San Juan Islands for First Timers
Suggested Itineraries for San Juan Island boating trips
(Updated (2014) alternate itinerary with Echo Bay at Sucia Island as 1st stop)
click here Sucia Trip Intinerary
(Updated (2014) alternate itinerary with Echo Bay at Sucia Island as 1st stop)
click here Sucia Trip Intinerary
This article is designed to get you going on that first boating/sailing trip to the San Juan Islands in Washington State.
Below is a snapshot map of your dreamed about vacation land (or water)
The map above identifies many (not all) common names and places
Take a moment to familiarize yourself with some locations you may have read about.
You may want to follow this link and take a quick look at the detailed marine parks list and then come back to the suggested itinerary below, "MARINE PARK LIST AND MAPS" click here
for your detailed itinerary click (read more) below >>
You may skip all this and go right to the day by day itinerary > just scroll and scroll until you see
- Cap Sante ( Anacortes)
- Squalicum Harbor ( Bellingham)
- Cornet Bay ( Deception Pass Sate Park)
- there are others (search this site for "ramps") but these three are really the only ones to consider.
Resorts and Marinas:
- Roche Harbor (San Juan Island
- Deer Harbor (Orcas Island)
- Rosario (Orcas Island)
- Friday Harbor (San Juan Island)
- Of course there are more (search "resorts"
The following text and pictures briefly outline:
- basic information
- where to launch
- parks to visit
- suggested itineraries
- Swinomish Channel and Deception Pass
Let's start with a few fun observations
Water levels fluctuate. (tides)
The San Juan's have high and low tides every day, some very high, some very low. This means you will need to be prepared to deal with going ashore at locations lacking floats. The easiest solution is to bring a dinghy; if you don't have a dinghy I suggest you buy a cheap inflatable boat or 2 person kayak for around $75. Once in the San Juan's most people simply tow the dinghy everywhere they go, or deflate and stow it away. Those of you going in a ski boat or skiff may be thinking you can beach your boat, which will work, but only for a few minutes. On a falling tide in ten minutes your boat may be high and dry, unless you can carry it, you're stuck until the tide comes back up. On a rising tide your boat will float away while your on shore. Since you're going to anchor in six feet of water at low tide you will need one hundred feet or more of anchor rode to accommodate a ten foot plus increase at high tide. Smart boaters bring two anchors and rode and very few beach their boats intentionally.
San Juan currents are notorious, and the root of many stories. For fast planing boats you can pretty much ignore adverse current; however slower boats live and die by planning passages to get an assist from the current. A typical sailboat may putt along at 4.5 mph, against a 2.5 mph current their real speed over ground is 2mph. Going with the same current their sog is 7 mph. So a ten mile passage takes 5 hours the dumb way or 1 hour 25 minutes the smart way. There are many prediction and forecast books and charts available and online. (search this site for current chart) While you don't need a publication, I recommend that you buy something and keep it with you. I would also go online and print out a tide schedule for the time and area you expect to cruise.
In a nutshell:
Here's a simple rule of thumb to follow. On a incoming or rising tide, the water in most straits and passes flows "north" while during a falling tide the water reverses and flows "south." (in Puget Sound it's the opposite) When the current hits an island straight on, the water will split and flow around the island usually at a slightly higher speed creating eddies at headlands and the tips of the island.
Weather could be fog:
You can get lost in the dark, in the fog, or just plain lost on a sunny day. You need to bring with you a chart, (your smartphone app is not a paper chart) and you would be smart to protect it from getting wet or torn up. I sandwich mine between two clear acrylic sheets held together with velcro.
Some will say the chart needs to be new and of the highest resolution, which may be true for ship captains and other navigators. What were talking about here is not getting lost, even a google print out may do the trick. If you are going to boat in the fog you must have a compass, and GPS, a portable handheld GPS will do fine and some new phones may do the trick too. (in thick fog you will go in circles and be totally disoriented without a compass - true!)
To hammer home this point: boating in thick fog requires a compass and a gps, one or the other is not enough, you must have both.
Many times in the San Juan's visibility may be down to 3 or 4 miles and you think you can sneak across some open water to the next island, and you probably can, but if the fog thickens to pea soup you will be glad you have your compass and GPS. BTW, fast boats can't always go fast when waves and swells stack up. And only very dumb skippers go fast when they can't see.
Wind or lack of wind:
Okay, here's some bad news for sailors. The San Juan Islands are not known for great sailing winds in July and August. Out in the straits (Haro, Rosario, Georgia, Juan De Fuca) you may get some decent sailing, but inside the islands, don't bet on it.
Most likely you wont have any problems with crowds except on the 4th of July and Labor Day. The good side is that you will always find a place to anchor, even on holidays, the dinghy ride may just be a little longer for some. Most marinas take reservations and you may as well take them up on it, but you don't need to. I suggest you slow down a little and enjoy the freedom of not planning ahead, take one day at a time and see where you go. Lastly, because this area is so close to Bellingham and Anacortes many boaters are day boaters. At the end of the day they head for home, leaving some resorts and parks half empty, especially on weekend Sunday nights. Monday or Tuesday are good days to begin your outing if you want to be alone.
Roche Harbor 4th of July balloon contest for kids in dinghys
yes, there was room for more, lots more
DNR buoys are free (Cypress Island) State Park buoys are $10, many park floats are 50 cents a foot, Marinas charge between 75 cents and $2 a foot. (2010 prices - expect modest increases) Gasoline is a little more expensive than on land, but not much more. Food, groceries, ice are just a little more than the mainland but very fair priced overall.
How many days to plan:
Plan a minimum of four days, but up to two weeks depending on what you like to do. (I like to sit on the dock at Jones Island and read my book between naps and walks, then I make a campfire in a empty tent site and cook Kielbasa followed by a glass of wine. Then retire to my boat for a good nights sleep. The next day, do it again)
Salt water drys sticky and does not suds up well with soap, you will get it all over you and your boat, count on it. After a week you will look forward to a shower. Your boat will be covered with salt crystals. Most marinas have little water and don't want you washing your boat.
Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham has boat and trailer fresh water wash-down hoses in the parking lot. You should use them each time you dunk your trailer.
For the most part you will want to provision before you leave on the boat. Anacortes and Bellingham have all the big stores and each has a West Marine store. All the resorts and towns have grocery stores, if you drive a fast boat, supply's may be only minutes away, putt putt's should work a store visit into your circuit. I say circuit because most cruisers will follow a circle of some sort trying to hit many stops. We find that ice needs renewing after four days, so a stop over at Friday Harbor, Deer Harbor, Roche Harbor, Blakely's, or Orcas landing fits the bill. All these places except Orcas, have gas and showers. Showers will cost a handful of quarters so be quick or be poor. Cold showers are free.
All the parks are pack it in and pack it out, the marinas have dumpsters. If you are new to boat camping you will find garbage to be a pain because you are not used to storing everything in your boat. Little things like empty water bottles suddenly take space you don't have. You must give careful thought to what your bringing, and the garbage it will generate. We don't use disposable bottles, minimize pop consumption, and try to have campfires to burn burnable trash. It is against the law to toss anything, (even a apple core) in the water.
Your dogs must be on a leash, period, everywhere. Raccoon's are on all islands and will climb right into your boat or kayak in the daytime if you let them. Deer are all over too, but they shy away, except on Jones Island where you can hand feed them.
Otters live under most floats and docks, they will crawl all over your boat, get into things and make a mess. Otters will mark their territory by pooing on your stuff, coiled dock lines are a favorite and not very cute.
All the parks have nice composting toilets, (each island mentioned for overnight is a park) the rangers service all parks on a regular basis. You will be pleasantly surprised at how clean the facilities are.
Where to launch
Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham is probably the best of all places. At Squalicum you will find a four lane all tide all hours ramp with floats. There is a freshwater wash down area, truck and trailer parking is free for long term or short term stays. The guest docks are 75 cents a foot
Cap Sante in Anacortes has a sling hoist and a travel lift for bigger boats. They can step your mast for a fee. You probably should book your launching in advance and then be prepared for delays. Check for hours of operation, parking fees are charged for trailers.
Washington Park is a city park in Anacortes, the ramp is exposed to the strait, has a float and sometimes is covered with sand. Parking is limited and signs warn you to make sure you have a space before launching. On weekends they fill up. They also have a campground onsite which may work into some people's plans. (if you have a fast boat, camp at Washington Park and make day trips to the islands coming back each night)
Cornet Bay at Deception Pass State Park, the ramp is four lanes with floats and lots of pay parking. The dock adjacent to the ramp has plenty of room to overnight, on shore are some so so bathrooms and quarter pay showers. Parking is $10 each 24 hours.
Ramps are in most cities, but are further away, you might consider, Twin Bridges (ick), Oak Harbor, or La Conner.
Even if your boat is fast, do not consider Port Angeles, or Port Townsend or any launches across the Strait of Juan De Fuca because weather and sea conditions may ruin your vacation. Leave crossing Juan De Fuca for another trip.
Parks, Parks, Parks
This a partial list of lesser known islands and parks I judged to be of value and worth a visit when cruising, resorts are not included:
James Island, Jones Island, Sucia, Matia, Patos, Stuart, Cypress, Saddlebag, Obstruction Pass, Spencer Spit, Odlin County Park, Doe Island (closed), Deception Pass.
Suggested 80 mile Itinerary (5+ days) starts right here.
Lets start this cruise in Bellingham at Squalicum Harbor
Day # 1 You arrive late in day and launch boat, (don't forget to hose down the trailer) then secure a space at the overnight dock and pay at the self pay kiosk. Bathrooms, showers, restaurants are all on site for you to use, now park the trailer and drive into town (ten minutes) and shop for all those last minute provisions. (Costco, Walmart, Fred Meyer,. etc.) Eat dinner out or come back to boat for a Barbecue, and your first night on board. It is ill advised to cast off late in the day or at dusk. NAVIGATING IN THE DARK IS NO VACATION FOR NEWBIES!
Day # 2 Cast off for Cypress Island, leave early or late it doesn't matter, (you're now on Island time) Bellingham Bay should be good sailing, make your way to Inati Bay for a quick look, or anchor for lunch. Head for Pelican Beach on Cypress Island, grab a free buoy or anchor, there's no docks on Cypress. If for some reason you can't stay at Pelican Beach, no problem just motor south about one half mile and tie up at Eagle Harbor where you will find 16 more free buoys and lots of anchor room. Pelican Beach has a steep gravel (90% skipping stones) beach suitable for dinghy's at all tides. On shore are camp sites, campfire rings and bathrooms. If you have some daylight, take a quick hike on the Islands trail system.
Day # 3 You may cast off for Matia but I suggest you stay put and hike up to Eagle Cliff, on your way back detour to Smugglers cove on the Rosario Strait side of Cypress (don't forget your camera, it will be worth it) If you want to spend another day hiking you can hike the ten miles or so to Cypress lake and the old airstrip. Back at the boat, relax, but be sure to go ashore and mingle with the kayakers, wrap up the day with a sunset campfire with s'mores and drinks.
Day # 4 Rise and shine, say goodbye to Pelican Beach and head for Matia Island. The current may be against you, if you have a puttster boat you should wait for the tide change, then get a free ride all the way, remember your on Island time now. On your way to Matia, swing into either side of Clark Island for a quick dinghy ride to shore and lunch stop. Clark has anchor buoys and a campsite on shore, but doesn't get much use probably because it's not that cool of a place and has no trail system).
When you get to Matia, run straight to the cove on the far west end and hopefully get a spot at the little four boat dock, there are a couple anchor buoys and room for a few anchors to be dropped. If for some reason you can't stay at Matia, that's OK, simply move on to Sucia. Sucia is only an hour further and has unlimited room. Matia is a little gem and should not be missed, there is a cove on the east end where you can anchor if the west end cove is full. On shore are the standard state park composting toilets and a great trail taking you through a rain forest setting. Unfortunately campfires are not allowed and pets may not use the Matia trails. However -- If foul weather, fog, high seas, or beach combing keep me in port, Matia is where I want to be. It is easy to spend quality, quiet, leisure time.
Day #5 Pry yourself away from Matia and set course for close by Echo Bay or Fossil Bay on Sucia Island. Sucia has many, many bays where you can find good anchoring plus a host of buoys and linear tie ups. (Fossil Bay has two docks) It is easy to spend several days exploring the trail system on Sucia. You can spend some more days exploring by dinghy. For many, Sucia is the ultimate destination, and boat clubs routinely have gatherings. (rendezvous)
Day # 6 (or day # 12 if you've been taking my suggestions) check your tide table and up anchor when a favorable current will assist you, then set course for Jones Island, home of the famous tame pygmy deer you can pet, feeding them is frowned upon. On the way to Jones cut over to West Beach Resort on Orcas Island. Tie up at the dock and enjoy a waffle ice cream cone from the small store. You can also pick up ice, groceries and gas. At Jones Island sail straight into the north cove and grab a spot at the dock, the dock holds six to ten boats depending on size, if no dock space, there are half a dozen buoys and plenty of anchor room. Jones is a favorite spot for day visitors and kayaker's from Deer Harbor, expect boats to come and go, be ready to move to the dock should a space open up. The cove at Jones is very protected and is a great place to weather a storm. Hiking and tide pooling are awesome. On shore are lots of campsites, running water, and a great shoreline trail. Deer wander around and may be approached. ( they say,"don't feed the animals, they will come to expect it, then starve when you leave," (phooey) these deer have got it great) There are apple trees, help yourself.
Day # 7 It is hard to leave a place you enjoy, and most likely will have met some new friends too. Jones is a place you will come back to again and again, but for now, cast off to the fair winds, leave Jones Island and set sail for Deer Harbor. Its just a short run to Deer Harbor on Orcas Island, you can skip this stop, but should you need anything, the on the water resorts store and deli has what you want including overnight slips, gas, etc. You can also skip the next stop at Orcas landing, but it is right on the way, the docking is easy, so why not stop for a few minutes. A few feet up the plank at Orcas, you will find a gift shop, restaurant, a park for lunch, public bathrooms with running water, wahoo. The ferry lands here and is a good place to watch them coming and going. Now get going for James Island our next overnight-er is still a long way to motor. You probably will have some adverse currents that can't be avoided since leaving Jones, the good news is that the currents are less on the inside than they were out in the straits. At this point in the trip you could detour and stay at Friday Harbor or Rosario, or skip James and head straight for Bellingham to end your cruise. If big city life at Friday Harbor doesn't beckon you, go to James for your last night in the San Juans. At James is a small four boat dock and a cove to anchor. The cove on the Rosario Strait side has some buoys. James has a shoreline trail plus two summits you can hike. On shore are bathrooms, campsites with fire pits. Otters and raccoons are a real nuisance on James, they will leave muddy footprints all over your boat, make sure your cooler is latched or tied shut. From James you may spot orcas in Rosario Strait.
|Wind Song anchored off Kayak campsite at James Island|
Day # 8 Study your tides and currents, time your departure properly and you may get a free ride all the way to Squalicum Harbor. With a little luck the wind in Rosario Strait and Bellingham Bay will team up for a fast broad reach all the way to the guest dock. When you arrive back at Squalicum late in the day, plan on spending your last night on board but take a long hot shower ashore. The boat basin never closes and they have three or more areas for transient boaters with self pay kiosks. As a last resort you can always go get your trailer and sleep aboard in the parking lot. (they don't officially allow sleeping in parking lot)
The official transient boater policy at both Friday Harbor and Squalicum Harbor is that they never turn boaters away, they will always find room. If you arrive after office hours (about 5-6pm) contact security for guidance.
Day # 9 Load up and drive for home, while driving make plans for your next trip to the San Juans, you're no longer a first timer.
Oh boy, here's a love hate relationship for sure, although I think most would swing towards love after some wild (fun for some) experiences.
Scroll back up to the map at the very top and familiarize yourself with Deception Pass and Swinomish channel. When heading north, Deception Pass provides quick access to Juan De Fuca Strait and the San Juans, but along with that you get big open water to cross, the potential for heavy seas and nasty pea soup fog. Plus the pass itself may be impassable to slow boats if the current is against you. Many years ago, along comes the Corp of Army Engineers, and cuts a channel through to Padilla Bay creating Swinomish Channel and a neat bypass route to avoid the aforementioned nastiness.
Some people coming from Seattle or even Olympia will travel the other side of Whidbey Island, past Port Townsend and out into the Strait of Juan De Fuca on their way north. That is just fine, but they deal with commercial traffic, heavier seas, and could run smack into a wall of fog with no way around. Deception Pass, like everywhere, is subject to two high tides, two low tides every day and the resulting currents that accompany tide changes. Because some tidal changes are huge and some not so huge, the pass will see fast and not so fast currents (0-9 mph) along with standing waves that are less big at times, and then much much bigger (1ft and up+++) when the wind blows the other way.
Don't be scared away, the scenery is spectacular and well worth your visit, just consult your tide tables and arrange to go through near low or high tide (slack water) the water will be still, flat, calm, and glossy smooth as silk. Fog is another thing and does not respect tides or your schedule, remember your on island time, your schedule is, and should be subject to change. Many times the fog will hover at the pass and outside all the way to the islands, while inside is sunny, sometimes for days. Transiting the pass is a five minute 1,000 foot ride, but if you miss your time slot you may have a 4+ hour wait. Waiting it out at Cornet Bay (Deception Pass State Park) is not a bad thing, our son once talked us into staying there two extra days. (it's an easy place to hang around)
Okay, now about Swinomish channel, it's about 11 miles long and supposed to be dredged to a 12 foot channel depth. The south entrance is only 5 or 6 miles from Deception Pass, so when heading north or launching at Cornet Bay, it is easy to make a final decision of which way to go after you arrive in area. If your destination is the Bellingham Bay area or Anacortes, the channel may be your first/best choice, and visiting La Conner along the way is a major plus anyway. (you can overnight, get gas and provisions at La Conner) I personally like using the channel because it is dependable. Rosario Strait is like a crazy relative, throwing fits once in awhile, and making you wish you were somewhere else.
Lets not forget the current in Swinomish Channel, if your driving a puttster, the current may take half your speed away, or double your sog (speed over ground). Locals joking, have told me that the current flows northward for 23 hours and south for only 1 hr, and no one knows when that hour is. My experience has been that the current seems to be against me both ways, but after stopping in La Conner for ice cream, I don't care.
That's it, I have tried to give you some basic answers to help get you going. If some little thing is holding you back and you need an answer, you may e-mail me or - post a comment so others may benefit.