft our two boats together even if we have to anchor or hook a buoy.

     We enjoy the south-end shoreside trail despite one particularly precarious spot where we sometimes see the resident Bald Eagles. Let's have a campfire in an empty campsite tonight.  If we anchor or hook to one of the buoys it is a short paddle to shore which means we can share the dinghy.  On our last cruise, we brought an extra inflatable dinghy plus two paddle boards.  It really made a difference with half of us sleeping on shore.

     Day #2  We seem to always fritter away mornings, and end up leaving late.  But not this morning, the wind came up during the night and Rosario Strait is in white caps, so ducking into Thatcher Pass and relatively calm Lopez Sound is a no-brainer.  We swing over to Spencer Spit State Park and as always, many boats are tied to buoys. There is no dock and being a spit means there is always a welcoming windward shore to anchor off of or dinghy over to. But being a spit also means it is usually windy too.  You can rent bicycles at the concession on shore or mingle with the car campers that came by ferry.  Possibly one of your friends can meet you here.  We simply drive by Spencer Spit and just for fun, cut through the narrow channel that separates the spit from Frost Island.  At this point, there are several choices we can make as to where to go.  It is still early and there is a decent following wind, so let's run all the way to Eastbound on Orcas Island.  Normally sailing is poor to non-existent in the inner islands so this wind today is a real bonus. If it is the weekend, even better because Eastsound hosts music festivals and Saturday Markets all Summer long.  

Eastsound county dock
County dock at Eastsound

     From the county dock, it is a short one-block walk into the village center.  Eastbound is home to the largest grocery store on Orcas so grabbing any forgotten essentials is easy too.  If it gets late we can always spend the night but we will have to anchor because overnighting at county docks is prohibited.  This might be a time if you want to, to run back to Rosario Resort and get a slip for the night but I prefer staying put and having breakfast in town.  Lots of good choices are not a bad thing at all. 

Eastsound on Orcas Island
Eastsound Green and music venue

     Day #3  It was a rolly polly night at anchor until the wind died and took the swells away.  Finally, we tear ourselves free of Eastbound only to find ourselves facing the incoming flood tide and the current pushing it.  This makes the decision to stop at Rosario that much easier.  One time at Rosario our youngest son played outdoor shuffleboard and petted deer while we went through the museum.  On another visit, we parked the boat and rode our bicycles up to and around Moran Park and lake.  This time we might top off the fuel tank and walk the gardens.  It is only four miles from Eastsound to Rosario so we still have hours and miles yet to exhaust, so let's stop by Olga next, it's just two and a half miles further.  Olga isn't much but the dock is right on the way so why not drop in and walk the quarter mile up to the gallery/restaurant.  There was a devastating arson fire at the Artworks and Olga Bakery a decade ago, they since have bounced back.  Olga and gallery - restaurant

Olga dock - Orcas Island
Olga dock

       From where we are at Olga, it is only about ten or eleven miles to Jones Island State Park.  If we don't get too sidetracked along the way we will get there in about two to three hours, still early enough to get situated and hike the one-and-a-half-mile west coast trail.

      Once we turn the corner out of East Sound we pick up a little favorable current and whisk by Orcas Landing and Blind Bay.  I count well over a dozen boats anchored in Blind Bay.  Like Spencer Spit, I don't see the attraction of Blind Bay.  All it is is a semi-peaceful place to anchor. There is no dock and all the shore is private.  There is no place you are allowed to land a dinghy and there are lots of keep out no trespassing signs dotting the shore.  Orcas Landing is right beside the ferry terminal and is a good pit stop for bathrooms and snacks but the wakes from passing trawlers are brutal.  Newcomers mistakenly think ferry wakes are bad but the recreational boats are the killers. I park on the inside at Orcas Landing or I stay with the boat, holding it off the float. 

Orcas Landing - San Juan Islands
Orcas Landing

      Still riding a one-mile-per-hour current, we scoot past West Sound and shoot the two-hundred-foot gap at Pole Pass.  Deer Harbor is off to the side but we just got fuel and don't need any hamburgers, fries, or beer. Jones Island is two miles past Deer Harbor. As we get near, I see other boats and wonder if they are going there too.  Will they get the last open dock space?  At Jones, the dock is not visible until you turn the corner into the cove and then you are so close you don't need the binoculars anymore.  The anxiety builds as we close in the last thousand feet. I cut the power and speed to a crawl when we turn in.  None of our new neighbors-to-be will appreciate any wake and everyone is watching.  

Jones Island - San Juan Island's
Jones Island North Cove (old pic of nearly empty dock)

      The dock is full, I can relax and I just saved $21.  I don't even look for an empty anchor buoy.  My favorite anchor spot is open as I had hoped.  I lower the main anchor leaving the line loose and slowly back towards the gravel shore.  When the depth gets down to three feet I cleat off and set the anchor and then lower the grapple anchor off the back.  We have been at Jones all of five minutes and it already feels like home as I pull the boat forward and center it in between the two anchors in fifteen feet of water.  We are in line with the boats at the dock and close enough to talk.  The dinghy ride is only fifty feet over to the dedicated dinghy spots under the ramp.  I notice the first campsite at the top of the ramp is empty. It always is, I guess no one wants to be on display.  It is still four hours from sunset.  We have lots of time to hike and relax but first, we should set out some folding camping chairs in the empty site and gather firewood from the forest for tonight's fire. 

    If a boat leaves the dock opening a space for us, I could up anchor and move over but not today.  For now, my plan is to leave first thing in the morning to hike up Young Peak before the day gets hot.  However, if we decide to just hang around for a few days, I will move to the dock.

Day #4  Another sunny morning welcomes us after a great campfire last night. We met several people from other boats, told stories, and shared local information. Today we are hiking up a grueling but short hike with a great view.  We are heading for Garrison Bay and English Camp. To get there we will cut through Roche Harbor and into Mosquito Pass.  The distance from Jones Island to Roche Harbor is about six miles and then three more to English Camp, so about two hours will be our time to get there.

     We up anchor and prepare to leave the cove at Jones Island and wouldn't you know it, three spots have opened at the dock.  It sure would be easy to cancel our hike and claim a spot.  If we did that, it would also mean skipping lunch at Lime Kiln Cafe in Roche Harbor.  Something I haven't told anyone about but have been quietly looking forward to.  By the time we get back, there will be a new group of boats at the dock.  I sure hope my favorite anchor spot stays open.

     I idle out leaving no wake and turn west, in two hours it will be low tide and the current will reverse in our face.  We have just enough time to get to Garrison Bay before the flood tide rushes back in, cutting our speed in half and doubling our time, not to mention our fuel usage. 

English Camp San Juan Island
English Camp dinghy dock

     We make it in good shape to English Camp.  The Young Hill hike was a little over two and a half miles.  The view from the 665 foot summit is panoramic all the way to Canada's Vancouver Island.  On the way back the interpretive center was open so we stopped and learned more about the 12-year Pig War and the British occupation of the area.

Young Peak view - San Juan Island
View from Young Peak Summit
   As we headed back through Roche Harbor we decided to radio the Harbormaster and she gave us a complimentary slip for a few hours. We shopped at the open-air market booths, and visited the Sculpture Garden checking out the new displays. We skipped lunch, opting for a bottle of wine, a sack of ice, and a quick run with the current's help, back to Jones for a late lunch.

Open-air booths at Roche

Roche Harbor San Juan Island
Roche Harbor on a busy day just like Friday Harbor can be a little intimidating but it need not be.  Slow down, poke around, anchor anywhere sensible, find one of three dinghy docks or for a slip call the harbormaster on channel 66, and refer to everyone as "skipper"

When anchoring, we try to get as close to the dinghy dock as possible, it makes a big difference trying to row across the entire harbor when lots of boats are around.

The Sculpture garden is accessed by boat via Roche Harbor and is twenty acres of outdoor art.  

      Back at Jones Island, the dock still has one spot open and my favorite anchor spot is open too.  We tie to the dock, and my son and his wife thank me for inviting them along on this summer's cruise vacation and comment that although they have enjoyed the experiences we have shared, it has been quite a whirlwind trip for them.  And, they were looking forward to this afternoon and exploring the cove with their paddle boards and relaxing on shore.

The first campsite at the top of gangplank is a favorite meeting place.

All the deer on Jones have developed to a smaller size. This little buck has no fear of fire or anything else.

      "Whirlwind trip," he said.  It struck me that perhaps I was trying hard to cram too much of the San Juan's into one vacation.  Maybe, I thought, we should skip the Stuart Island Lighthouse and China Caves on Sucia, and maybe Matia Island could wait also, and remain my secret place of solitude.

Day #5 Once again the morning sun dazzles us awake.  With coffee cups in hand, Linda and I  stroll ten minutes up the center trail to the south cove. 

Not having a plan leaves Linda wondering which way

     Kayaker tents fill the meadow, and their sleek boats litter the beach. Jones Island tiny deer browse under the apple trees as if they own the place. There is no dock in the south cove but the two buoys have sailboats tied to them.  Across the channel is a steady stream of boats heading for Roche Harbor, some are probably setting out for Haro Strait and crossing to Victoria.  The other way is Friday Harbor, about five miles away, less than an hour riding the incoming flood tide.

     We enjoy a late breakfast using a picnic table on the dock.  I casually bring up our non-plan plan asking everyone what they would like to do.  I avoid mentioning Stuart Island, Sucia, Matia, Patos Island, or whale watching, and Smallpox Bay. I let slip that Lopez Village has free showers. Someone mentions Deer Harbor is only two miles away, I comment that there is nothing to do there except maybe laundry, fuel, and showers. Bingo, after five days of splashing saltwater on us, mentioning showers hits a home run.  So I suggest running to Friday Harbor for dinner and showers.  

     We leave our son's camp set up in the campground.  Returning after dark will be as easy as coming home from any day of sightseeing by car.  The incoming tide delivers us to Friday Harbor in under an hour.  It is just past noon and the normal checkout time is one pm, so we get lucky again and find vacant spots on the inside of the breakwater dock. If we wanted, we could spend the night, eventually the Friday Harbor staff would check us in and collect the fee.  The Harbormaster office changes dollars for handfuls of quarters for use in the private showers downstairs. An hour after arriving all of us meet up on the waterfront promenade listening to local musicians playing for donations dropped into their open instrument cases.

Friday Harbor Marina

     Friday Harbor packs a lot into a five or six-square-block area.  Being on foot we find the swarms of cars annoying, especially when the ferry unloads over a hundred new cars with each landing.  

Breakwater "A" is where you will want to arrive unannounced, park on the inside if you can goes without saying.

     The day, and then the evening slip away from us, and at my prodding, we cast off with the setting sun low in the sky.  Riding the currents has helped us a lot so far.  Is that experience or luck? Anyway, our luck holds.  We hitch a smooth ride back to Jones.  It seems a shame to spoil a perfect evening by letting it get dark.  When we turn the corner and ghost into the cove the high west bank is casting its cloak over the entire area.  I know the dock is full. And as we creep closer it appears that a boat is in my precious spot.  Closer yet and I see the offending boat is just a skiff pulled up on shore.  I don't recommend and would never attempt anchoring somewhere unknown in the dark in tight quarters, but I know the cove well and use the dock as my guide.  In a few minutes we are home again and my son and his wife are paddling to their waiting tent.

    Day #6 Our time is coming to an end and we need to start heading for our waiting trailers at Deception Pass.  The distance back is nearly 25 miles, even longer if we go through Swinomish channel.  We need to dedicate most of a day or break up the trip into two shorter runs.  I suggest for the last night. we head for Pelican Beach on Cypress Island.  Doing so will get us much closer but importantly get us to the other side of Rosario Strait which could throw big waves or even fog at us unexpectedly.   

       No one wants to leave Jones Island behind, so we all vow to plan more time next time.  We cast off into slack water which soon turns to a helping boost and we are past Friday Harbor in no time.  While underway, I ask my wife and son if they would rather go straight to our Pelican Beach destination or make a four-mile detour and swing into Lopez Village for a quick fudge shop visit.

This is the sign that authorizes you to walk from your dinghy on the beach to the grocery store only one block away. The beach beyond this stairway in the background is private.  Its odd that there are plenty of no trespassing signs telling you where not to go, but this is the only sign telling where you may go.

      Lopez Village does not have a dock, public or private.  The nearest docks are at two marinas in Fisherman Bay adding a two-mile round-trip walk.  We choose to anchor and dinghy ashore at the public stairway which is in the center of the village.  Accessing Lopez Village the easy way     

   We dragged the dinghy all the way up and tied it to the posts to be safe.

       A highlight of this short stopover was wading through a herd of feral domestic rabbits that congregate on the lawn at Lopez Village Park.  

        On our way again and still riding the incoming tide we slide by the dock at Odlin  County Park.  The waterfront campground is full of car campers and bike hikers, but the four buoys are empty which is not surprising since the open area gets the brunt of wakes from boat traffic to and from Friday Harbor.  Soon we cross Lopez sound and our track from five days earlier.  Peavine Pass is dead ahead but we can't pass Blakely's without a quick pit stop and ice cream.  The deer are bigger than at Jones and a little skittish but we all share the same lawn on the point above the Pass.  I notice  Peavine Pass is still and flat so our free ride is about to change directions.  We will be crossing Rosario Strait over to Cypress Island in a matter of minutes and the sooner the better. 
The water taxi has just dropped someone off at the Blakely Island dock

                  With Cypress in sight, a gentle Rosario Strait welcomes us.  Soon we will be anchored on the east side at Pelican Beach and ferrying our passengers and camping equipment to shore.
Eagle Bluff is a favorite two-hour up-and-back hike for many who visit Pelican Beach.

Pelican Beach is a free DNR campground maintained by locals.  It's a very popular kayaker destination.  

The view from Eagle Bluff is spectacular, but a sunny day is best. Peavine Pass is in the distance.

The facilities at Pelican Beach are ADA-compliant which seems strange for no dock, a gravel beach, and boats which are not. 
Pictorial hike of Eagle Bluff 

     Our last night is wrapped up with another campfire.  Tomorrow we will sleep in and then decide if we want to drive down Rosario Strait for about eighteen miles battling the incoming tide most of the way and attempt to arrive at Deception Pass at slack high water or add ten more miles and take a leisurely tour through Swinomish Channel with a lunch stop over at La Conner.

     Day # 7 All of Swinomish Channel is a no-wake zone.  The mostly unenforceable slow pace is actually very enjoyable and no one does not enjoy walking the boardwalk at La Conner.  As we go by Saddlebag Island I resist the urge to make a whirlwind tour, even though it is my favorite figure-eight hike.  Ten little known places to visit in the San Juan's
La Conner boardwalk wraps around and connects local businesses

     La Conner has three smaller public docks where you may overnight plus a large transient dock at the marina.  We still have ten miles to cover and nowhere on our cruise or anywhere in the San Juan's is there no current.  We tend to take the current for granted when it helps out but when it takes away half your speed, doubling or tripling your trip time, it becomes a real force to be reckoned with.
Photo by Charles B

     Ducking under Rainbow Bridge and nearing the end of the channel at "Hole in the Wall" we look up on the cliff  and spot the six foot tall Eagle sculpture.  Next, we acquire the fresh outgoing tide that we will ride to Deception Pass.  Again, I resist a whirlwind side trip and decide not to re-explore Fort Whitman but I tell my son about it and point at Goat Island as we go by saying, maybe next time. Fort Whitman at Goat Island
This old war relic is just ten minutes from your boat.

        And just like that we are back at Cornet Bay.  My son and his wife take off for home.  I would imagine you have pressing matters as well so I will say goodbye.  For me, I settle in at the dock, I plan to watch the sunset from the bridge, and begin planning my next whirlwind adventure cruise in the San Juan Islands.
Deception Pass Bridge
San Juan Island's cruise trip plan
The red line follows the six-day trip we took on this cruise.  We began at Deception Pass Park and camped the first night on James Island.  The second night was at Eastsound. The third fourth and fifth nights were at Jones Island and the last night was at Pelican Beach.  This trip could have been done in the reverse direction, added days to or reduced.  Overall, it was about one hundred twenty-five miles.
San Juan Islands Cruise Guide

     If you enjoy reading about other people's mishaps, mistakes, foggy weather, grumpy kids, and trips that end well, try this link. >>  Port Townsend Pea Soup Fog