This site has oodles of information about boating and the San Juans, it helps to use the search box BELOW to find what interests you.
Search - "things to do" or try "places to go"
search - Sucia Island
search - Friday Harbor
search - hiking or bicycling
try - kayak - try CAMPING - try Anchoring

++++ ============================= All Posts Below

Current Posts Below

Step by step guide for that first boat trip to the San Juan Islands

Dear loyal reader, I wrote this simple kinda bossy post many years ago with the express intent to help families that are in exactly the same position we were in before our first trip to the San Juan's. I have reread my suggestions (2018) and think this post is still spot on. I also think you would benefit by picking up a copy of my new cruise guide.  Seriously, the updated for 2019 guide is packed with local knowledge and everything about the area that draws us back year after year.  Click here --- San Juan Island's Cruise Guide
my best - John

This cruise itinerary is for the first timer with the boat on a trailer. The novice skipper with family for crew will find this article contains just what's needed to get going on that long talked about trip to the San Juan's.

         While this is a step by step action plan to follow, some of you do not need all the steps and prodding, so those folks should skip ahead to      Day #1. 
For you more experienced skippers that don't need prodding or a plan, please go back to the boaters menu on the home page and click on boat ramps or 12 city's and marinas you need to know about.

For the rest of us, these steps are important, so I've numbered them.

Before you go  (let's get the crew motivated)

  1. Right now, go put two marks on the calendar. Mark the day of departure from home and one week or so later mark the day your returning. Do it now or forever hold your peace and admit you're not really going boat camping in the San Juan's.
  2. Go to your local chandlery or go online and purchase a big color map or chart of the San Juan's. I'm not telling you which one, it doesn't matter, just make it big and one you like to look at.
  3. Got the map? Good, now nail it to the wall where you can see it all the time. Do it now!  OK, the hardest part is over, you have now made a commitment to yourself and crew. You're really going.  Kick back a little, relax, do some day dreaming.  Your trip (cruise, vacation, what ever you want to call it) is already well underway. By now you should be  getting into the  excitement that comes with planning and preparations.    Note:   Don't let worry and stress build up, you are really going to enjoy this outing and it will be easy, trust me.  Relaxing good times should be part of the  process that started when you made the X on the calendar. Remember, on this cruise there are no deadlines to meet, no times to beat, no "sorry no vacancy's" to worry about. You are on your own schedule to do as you please. What could be better besides a gourmet chef and staff.  Study the map with your crew, locate Friday Harbor, Jones Island, and Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham. Do some internet searches, read peoples reviews.
  4. Start compiling a list of supply's and provisions that you think you need. Click here for help with that list;  Cruisers Packing List this list may be a little too much, so pick and choose.
  5. Start making a list of boat and trailer, must do's (like greasing the wheel bearings) I mention wheel bearings because there are a few "must do's" that will potentially ruin your plans, having a bearing go out from your neglect is avoidable, so are boat motor issues. We once went with an untested, worrisome diesel motor, and sure enough it quit, but because of suspected problems I had mounted an outboard bracket and brought my trusty 7.5 hp Honda along which not only saved the trip, but allowed us to extend it a few days.  Another time with a different boat I towed a dinghy which sole purpose (beside getting to shore) was to carry a spare outboard just in case.   Another mistake not to make is inadequate packing for inclement weather, (hope for warm sunny days, but plan for cold windy rain).  Don't forget seasickness pills (Dramamine)  or other medication, one persons needs could ruin the trip. There must be some other must do's that are particular to your family??? Spare tire for trailer! Hmm, what the heck!
  6.  #5 was a downer, lets lighten up.  You need to bring an ice chest if your boat has none, maybe two, plan on ice lasting 3-4 days and then resupply time.  For a food menu, you should plan to eat well, especially if you have bad weather when hot food hits the spot and improves spirits. Sandwiches are easy to prepare and bring lots of trail mix and snacks.  You will need lots of water, don't plan on any being available once you shove off. We bring our water in 5 gallon jugs and pour it into smaller bottles.
  7. You will need a propane cook stove and fuel bottles to last entire trip (propane is $7+ in the islands)
  8. Garbage:  I need to mention it now after suggesting you bring all the junk food.  Your little boat will quickly become overrun with trash, bring bags, the outside islands have no garbage service. Think about all that convenience food packaging material I just told you to bring. Some of the packaging may be left at home. Prepare things in advance and freeze meals ready to go as they thaw (2-4 days in ice chest)
  9. Under boat equipment, the list is very subjective so lets just list a few must haves.  PFD's all around and all coastie required equipment (whistle, type 4, fire ext., registration, lights, etc) Plus I think you need a minimum of two anchors and extra rode, extra fuel if your tank is small.  Your boat should have a range of 75 miles. The rule is 1/3 outbound, 1/3 to get back, 1/3 for reserve. It could be 25 miles between fuel stops, so a 75 mile range gives a good cushion. Many boaters simply tie 5 gallon jugs on deck.  If your boat is open and it really rains hard, bring a tarp and ropes to lash it down. You may sleep on shore so a tent is needed. You need a hand bilge pump and a bucket, or just a bucket. (even if you have an electric one, you still need a hand pump or bucket)  You will probably find a rag and sponge handy too.
  10. Bring a GPS,  You can get by without one, but they are fun to play with, and really are useful when you are lost.  Some phones have apps available. Bring your cell phone (they work good almost everywhere) Bring the map or chart nailed on the wall or better yet go buy a real navigation chart (I use NOAA chart number 18421) with depths and rocks all located.  Bring a compass (hand held is OK) Bring a vhf marine radio (you can buy a portable battery one for about $100.   
  11. To dinghy or not to dinghy.  Yes, you need a way to get to shore unless your plan is to only visit resorts.  Your dinghy needs to carry at least two people so you can ferry everyone to shore.  You don't need to carry your dinghy on board, you can tow it at all times. (your 17 foot runabout can tow an 8 foot dinghy, be sure to get a picture) You could easily get by with a two person inflatable kayak (about $79) but I would opt for a three man raft.
  12. The boats loaded your ready to go. Don't forget to tell someone where your're going, and when to call for help if you don't check in as planned. That person could be a friend or relative that doesn't panic over  icky weather reports.  They should call the San Juan County Sheriff or Coast Guard if needed, or someone you have prearranged to call, 911 works too. Remember, your plans may change as the week progresses, but you can check in with a cell phone call most of the time.
Time to go 
suggested trip itinerary for camping in the san jauns

Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham
Squalicum Harbor Marina - red dots = boat ramp, restaurant, showers, parking, guest docks
  1.   Day #1  Your destination is Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham. (not Anacortes) Squalicum has the best boat ramp around, and free long term parking for your trailer and tow rig. Cap Sante in Anacortes has a sling and pay to park.  You can arrive and take right off but I would plan to spend the first night at the guest dock or in your parked rig. Do not cast off unless you are sure you will have enough light to make it to your anchorage or marina. Navigating in the dark is risky business and requires more of you than you bargained for, and may easily cause a really stressed vacation.  Its still daylight until around 9pm, so if you arrive around  6pm there is plenty of time to get the boat launched, go shopping, eat in a restaurant, hang out. As I said, I would plan to stay the first night at the Squalicum  transient dock. The marina has bathrooms, showers, lots and lots of parking.  If your the worrier on this trip and need to talk to people, you can call them (Squalicum Harbor Master) during regular business hours.  The launch fee and guest dock payments are made at a self serve kiosk, you could arrive at midnight, its a 24 hour deal.  No stress, just show up with your boat.
  2.   Day #2   In the morning, you can eat at the restaurant overlooking the marina next to the bathrooms, (the food is good and priced right) jump in the car and run to Walmart or just cast off at sun up. I like to walk around and talk to other boaters coffee cup in hand.
  3. Your destination is Echo Bay at Sucia Island, its about 20 miles so you will have plenty of time even if you hang around Squalicum until early afternoon.   If you get there (Sucia) a little earlier you will have time to hike and explore, or maybe first go to Fossil bay where you may get a spot at the dock.  Of course tying up to an anchor buoy or the dock requires a fee whereas anchoring is free.
  4. Now then, just to be clear for you bathroom lovers and porta potty worriers. All the parks have bathrooms on shore. When you arrive you will anchor nearby or tie to an anchor buoy or get a dock spot - I promise.  You will probably camp on the boat but all the parks have tent sites on shore. So no worries!
  5.  This would be a good time for you to check out this article about currents > click here for current guide/atlas info                                          
  6. Sucia Island map chart
    Sucia Island with Echo Bay and Fossil Bay marked with red dots
  7.   Day #3   On this day you may want to stick around Sucia for some exploring, fishing, or kayaking if it suits you. You could easily spend several days just hiking.  
  8. Let's up anchor at noon, our destination is Jones Island, a distance of only 12 miles.  On the way to Jones you may want or need to stop at West Beach resort/marina on Orcas.  West beach is right on the way and will not add much time or distance to this leg.  At West Beach you can get fuel, waffle ice cream cones, ice and groceries. West Beach is just past Point Doughty on Orcas (check your chart/map and find Pt. Doughty) Did you bring binoculars, (too late now!) they will be helpful in spotting some far off places across the water and West Beach is one of those places? Like Sucia, if you get to Jones early you may get a space at the dock, but you can always snag a buoy or anchor for free. Jones is pretty small but about perfect, you can beachcomb, explore, kayak or hike trails, circling the island in about an hour.
  9. Jones Island
    Jones island map chart
    Jones Island
  10. Plan to stay a day or two at Jones it could easily be your favorite stop, it is mine.
  11.   Day #4   But it could be day 5 or 6 if your getting into the boat traveling thing.
  12. Once again there is no need to take off early, but by now you may have noticed that currents play a big roll in passage times, and fuel used. I check my current charts and then ignore them mostly, but at least I know what to expect. Leave Jones Island in your wake and set course for Friday Harbor, no need to rush, its only 5 miles and they never turn boaters away. You can make a reservation for a slip in advance but there really is no need, and its nice to not have a rigid schedule.  You can also just stop by for a few hours for free, and walk around town, buy souvenirs and provisions and then move on.  I recommend on your first trip that you spend the night at Friday Harbor, visit the Whale Museum, hang around town and waterfront goings on, eat at the many places, and above all by now you will be wanting a shower, which is available right on the docks.  When you arrive near the breakwater, you can call the Harbormaster on the radio or use your cell phone, or simply tie up at the outer dock, sometimes they have a little harbormaster shed office out on the end and you can talk across the water.  It's all very simple and low key, even after hours  when the security people will take care of you. One visit we rented a slip for two nights while we bicycled around San Juan Island.
  13. Friday harbor 
    Friday Harbor marina map chart
    Friday Harbor 
  14.   Day #5    Check out time is after lunch sometime so again, no rush. Set course for Rosario in East Sound on Orcas Island.  The distance is about 11 miles and you may end up with a modest current either for or against your plans, you may want to arrange your transit according to favorable currents.  Around Friday Harbor is a lot of boat traffic and you will see more than one ferry for sure, don't worry, just use your common sense.  On your way to Rosario you may want to take a little side trip over to Olga for a short stop over at the public dock, (Olga is also on Orcas just south of Rosario) when you get to Rosario you will be able to rent a slip, hang on a buoy, or anchor out. Rosario resort has some nice grounds, restaurants, provision store, fuel, and tours of the Mansion turned museum. Because you will probably have time to kill I would seriously consider showing up later in the day or making your visit a two hour stop over and then move on to another stop for the night.
  15. Rosario picture 
    Rosario on Orcas Island
    Rosario - Mansion/Museum is in lower left, marina restaurant at top
  16. An alternate stop would be past Rosario at Eastsound where they have a public dock.
  17. Another alternate stop just a little further, but heading more toward your car at Squalicum would be Pelican Beach on Cypress Island.  Pictorial  >> Pelican Beach pictorial  << Pelican Beach has about 4 or 5 buoys and we have always been able to squeeze in and anchor.  In a pinch you can run half a mile down to Eagle Harbor where they have 18 or so buoys. BTW Cypress is DNR land so everything is free (no buoy or camping fees) If your into hiking this is probably the best around. The beach is a favorite for kayakers from Bellingham and Anacortes, expect to enjoy good conversation around the many campfires lining the beach.
  18. Pelican Beach map here  
    Pelican Beach map chart on Cypress Island
    Pelican Beach on northeast end of Cypress Island

  19.   Day #6   Today's destination is Squalicum Harbor and then head for home. Its about 15 miles from Cypress to Bellingham, so it will take some time.  By now you should have a pretty good idea of your boats ability to get around and deal with wind and currents. Bellingham Bay seems to go on forever, especially when the elements are lined up against you. 
  20. If you have time for a quick lunch stop on the way, you should really consider dropping hook in Inati Bay on Lummi Island
  21. Inati bay map 
    Inati Bay map chart on Lummi Island
    Inati Bay on southeast side of Lummi Island
  22. Plan your departure from Cypress so you arrive at Squalicum with time to load up and head for home, or I recommend you plan one more night on the boat at the visitor/guest docks at Squalicum Harbor.  This way you will be showered, fed and refreshed in the morning and have the whole day to load up and drive towards home. In my opinion, driving home in the dark after a long last day of boating is no way to wind up a relaxing vacation.
That's it
  • I hope I was able to give you the incentive, motivation and pertinent information to get going on that first trip to the San Juan Islands.  My recommendations are by no means all that there is to see and do. Please do some research and modify my suggestions to suit your situation, for instance it is entirely possible to stay at resorts and eat in restaurants every night. The more budget minded may choose to anchor out everywhere.  (yes, you can anchor next to the docks at Friday Harbor and then paddle over to their dinghy dock, no charge) You may also start and end at Cap Sante, La Conner, Deception Pass, or even start out far far south in Olympia like we did once.

That's not it yet

Why choose one destination over another, and in what order.

This is a simple yet easily missed part of trip planning with more personal issues than may be addressed, but I'll hit some points to ponder. 
  • Traveling in a great circle and avoiding backtracking saves fuel, time.
  • Starting out fully stocked and refreshed means you don't need to visit a provision or fuel stop for many days. So traveling to outer locations first and major resorts later makes sense.
  • Follow your interests, if you crave solitude and nature, go to Patos and Matia. If hiking excites you head for Sucia or Cypress.  For big city party animals, try Friday Harbor.  To hob nob among the rich and famous with mega yachts, look no further than Roche Harbor.
  • If your prime interest is to get good sailing winds, you may want to avoid the inner areas and plan your days out in the straits.  Haro Strait, Rosario, Georgia and of course Juan De Fuca are more likely to offer some decent sailing. Don't overlook huge Bellingham Bay for great sailing too.
  • Will fog ruin your good times, then maybe you should avoid the more south areas like the Strait of Juan De Fuca, Port Townsend, and possibly the southerly portions of Haro and Rosario straits. On this note, these same areas offer some of the best sailing, scenery (whale watching) and the weather can be warm and sunny, so what to do?
  • Plan to be flexible and have alternate plans, above all do not let your self imposed schedule influence your decisions regarding safety. One time we abandoned our entire trip plan and sat tied to the dock at Cornet Bay to avoid pea soup fog. We fished, hiked, visited, read, ate, drank, and had a fine time.
  • Use this sites search box to sleuth out much much more.
  • Lastly - get my San Juan Islands Cruise guide at Amazon  >> Cruise Guide
You first timers may find this article helpful >> Questions and Answers

That's it  
See you at Jones Island.