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Five Things Everyone Should Know Before Cruising the San Juan Islands

Fun Observations and Frivolous Knowledge  for 

All Boaters new to the San Juan's (repost)

#1 Hugely fluctuating water levels   (tides)

The San Juans 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 Juans 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, your stuck until the tide comes back up. On a rising tide your boat will float away while you're on shore.  Since your 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 a dinghy they can carry up above high tide.
San Juan Islands - very low tide at Matia

#2 Strong Swirling Currents (in places)
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 2 mph.  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.  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.  CLICK BELOW for Rosario Strait at Guemes Channel
NOAA tide forecasts
In a nut shell, 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."  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.
San Juan and Gulf Islands Current Atlas

San Juan Islands current charts

#3 Weather could be fog  (pea soup is the term)
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, 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) A gps will not replace a compass in rough water and fog, a gps is much too slow  reacting when you are getting spun from broadsides or quartering waves (broaching) you need both.   Many times in the San Juans 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.
San Juan Islands fog hiding a ferry
See the ferry approaching the anchored sailboat?

#4 Wind or lack of wind  (sorry sailors)
OK, here's some bad news for sailors.  The San Juans 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.
Sailing with reefed main in cold weather
Sailing in April rain with reefed main

#5 Crowd control   (no worries)
Most likely you won't 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 dock on holiday
Fourth of July celebration in the San Juan Islands at Roche Harbor Resort
Roche Harbor summer celebration with children

Roche Harbor balloon chasing contest

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. 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
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, Blakelys, or Orcas landing fills 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. Lopez Village has free showers but no dock so you will need a to dinghy to Lopez village

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 you are 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 day time 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 also will mark their territory by pooing on your stuff, dock lines are a favorite.

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 go:
Your destination is simply that, its the journey getting there and the experiences on the way that make a trip a wonderful vacation. Try the links below for some Island Park descriptions.

Bring your cell phone and charger, bring at least a portable handheld marine radio, bring basic first aid kit, call the Coast Guard, they can be there pretty fast, or arrange for vessel assist on your credit card, bring a friend with a similar boat, then you can help each other.


Free Camping in the San Juan Islands

    Before you pack up and get on your way, let's define what free means and where the San Juan Islands are located.  For some, free may mean no charge for camping but may fail to add in the cost of a new boat or kayak and tons of gear.  For others, anything less than the price of a five star hotel and plane ticket is a steal.

    The San Juans are arguably defined as part of an archipelago including but not limited to the islands of San Juan County Washington. Therefore, including nearby islands  with other zip codes seems appropriate when planning a camping trip to the San Juan's

    Washington State DNR land (department of natural resources) is not state park land it is DNR land and offers five amazing and free camping spots in the San Juan Island area.  All are first come and no reservations and only accessible by boat. All are pack it in and pack it out.  Facilities are maintained by local volunteers and clubs.

  1. Pelican Beach on Cypress Island
  2. Cypress Head  on Cypress Island
  3. Lummi Campground on Lummi Island
  4. Pt Doughty on Orcas Island
  5. Griffin Bay on San Juan Island
     Grifffin Bay:       
     Five campsites, each with tables, fire rings, one pit toilet. Bring your kayaks ashore or anchor off and come ashore by dinghy. One anchor buoy is provided. Enter this latitude and longitude into google search or your gps or your boats plotter to find the campsite 48.475944 N, 123.009857 W Another method would be to  cruise along the west shore of Griffin Bay ( San Juan Island side) looking for a beach landing  and buoy halfway between Fourth of July Beach and Low Point on your NOAA chart.

Free DNR campsite on Griffin Bay
Griffin Bay free camping

     Point Doughty:
     Three campsites, fire rings and a toilet are on this lonely and exposed point on the north side of Orcas Island. Use this lat. and long. to locate on a map or chart, 48°42'42.2 N, 122°56'58.3 W

     Lummi Island campground:
 is easy to find but here are the coordinates.  48.659223 N, 122.614348 W.

Beachfront free camping in the San Juan Islands

Kayak campground marine park San Juans

Free camping  in DNR campground in the San Juan's

Lummi Island Campground is reached from a small cove on the southeast side of Lummi Island 
just south of Smugglers Cove, Inati Bay,  and  Reil Harbor. 
Your best landmark clue will be the sign on the bluff.

     Cypress Head Campground:
This kayaker and boaters and hikers dream destination is on Cypress Island a short 5 mile paddle from Anacortes or Washington Park. Cypress head is the eastern most tip of Cypress Island jutting out into Bellingham Channel just north of Deepwater Bay. The gps coordinates are 48.568919 N, 122.670692 W

Free camping in the San Juans on Cypress Head
Cypress Head point creates a nice protected bay with anchor balls and a very dinghy and kayak friendly gravel beach. Trails connecting to the the rest of the island are across the narrow isthmus.

     Pelican Beach:
     This free waterfront campground on Cypress Island is very popular with kayakers, power boaters, sail boaters, everyone likes Pelican Beach.  It even has ADA compliant composting toilets. The shore is lined with about half a dozen campsites, each with tables and fire rings, directly offshore are anchor buoys. The easy trail up to the top of Eagle Bluff begins at the water edge. To find Pelican Beach simply follow the east side of Cypress Island north about one mile past the Eagle Harbor anchorage. If you run past the end of the island, turn around, you're a quarter mile too far. Here are the coordinates.  48.603400 N, 122.704134 W
Free San Juan Island camping at Pelican Beach

Free San Juan Island camping at Pelican Beach

Free San Juan Island camping at Pelican Beach

That's it for free camping in the San Juan Island area.  The Washington DNR has lots more free camping in other areas that are highway accessible.


Cypress Island trail map

To view larger image,  try right clicking and open in new window and then look for plus/minus icon.
The best way, is clicking or pasting the url below and you may then enlarge the image without it being blurry.

San Juan Islands trail map - Cypress Island
Cypress Island trail map


Important Camping Equipment - List - for Boat Camping

By important, I mean important for camping, not that my list is important.
beaching dinghy at James Island in the San Juans

      Over the years, camping aficionados tend to collect everything needed.  They learn from  painful experience what not to forget - again.   Packing for them is just a matter of grabbing prepacked gear. They store it stuffed into one pack, one closet, or in my case, one group of Rubbermaid boxes. Everything is kept together so that when it is time to load up and go nothing important is forgot or left behind.  We call ours  "camping gear,"  and "camping boxes," and all of it is stored on the "camping shelves." 

         In our gear boxes you will find  rolls of aluminum foil with only six inches left, dead spray cans, water logged matches, and barely functioning openers, corkscrews and  rusty grimy pliers.  Did I leave out dim flashlights?

       Rather than list a truly massive list of mostly unneeded items, I thought I would attempt to list the important things that really impact me when forgot. Like my sleeping bag or coat, both I have forgot.

This is a boat camping list, 
not surprisingly, it doubles as a car camping list:

folding saw
ropes and tarps
baby or folding shovel
flashlights -  tested, with extra batteries
fire starting system or plan
stove or cooking system and fuel
fry pan
cooking pot
coffee system
bucket with bail (use for hauling water or bailing or storing icky stuff))
plastic bags big and little
sanitation needs
sponge or rags and towel
soap or detergent
water proof and animal proof food containers
kitchen stuff - spoons, openers,
folding chair
good knife or multi-tool
emergency tool kit
sleeping pad
sleeping bag
tent (for some)
water jugs
layered clothing for hot, cold, and rain
mosquito repellant

Some of the items don't belong in a gear box (like clothing) but should be listed.

For those of you that need more, try my
Mother of all packing lists - click here > Mother of all packing lists


Twenty Marine Parks - Twenty Public Docks - Five Boat launching Ramps in the San Juan Islands

Map of San Juan Island Area
With selected Parks, Docks, and Trailer Boat Ramps
Map of San Juan area parks, docks, trailer boat launch ramps
The  boat ramps (purple) are all on the mainland

 •  Boat Ramps = Purple    Parks = Red  •  Docks = Green

Most docks (floats) are in parks, resorts, marinas and may be used for overnight camping. Boat launching ramps have long term parking.  Parks without docks have anchor buoys or areas suitable for anchoring.


Ten lessor known places to visit in the San Juan's

     Everyone knows about Rosario - Friday Harbor - Roche Harbor and Sucia Island.  Of course they are famous and not to miss, but some of the best San Juan area destinations are much less traveled and even less talked about.  Out of the way places have secrets where local knowledge may turn a ho-hum cruise into a truly memorable event.  I am listing and describing some favorites, feel free to make them yours too.

   Not in any order or preference!

   #1  Saddlebag Island
       At the top of Guemes Channel northeast of Anacortes in Padilla Bay is diminutive Saddlebag Island State Park.

       Saddlebag has only 24 acres, its distinctive dog-bone shape creates two teeny bays. The north one suitable for  two anchored boats, or only one if the skipper hogs the middle on a long rode. We have always been able to anchor fifty feet from shore.  The dinghy ride is short and sweet, the gravel beach is friendly and steep.  The bay catches a little flotsam and wayward seaweed so an aroma may be mixed in with treasures you find.

      The narrow center isthmus holds a small campground and outhouse (newer).  Hiking the shoreline trail is easy and follows a handy figure eight shape affording views in all directions.  Being less than two miles from Anacortes makes Saddlebag an easy kayak destination.

      The waters on the east side of Saddlebag are shallow and rock strewn, circling the island is a white-knuckle event at lower tides. Your dinghy or kayak would be a better choice than the mother ship if you are determined to gunk-hole.

      We stop at Saddlebag for lunch and a hike, overnight if it is late, or just a quick anchor and hike.  We always see something new, and never go away unhappy.

       Saddlebag may only be rated as  five star, you will be glad you stopped by.

Saddlebag Island State Park


     #2 Lopez Village

     Stop, don't think that I think you don't know all about Lopez Village, of course you do.

But do you know how to land your dinghy right downtown?

     Many people, go to the Islander Resort or Islands Marine Center in Fisherman Bay and then walk or bicycle the 3/4 mile back to town. That's a long way to carry groceries or walk to breakfast, and you don't have to!

     There is a public beach access to the village just outside the entrance to Fisherman Bay and here is how to spot it and what to do.

      First you have some choices:
        #1 anchor outside the Fisherman Bay entrance, but you will be waked by other boats so this is a short term at best choice. #2 anchor just inside Fisherman Bay (no wake zone)  on the right side at the first corner, or anchor a little further in in front of Islands Marine Center or the Islander Resort.  #3 tie up at one of the two mentioned resort docks and pay the fees. I prefer option #2 because it is protected from the wind and gives easy access to the Spit Preserve.

      Once anchored or tied up to the dock, jump in the dinghy and race back outside the entrance.  Run as far as the  red navigation aid (dolphin) marking the safe entrance to Fisherman Bay and look towards shore, there you will easily spot a galvanized stairway way with switch back and viewing platform.

      Bring the dinghy ashore right in front of the stairway. The beach to the left and right are private with signs reminding us.  We drag the dinghy all the way up to the stairs and tie off on a steel support.

       Once you charge up the stairs and get your bearings you will find you are right smack in the middle of the village.  The fudge shop is fifty feet away and across the street is the free hot shower and bathroom supported by the Lopez Chamber of Commerce (donations accepted).  Another block up the road brings you to the grocery stores.  Sometimes we bring our bikes ashore here or rendezvous with others that came by ferry.

Public access stairs to Lopez Village
Public access beach and stairs for Lopez Village

     #3 Matia Island Trail

        We all have our favorite place, trail, or experience we remember fondly.  I conveniently forget the rainy foggy times, recalling just the good stuff. Matia has always been that place for me.  I once said to a fellow boater that if I was stuck somewhere due to bad weather or rough seas, Matia was where I wanted to be.

         Matia Island State Park is about one mile east of Sucia and a little more north of Orcas.

       My preferred access is Rolf Cove on the west end.  From the dock on Matia, with field glasses you can look right up Echo Bay and count the yachts at Sucia (sort of).  Rolfe cove is cute, smallish, stops most wind and rogue wakes and feels homey, private and comfortable at the dock or paddling the dinghy.  The rickety single pole gangplank and old wood float is quaint, but due to be replaced, and currently holds only four boats.  The bay has room for three or four more at buoys or anchored.

       The second less preferred but equally protected access is a large cove on the far east end, but there is no dock. (The trail is at the dinghy friendly beach at the head of the cove)

        What makes Matia special is the one mile trail circling the south half of the island. Part rain forest, part sea shore, part wildlife habitat, hiking the trail is an experience worth repeating.  It connects you with the island and with nature, it renews and grounds you..  Once you start down the, no dogs allowed path, you become immersed in the island and leave the world somewhere else.  

Matia Island one mile trail is special

Matia Island loop trail at Matia State Park

Matia Island trail near hermits cabin location
For an up close personal look at Matia, check out the
 Matia pictorial here Land and Sea around Matia

      #4 Bicycle Around Lummi Island

      Lopez Island is known as the bicycling Island because it is less hilly than Orcas or San Juan Island, but did you know that Lummi Island is flatter by far than Lopez?  It's true, the loop around the north end of Lummi is a delightful pedal along the shore the entire 7 1/2 miles.   Lummi's lack of commercial development means very few cars too, and the few you do encounter will be locals that generally drive like they live there.

        There are no public docks where you may tie up or come ashore, but there is a public park and beach where you can anchor and come ashore by dinghy.  It is a little bit of work but well worth the effort to lug your bikes ashore.  There is also a cafe and general store walking distance from the public beach.

Here is a link to a post that describes in detail  >>> How to go ashore on Lummi Island

Lummi Island  bicycle ride access point

      #5 Eastsound - the village (city)

       Eastsound is not visited much by boaters, few boats anchor or tie to the county dock even though it is the second largest town in San Juan county. Never the less, this artsy craftsy city is always worthy of a stopover. Eastsound has the largest store on Orcas Island, a dog park, a people park with live music festivals. Summer farmers markets, craft galleries, and loads of bistros.  

       Eastsound's location is great for rendezvous with friends and family arriving by car or bicycle. It is easy to spend the entire day being a tourist and then retire to the boat, a day well spent.

      When you visit, plan on anchoring and rowing over to the county dock with the dinghy since the county only allows short time tie ups and no over-nighters at the float.

      For those of you without a chart, map or gps, Eastsound is at the top of East Sound on Orcas Island.  Simply go past Rosario until you run out of water.  The dock and anchor area are in Fishing Bay on the west shore of Madrona Point.
Eastsound county dock and anchor area
The tiny Eastsound county dock is used mostly for dinghy landing, and is only one block to the village center and the largest food store on Orcas Island.

     #6  Vendovi Island Preserve

      Vendovi Island is a small island on your chart, north of Cypress and south of Lummi.  When heading out from Bellingham you probably steer around it on your way to the inner islands.

       The entire island was once a private home-site, hence has never been developed. The single modest home is where the caretakers live and is off limits, the rest of the property is forest with trails leading to view points and meadows around the island.

       Access is on the islands north end where a breakwater forms a bay protecting a nice float. Admission is free.  This is a good place to break up your cruise and spend a few hours walking on shore or just have lunch in the gazebo.  Comical Puffins live in the rocks of the breakwater and are sure to entertain you.

Vendovi Island free public dock to access Island hiking trails
Vendovi Island float

Vendozi Island

       #7 Fort Whitman on Goat Island

      Fort Whitman and Battery Harrison easily win the battle for least visited and are virtually unknown except to locals. There are no signs, no brochures, no promotion.  Even the state of Washington seems loath to admit its existence or encourage tourism.

     According to online sources, Goat Island is managed by Washington's department of fish and wildlife, visiting is not restricted, although they prefer to not talk about it. 

     For gunk-holers and true explorers, Fort Whitman is tops and it is unbelievably easy to get to and access. 

      Follow this link to a posting detailing every last detail you need to check this place out.  You will be glad you added it to your - must see/do list. Your inner child will love it.

Click here to go to >> Fort Whitman on Goat Island

Fort Whitman Goat Island Battery Harrison on Swinomish channel
Battery Harrison at Fort Whitman on Goat Island

Last on my list of lessor known places to visit are hikes - I mean real uphill hikes, the kind that work up a sweat and you are really glad when you finally arrive at your destination.

#7 Young Hill

     Start this hike at English Camp on Garrison Bay.  Begin by anchoring near the tiny dinghy dock, please don't hog the entire dock with your big yacht.  Wear your hiking shoes and bring plenty of water, your going to drink all of it.

        Check out the interpretive center, and grounds if this is your first visit and then get going. Walk up the trail to the parking lot and then rejoin the trail at the top of the parking lot.  From now on you can't get lost or miss the trail, just keep going up, up, and up some more.

      When you get to the top, it is a false top, take a break and then follow the trail up another five minutes, up to the real top.

        Noticeably absent on this two hour hike are resting benches, use a handy rock or stump.  Perhaps the smooth wide trail and welcome shade trees, make up for a lack, of rest stops, you decide.
view from Young Hill overlooking mosquito pass and Garrison bay
View of Garrison Bay from Young Hill, Mosquito Pass is barely visible,
beyond is Haro Strait, Sidney Island, and then Vancouver Island

        #8 Cypress Lake on Cypress Island

       This is the longest loop hike I know of except Turtleback Mountain and the hikes in Moran State Park which of course are not accessible by boat alone.

        The trails on Cypress interconnect making long and varying hikes possible.  The most straight forward access to Cypress Lake is by anchoring or hooking one of 18+  buoys in Eagle Harbor, and then dinghy ashore landing at a small gravel beach on the south shore of the bay.  It is an easy to spot landing because it's about the only place without grass and muck, plus there is a DNR rules and regs. sign to greet you complete with a free trail map if you are lucky. (don't steal the posted one, that's not nice)

       Much of the trail to the lake is not really a trail, it is more like a rutted jeep road that steadily climbs to about 1,000 feet in a little less than two miles.  It is a grinding workout but not too bad, the lake is just so so,  but never the less a good destination. I don't know about fishing, let us all know in comments if you have fished it.

        On the way back down be sure to take the loop side trail that leads to the old airstrip and winds through the woods past a small unnamed lake that is warm and people swim in.  The once, panoramic view from the airstrip is all but gone as planted trees take hold, but the hike is a good one anyway.

        I strongly suggest that you go online and find a map to print and take with you, my description will get you to Cypress Lake just fine, but the other trails are just waiting.
Cypress Island trail map
Cypress lake hike on Cypress island
Cypress Lake

    #9 Eagle Bluff on Cypress Island

    This is possibly my favorite hike and I must warn you right off that hiking to the bluff is not allowed until after July 15 each year. Apparently people affect the baby birds. Sometimes we plan our schedule so we can make this hike.

Eagle bluff aka Eagle Cliff from Rosario Strait on Cypress Island
Imposing Eagle Bluff 

       Eagle bluff overlooks Rosario Strait giving you great views north and south down the waterway and of course of Orcas Island.  The trail is in good shape with handy steps and a short five foot ladder at a particularly steep section. As you hike you will see peek a boo peeks at clearings and drop offs, but nothing dangerous until you get to the very top, then watch your step and grab the children and pets.  If you are patient or fortunate you will see eagles and ospreys soaring in the updrafts, sometimes in mock aerial attacks with siblings.

       Access this extraordinary 1-2 hour hike from Pelican Beach, you won't need a map the trail is well marked.

     Pelican Beach is near the north end of Cypress Island facing Sinclair Island.  It is one mile north of Eagle Harbor, there are picnic tables on shore a DNR sign and a restroom in the woods. Off shore are four or six anchor buoys. You can't miss it.

Free camping at Pelican Beach on Cypress Island

Pelican Beach

       Follow the link below to a posting full of pictures.
Eagle Bluff pictorial hike

Oops, did I say ten?  Okay, try #10 - Sharpe Cove at Deception Pass
click here >> Sharpe Cove

Sharp Cove, Bowman Bay, Rosario beach, Maiden of deception Pass
Maiden of Deception Pass at Sharpe Cove.

That's it, if you go see these ten places and also hit the biggies like Roche and Friday Harbor, Jones, Sucia and Stuart, etc., you will have years of great cruises.

A critic once wrote:

 "All the author has done is write about his favorite places"  Yes, that's exactly what I have done.
John -


Bicycle ride from the Lopez Island County Dock at Hunter Bay to Iceberg Point on the Strait of Juan De Fuca

       We  spent the night at the dock on James Island.  Our plan was to ride the morning current south through Lopez Pass and over to the county dock on Hunter Bay.  Next we would unload our bicycles and ride to Agate Beach where we would then hike to Iceberg Point.  If time permitted after returning to the boat, we would whale watch while cruising up Haro Strait on the outside of San Juan Island to spend the night at Garrison Bay or Roche Harbor.  This seemed like an ambitious but doable first full day of our loosely planned vacation.

         We left James late (9am) and arrived at Hunter Bay early (9:45), which is what happens when you are only going 4 1/2 miles.

          Spotting the  small county dock from a distance was difficult because a little rocky islet blocked our view until we were right on top of it.  Half the boat hung out from the  tiny cargo loading space, but we got the bicycles off without any problem, and then moved away and anchored in ten feet on a rising tide.


Hunter Bay, county dock and launch ramp on Lopez Island
This county dock and ramp is for public use, but is primarily used by nearby local residents.  Like all county docks, you may not spend the night but we see boats tied up all day and all night anyway.  Under the gangway is a spot for dinghy's and next to the bicycles is reserved for loading and unloading only.  Anchoring nearby is easy and the bay is well protected except from northerlies.

Kraken anchored near Hunter bay dock on Lopez island
In the far distance you can see Orcas Island, so any north winds building waves will be coming all the way from Eastsound and can be a touch big, just like southerlies coming from Hunter Bay tend to be uncomfortable when they reach the top of East Sound -- touche'
Southend Store and restaurant is about a two mile walk with a pretty significant hill to go up and over.  Off to the left where the cove is  more protected are a number of cruisers bedded down.  All in all, this is a pretty peaceful place to hang on the hook or come ashore.

   We tied up in the already crowded dinghy spot under the gangplank.  Watered, sun screened and raring to ride to Iceberg Point, we pedaled a few hundred feet and ended up walking up a rather steep hill the first 3/4 mile.  It was a nice forested walk, we mingled with baby deer and glimpsed homes nestled around towering trees.  Still pushing our bikes, we crested the hill only to find another much smaller hill. Finally we started coasting at flank speed down the other side and I'm thinking, oh boy, we have to come back over this mountain later today in blazing afternoon sun.

            Once out on the islands only south end main road, we merged with and then were left in the dust of several large  bicycle excursion groups complete with chase vans and guides.  We caught up with them resting at Southend Store only to have them fly by us again on the way to Agate Beach Park.  At Agate Beach we may have accidentally photo bombed them while they posed for group photos.  We pushed on for a quarter mile and padlocked the bikes at the trail head to Iceberg Point.

           We are almost at the half way point of our days planned bike/hike, all we have to do is walk the mile or so out to the point and back, then head for the boat like a horse to its barn.  I want to call Uber.

          I will save the  details about Iceberg Point for another day except to say it is the tip of Lopez  Island facing the Strait of Juan De Fuca, and I think it was a great  worthwhile place to visit.  I also think it would be a very miserable place on shore in a storm and downright dangerous off shore in small craft. Our day so far, was balmy and near perfect. 

         On the way back we were overtaken again by fit and trim excursion bicyclists, each one wishing us a good day as they sped by. The ones riding tandems seemed extra peppy.

        We stopped at the same store/restaurant on the way back, no other bicyclists were in sight. I had been talking about getting a hamburger, coke and fries since leaving Iceberg Point.  We sat down in the restaurant portion of the store at a table with a checkered tablecloth  loaded with chips and salsa. I picked up the Mexican only menu to find pages of burritos, enchiladas and nachos. The hamburger and fries will have to wait.  The pulled pork burritos we ordered were huge and the warm salsa was out of this world good.

       I was ready for Uber or even a stranger with a rusty pickup when we saddled up for the last time an hour later, but the hill coming back was not as steep and we pedaled all but a short section, making it back to the dinghy and Kraken in short order.

Iceberg Point on Lopez Island
Iceberg Point Nav. aid. In the background is Cattle Pass and San Juan Island, beautiful calm day with a little lingering low haze. Across the Strait of Juan De Fuca we were treated to the snow capped Olympic mountains

Iceberg Point from cattle pass

The same nav-aid viewed from the water hours later as we head north hoping to spot orcas, still a flat hazy day. You don't have to ride bikes from Hunter Bay like we did, you can anchor at Agate Beach and make the easy hike out to Iceberg Point.

chart of Agate Beach  Iceberg Point Hunter Bay
There is no dock at Agate Beach but you can anchor right in front of the stairs
and hike the short distance to the Iceberg Point trail head.
The bike ride from Hunter Bay to Iceberg Point is enjoyable and takes you by Southend Store for a handy lunch stop or in my case - directions.

       Our bike and hike was just about perfect, we will  do it again someday. All together we pedaled about 7 1/2 miles, and walked 1 or 2. After loading up we headed leisurely around the south end of Lopez fighting a small current until we cleared Cattle Pass where we got a little boost all the way through Mosquito Pass.  We took a slip at Roche Harbor in time to watch the "Lowering of the flags" ceremony.  When they fired the canon, my day was complete.  I slept well that night.


Five Tips for Bicycles and Dinghy's in the San Juan's

     If you limit yourself to places with docks to offload bikes you are also missing out on some of the best places worth exploring.  Learning to haul bikes in the dinghy opens up a world of  onshore expeditions.

     Furthermore, if you are planning to use a dock to unload bikes, and the dock is for whatever reason, ie. crowded or out of service, there go all your well thought through plans, out the window and in the drink.

     Prior to heading out you should experiment with ways to load bikes into the dinghy.  You do not want to learn the hard way what not to do. Poking a hole in the favorite and likely the only inflatable would be the hard way.  I think type four seat cushions will protect an inflatable, but I have never tried it since my dinghy is fiberglass.

     Plan ahead, one time we sewed up huge bicycle bags from tarps to protect our bikes during an extended trip we knew may have salt water cascading over us.

  • Bring your old bikes if possible, saltwater means rust. Flush and wash asap afterwards.
  • I accept that I will be wading in ankle deep water when reaching shore, so I wear sandals.
  • Bike chains, pedals and spokes will get snagged, be patient and  super careful not to do damage while transporting and untangling a mess.
  • I bring a tire patch kit, basic tools and pump.
    • plus I use that anti leak slime stuff in all my tubes.
  • Many of our bike rides end up as hikes where we leave the bikes unattended so we bring a cable and lock.  It's not that I don't trust people, I just don't want to risk walking miles and miles back to the boat.
Bikes stacked in dinghy for going ashore
Going ashore we took two at a time, which meant three round  trips for four people.  Upon coming back, Ryan suggested we try stacking all four bikes which meant only two trips.  Count them, it worked fine. The dinghy is a nine foot Livingston.


Anchor Rode Marking

       Why mark the anchor rode?  Easy -- sooner or later you will wonder how much line is out.

         In my opinion, marking the rode is not hard nor costly.  Suppliers sell tags, with footage numbers, some people use cable ties or bits of yarn.

        Some exuberant skippers, mark every twenty five feet and use day-glo colors.

        Years of anchoring in the San Juans has honed my system, or should I say reduced it to what works for me.

      My obvious observations:

  • Anchoring, like coming in to the dock or slip must be done fairly quickly or the boat floats away.  This means doing math calculations or untangling snarly rode should be completed beforehand.
  • Under water, red, black,and other colors look the same or just disappear.
  • Trying to spot, cutesy paint marks, little tags or bits of string flying out of the hawse pipe is problematic, especially for newbie crew.
  • Guesstimating how much rode has been let out is not accurate, but is never the less the system I used for years.
  • I tried using a code, such as two marks, three marks, four marks to designate small increments. It was confusing, hard to keep track of, and kinda pointless anyway since I forgot the code.
  • Anchoring in dark or windy conditions, or stiff current, quickly identifies inadequate systems, poor planning, and lack of preparation.
     What I do today:
  • My experience has been that all paints I have tried last only one season in salt water. Now I  use whatever left over black or red latex paint or spray paint I have. I apply it on a three to four foot section.  
  • My first mark is at fifty feet, then one hundred, then one fifty, etc. Since I usually anchor in 15 - 20 feet the third mark never sees water and stays in good shape.
  • If I suspect problems or crucial timing issues, I will pull all the needed rode out of the locker and cleanly flake it on deck beforehand.
  • When I up anchor, if conditions permit, I flake the rode on deck for cleaning and drying and then carefully drop it in the locker later. Sometimes I put my thirty feet of wet or muddy chain in a milk crate and leave it in the sun.  Putting away wet gear tends to stink, so I avoid it when  I can, especially if I plan to anchor again that day.
  • I have a pair of dedicated gloves I use for anchor handling.
anchoring in the San Juans
How well I anchor is proportional to how well I sleep!


Visit Vendovi Island Preserve

       For years all of us have been going around Vendovi  Island on our way to Sucia or the inner islands.  If you are thinking Vendovi sounds familiar but can't quite place it, I will tell you - it is the little 200+ acre dot on your chart due south from the southern tip of Lummi Island.  200 acres is about the size of Jones Island if that comparison is of any help.  The map clipping below should help you zero in on Vendovi's location.

        The San Juan Preservation Trust has owned and protected Vendovi Island since 2010.  Visiting  days are  April 1st through Sept. 30.    Open hours are 10 am to 6 pm, Thursday through Monday. They are closed Tues. and Wed.

        Access is a small cove at the north end.  There is a 70 foot, first come no reserve dock behind the breakwater, or you may beach kayaks and dinghy's in front of caretaker home if the dock is full. No anchoring in the cove or overnight stays at the dock are allowed.

      Bring your hiking shoes and plan to immerse yourself in unspoiled wilderness, but you should stay on the trails if you  truly respect the wilderness and the SJPT mission to preserve.  No camping, fires, bicycles, or hunting, pets are to be on leash.  Enjoy!

San Juan Preservation Preserve Vendovi Island

      Learn about the many San Juan Preservation Trust  preserves  here  >> Map of SJPT preserves