If you look at a Washington State Ferries schedule for the San Juan Islands, you will find a mystifying array of trips that stop at some islands, and don't stop at others. Some trips are marked "Interisland". These are the trips that go between islands for local traffic, without going to Anacortes.
Any of the ferries can wind up being used on the interisland ferry runs. However, most of the time the ship that makes this run is the Evergreen State.
As of this writing, the Evergreen State is the oldest ship in the Washington State Ferries system, having been built as their first vessel (all the rest they inherited or purchased from other operators).
The boat is quite utilitarian in its interior, as seen in photo 2. There is no effort taken to cover the electrical or air conditioning equipment in the ceiling - sort of like the stylish new restaurants do. The Evergreen State is perhaps just way ahead of its time?
The ship has a simple two deck construction without the raised side auto decks of the larger boats. There are no extensive restaurant facilities here, but a vending machine or two help provide vitals should it be necessary.
Those loading autos or other vehicles onto the boat may be subject to some odd instructions due to the fact that some ferry terminals load at one end of the boat, while others load at the other end. In some cases it may be necessary to either back onto the boat (usually only larger vehicles), or more often required to turn around at the opposite end of the boat when being loaded, so that the position of your vehicle does not interfere with the loading and unloading of other vehicles at various other terminals. How your vehicle is loaded depends on where you load, and your destination.
There is no fare charged for walk-on passengers traveling between islands. Vehicle charges depend on a number of factors, so the best source is the State of Washington ferries schedule and rate charts on the web site.
The ferry schedules are changed quarterly based on travel demand, so make sure you get the schedule that is correct for the time of year you plan to visit.
Many of my previous tips dealt with getting to the islands without a car. However, what about getting around on the islands once you have arrived? This is an important question, as there are a number of visitors that arrive on the islands using their own boat, or a float plane service, and while the boat is good for getting from island to island and from some of the locations to others, sometimes it isn't the easiest way.
There are several options for getting around on the islands if you do not have a car.
Biking is an extremely popular way to get around on the islands, and it is possible to cram many, many more bikes onto one of the ferries than autos. Thus, there are not as many limitations when it comes to getting from island to island if you have a bike. Electric bikes are also available for rental in Friday Harbor at additional cost.
Moped Rental / Vehicle Rental
This is a more expensive option, but several places do offer them. On Orcas it is Orcas Mopeds, and in Friday Harbor it is Suzie's Mopeds.
Taxi services are fairly popular on the island as that way people don't have to bring their car onto the Washington State Ferry, and thus can avoid the sometimes very long wait. However, taxis are not cheap either. In fact, they are usually the most expensive option. However, they are around, and in a number of cases they are simply a single operator with a single vehicle. Generally they are around the ferry terminal when the ferry arrives and it is just a matter of finding one. If you are elsewhere on the islands it is best to ask someone where you are staying before you arrive. As so many of these operators are single owners some of them are simply not going to be available all the time.
I have been told by island residents that hitch hiking is a popular way to get around on the islands, as sometimes there is no other economical way. Generally they do not do this during tourist season when many strange faces are in town, but during the off season it isn't unusual.
San Juan Transit
There is a transit service that operates on San Juan Island and Orcas Island. Service is very seasonal, and as the primary market are tourists the buses only operate on certain days early in the season. During peak tourist season the buses operate daily on all routes.
The Web Site Below gives a few options for getting around on the islands but it is incomplete with its mention of taxi services - there are at least a dozen independent operators. However, they are not always available all of the time.
While a fair number of people will tell you the proper place for this tip is in the Warning or Dangers area or perhaps the Tourist Trap section, the fact is these little cars (smaller than many bicycles) are one way to get around on the San Juan Islands, and are fairly unique to the island culture. It is very rare to see these little vehicles anywhere in the State of Washington outside the San Juan Islands.
Why are they popular?
The engine in them is tiny. It is about what you would find in a motor scooter. Gasoline is expensive on the islands as it must be trucked in on the ferries. Thus, there is a limited supply and the process of getting it is expensive.
There is limited parking in many places, as there is only so much space on the islands, and off-season there isn't that much traffic. Thus, there isn't really that much interest in building huge numbers of parking places that will only be used two months of the year.
Scooters work OK, but they can only carry one person and a limited amount of equipment / supplies / luggage / groceries. These little cars carry more than you can put on a scooter, and if you don't need a full sized car to carry all your stuff it might fit in one of these.
The dirty little secret? Unfortunately they are so popular for transport on the islands during the tourist season that they rent for about twice what you can rent a car - and sometimes more. The prices tend to be in the $70 to $115 a day range, depending on the location.
Various locations rent these, including Suzies Mopeds in Friday Harbor and Orcas Mopeds in the village of Orcas on Orcas Island. I have heard they are also available at Roche Harbor and other locations but mention on the various web sites is spotty at best.
There are two different shuttle bus operators that run services primarily designed to deliver people to and from the SeaTac Airport.
Island Airporter: (San Juan Island to SeaTac):
Island Airporter operates a direct van from San Juan Island to the SeaTac Airport south of Seattle. The scheduled service operates once per day except it does not operate on Sundays. I have not explored it as an option as the schedule does not coincide with the Amtrak schedule from Portland very well, and it also requires getting to and from the SeaTac Airport. Prices are $50 one way, but this does not include the ferry ticket (which is cheaper with them due to their special bulk pricing on the ferry tickets).
There does seem to be some unscheduled service, which operates the van at other times of the day than what you would expect from the daily timetable. My guess is that if a large enough group needs to get to the SeaTac airport, the van will operate for them.
The service is primarily aimed at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor to the airport, but I don't think there would be too much objection to passengers getting off the ferry at other locations, such as Orcas Island or Lopez Island, should the ferry be stopping there.
Bellair Airporter (SeaTac to Interstate 5 Corridor + Anacortes Ferry):
Bellair Airporter is slightly less expensive than the Island Airporter at $57 round trip from SeaTac or downtown Seattle to the ferry terminal at Anacortes, and the service operates several times a day including some holidays but not the major holidays. There is also the option of starting at a number of other locations along the route rather than just at the SeaTac airport (unlike Island Airporter). Many, many different communities are included from Seattle all the way north to Bellingham and by special arrangement Blaine.
Note that the prices listed are both one way and round trip, so that it can look expensive if you don't look at their price sheet correctly.
There are several different ways of getting to and from the San Juan Islands without your own car. Part 1 of this Tip explored some of the more expensive options available by using water (including float planes). There are cheaper ways of getting to the San Juan Islands without a car, but these are also slower options depending on what connections you are able to find. Some of these illustrate the difficulties of getting around using public transit in the USA, due to the way the schedules work. It can sometimes be frustrating and time consuming due to the inherent disorganization and lack of coordination between transit agencies over longer distances.
Part 3 of this tip is the Island Airport van service.
Here I will also give some of my own experiences in taking transit offerings from Seattle to the San Juan Islands. This can be a frustrating experience if you are in a hurry, but try to keep an adventurous spirit, and just realize that there are those that have to make this trek on a regular basis as part of their commuting to work lives. As I live in Portland, Oregon the methods involved in getting to the islands are a little more limited than what can be done directly from Seattle due to the several hours it takes to get from Portland to Seattle. Starting from Seattle has a few more options that should be explored.
Mount Vernon - March's Point - Anacortes: A Vital Link
This is the link that gets you to and from the ferry terminal in Anacortes. As it is a vital part of all forms of transit to get to the Washington State Ferry routes serving the San Juan Islands, I will cover it first.
Island Transit ( serving Island County - it has no affiliation with the San Juan Islands but instead serves Whidbey Island and Camano Island) and Skagit Transit have cooperated on a transit connection between Mount Vernon and the ferry terminal in Anacortes. Island Transit operates a transit bus that connects the Mount Vernon Station to Oak Harbor, stopping at the March's Point park and ride and transit center just south of the Anacortes oil refinery. Here, a number of other bus routes converge to transport these passengers to other locations. These buses are timed so that if all goes well (and it actually works very well) every hour there is a connection from Mount Vernon to March's Point to the ferry terminal in Anacortes. The drivers of the buses and the transit agency dispatchers understand that this whole thing has to operate as a system, and so they call each other over the radio to let other buses know that they are carrying passengers that need to make another connection. Island Transit buses are free, and the local Skagit Transit bus from March' Point to Anacortes is $1. As the only scheduled transit connection to and from the ferry terminal at Anacortes, anything that connect to this Skagit Transit bus route is important.
Amtrak: (June of 2013 timetable)
There is an Amtrak train that leaves Seattle going north at 7:40 in the morning. This gets to Mount Vernon around 9:20. At 9:50 you can get Island Transit bus route 411 to Whidbey Island, get off at March's Point, transfer to Skagit Transit route 410 to the ferry, and arrive at the ferry by 10:35am if all goes well. However, I have not used this option yet as I live in Portland, and it would only be practical to do this with an overnight in Seattle.
From Portland, there is an Amtrak inter-ticketed bus that connects with the first train north from Portland. Currently, it leaves Seattle King Street Station at 12:45 pm and arrives in Mount Vernon at 2:10 pm. When I did this trip, the bus from Seattle actually arrived at Mount Vernon slightly early, and I was able to get the 1:58pm series of bus connections out to Anacortes, arriving there at approximately 3pm. Had the bus arrived on time, I would have been on the 2:58 bus to get out there, and arrived there at 4pm. Either way, I would have made the 4:30pm ferry to Friday Harbor, and I wound up arriving in Friday Harbor around 6pm. However, if I would have been trying to make the 3:30 ferry to Orcas Island and missed the Mount Vernon connection, it would have been a very long wait for the next ferry. The price was $17 for the Amtrak bus and $1 for the Skagit Transit bus to the ferry terminal. If I did this over again, and I managed to make the 3:00 connection to Anacortes, I would ask for a transfer and find somewhere to eat in Anacortes as there isn't much of anything at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal.
Local Transit Connections; Seattle -> Anacortes for $6.50
Leaving Portland on the 12:15 train, I got to Seattle around 4:00 due to a bridge lift over the Willamette River that delayed the train. When I was on the platform at the station in Seattle, I got to watch the 4:05 pm Sounder train I needed for heading further north depart just as I got off Amtrak's train. I wound up heading upstairs and over to the SoundTransit bus stop, where I got bus route 510, an express bus to Everett. There, I managed to get Skagit Transit route 90X from Everett to Mount Vernon - but just barely. This let me get the 6:10 bus to March's Point an the timed Anacortes Ferry bus from there, and I arrived out there around 7:00pm. Unfortunately, that means the 6:45 ferry to Friday Harbor just left, so I wound up having to wait for the 8:20 pm departure. That boat had a small problem, so instead they decide to replace it with the Chelan, which is the boat that is used on the Sidney -> Anacortes service. We all wind up waiting until that boat arrives, unloads, and all passengers go through customs. Arrival in Friday Harbor is almost exactly at 10 at night, but the hotel said they were watching the ferry information service on the web and saw there was a problem, and kept their front desk open until after 10 because, in Friday Harbor, everything runs on the ferry schedule.
The total cost to get from Seattle to the Anacortes ferry terminal: $1 for the local Skagit bus in Anacortes, $0 for the Island Transit connector, $2 for the Everett to Mount Vernon Connector, and $3.50 for bus route 510 from Seattle to Everett. Total Cash Cost: $6.50 one way.
Mid-Day Transit Connections; Anacortes to Seattle for $6.50
Returning from Friday Harbor to Seattle seemed a bit difficult. The first ferry out of Friday Harbor leaves at 5:50 in the morning. This gets to Anacortes about 7:10, and half an hour later it is possible to get the hourly Anacortes -> March's Point -> Mount Vernon connection, and then get the southbound Amtrak train that comes through Mount Vernon at 9:15. However, that bus connection doesn't get to Mount Vernon until 8:30, and by then all of the express buses that connect Mount Vernon to Everett have ceased until evening rush hour. If I somehow miss that first ferry or the bus connection, I'm basically screwed for a day.
However, there is another way: longer in terms of the time used, but $2 cheaper as it avoids the $2 premium of the Skagit Transit express bus.
There is only one transit link between Anacortes and the Everett area that operates during the days, outside of rush hour, and that is Island Transit bus route 1, which operates down the length of Whidbey Island. So, upon arrival at Anacortes on the ferry, I grab the Anacortes -> March's Point bus. Around 8 am I transfer to Island Transit bus route 411 going towards Oak Harbor (not the one going to Mount Vernon), and head across the bridge at Deception Pass. After a 20 minute wait in Oak Harbor I transfer to bus route 1, headed for the ferry terminal at Clinton, in the southern area of Whidbey Island. While there are a number of stops the bus mostly cruises through the farmland of the island at highway speeds for long distances. Approximately 10 minutes before the bus arrives at the ferry terminal at Clinton, the bus driver calls the ferry crew and lets them know he is about to arrive with about 15 more ferry passengers.
There is no charge for eastbound ferry passengers on the Clinton -> Mukilteo ferry route, so no time is required to buy tickets. They are still loading autos, with most of the walk-on passengers boarded beforehand. However, since the bus driver let them know he was about to arrive, they let us board after they have finished with the auto traffic. The crossing takes only about 20 minutes.
Despite the fact that it is served by a number of bus routes and the Sounder commuter trains, there isn't an easy way to get from the ferry in Mukilteo to Seattle, unless it is during rush hour going south. At 10:40 in the morning, it is only slow local routes. I have a choice between an 11:00 bus going to Everett and trying to get the express bus to Seattle from there, or taking Community Transit bus 113 to a Park and Ride Lot and getting express bus 511 to Seattle from there. The Mukilteo to Everett to Seattle connection doesn't work very well, as it would require waiting in Everett about half an hour (not that the 20 minute wait at the Park and Ride is much better). So, I wait until 10:50 to get the bus up to the Ash Way Park and Ride, and get SoundTransit Express 511 to Seattle.
There are ways of getting from Seattle to the ferry terminal in Anacortes using public transit, but it has to be carefully planned, and certain trips can wind up taking a very long time due to the connections and waiting for them. It would be great if more transit agencies would plan things the way Skagit Transit and Island Transit have planned their connection at March's Point, and it would be great if someone would actually coordinate a San Juan Islands Ferry bus with the actual ferry schedule.
There are several different ways of getting to and from the San Juan Islands without your own car. The options listed here are somewhat more expensive than taking transit services to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal, but they are more direct and therefore worth the price to some. I have classified these as "water" because two of them are boat options, but the first one (and the most expensive way of getting to the San Juan Islands - but by far the fastest) is a float plane - which also uses the water, just not very long.
Of these services, I have only made use of the Victoria Clipper, and that only once due to the fact that the departure and arrival times in Seattle do not cooperate very well with Amtrak connections to get to Portland. Those overnighting in Seattle have different option available to them.
Kenmore Air offers Lake Union (Seattle) to San Juan Islands air service (to Friday Harbor or several other locations in the islands) in scheduled float planes, if the weather isn't too rough to land on the water. This is by far the most expensive option without getting into private charters, but it is also the fastest. I have never used this method as it is too expensive for my tastes. However, the Seattle to San Juan Islands service only takes about 45 minutes. During peak periods there may be 5 or more round trips, depending on estimated demand that day. Prices are in the $153 range as of June of 2013. Note: this truly is a Seattle departure area, as the planes leave from Lake Union rather than SeaTac (some 15 miles south of Seattle).
This is a daily Seattle to Friday Harbor boat that only operates during the tourist season (May through September). As it only gets you to Friday Harbor, and only runs once a day, departing Seattle fairly early in the morning, using it requires an overnight in Seattle or a very select travel schedule. The northbound trip goes through Deception Pass, and is quite scenic under the right circumstances. However, it is partially a tourist trip with some slow downs to look at wildlife on certain islands. Even so, the trip is direct. Prices are in a wide range, depending on special pricing or the number of tickets sold for a particular trip. Round trip prices can be as low as approximately $45 or as high as $75 as of June of 2013 - but specials happen and sell-outs happen so those prices are only a range.
Puget Sound Express from Port Townsend
During the summer months, Puget Sound Express offers a whale watching trip out of Port Townsend, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the San Juan Islands. This water can be quite rough. As part of this trip, they also offer it as a ferry service from Port Townsend to Friday Harbor.
Connecting the four most populated of the San Juan Islands with Anacortes, Washington and Sidney, British Columbia, the Washington State Ferries is the primary mode of transport between the islands, and between the islands and the rest of the world.
Summer weather causes a dramatic increase in the demand for travel, but it doesn't increase the budget for operating the ferries. Therefore, the ferries at key times become extremely crowded, and if you must travel at one of these times it is really best to try to find some alternative (take transit to the ferry terminal and ride as a walk-on passenger, rent a bike, or alter your travel plans so that you ride one of the ferry sailings that isn't at a prime demand time.
There are several things that must be explained about this ferry operation:
1. This is a fairly complicated set of routes, and looking at the timetable is really your best bet to understand what goes on here.
2. There is the primary connections to the outside world, which start at Anacortes and work west. Some of these stop at some islands, and some stop at others, while most stop at Friday Harbor at their ultimate destination due to that being the most populated island. Generally this is where you pay your fare. In order to keep the amount of fare collections simplified, generally fare collection is only done going west.
3. There is an inter-island run, generally held down by the Evergreen State, which as the name implies is primarily intended to serve those going from one island to the other.
4. Passports may be Required if Leaving from Friday Harbor!!! The very occasional service from Sidney, BC to Friday Harbor to Anacortes requires a bit of planning: It stops in Friday Harbor, but only those passengers departing at Friday Harbor are given customs inspection there. Those traveling from Friday Harbor to Anacortes on these sailings have to go through customs and passport patrol with everyone else once they reach Anacortes, even though they are only going from one city in the USA to another.
The boats are equipped with galley facilities that are simple but adequate to the task, but it should be understood that due to budget cuts they are not kept open very long periods at this time. Current hours as of this writing depend on which boat is being talked about - for example, boat #1 may have certain hours while boat #2 may have different hours due to the different demands of that particular route. As a typical example, as of this writing (May of 2013) boat #2 opens its galley at 8 am and closes at 1:30 in the afternoon on all days except Sundays, when it closes at 3:30 in the afternoon. A few vending machines are also available for those wanting food or drink outside galley operating hours.
You have to understand that there is a certain odd culture on the ferries as these are people's primary means of transportation. Therefore, there are a number of regular riders. One of the unique features this means on the San Juan Islands route are jigsaw puzzles that are set up in a number of different tables throughout the boat. People completely unrelated to each other will work on these over days, with some on one run putting in a few pieces, and then the next run someone else might sit at the same table, and put in a few more pieces - and you hope that nobody loses the pieces over time!
You will Want a Jacket! The temperature of the air on the water can be 30 degrees lower than what you have on mainland around Interstate 5. There is usually a cold wind blowing at the boats, and frequently this wind comes off the glaciers on the Olympic Peninsula. Bring clothes you can layer to adjust to the temperature variations.
Most likely, so long as the weather is anywhere near clear, you will want to be outside to see the scenery from the boats. In dense weather all the islands look the same - trees running down to the water's edge, and a few houses here and there, with the occasional passing sailboat or motorcraft. However, on a clear day, or even semi-clear day, the sights can be a lot more interesting. To the southwest there is the Olympic Mountains and their snow caps. To the east there is Mount Baker, plus a number of lesser peaks running along the ridge of the Cascades. To the north it is sometimes possible to view the snow capped mountains near Vancouver BC. Far to the south, it is very rare but possible to see Mount Rainier. There is a very rare change of seeing interesting wildlife, including porpoises, and just maybe the resident orca population. Also,, a number of water birds gather in these waters - some are permanent residents while others are either migrants passing through, or summer or winter only residents.
Fares depend a lot on what you are doing. There are multi-ride tickets available, and so long as you use the purchased tickets in the require time this may be a good choice for those making a long visit. Single ride fares have a peak season surcharge during the good weather months - impacting most forms of transport. For example, during peak season there is a bicycle surcharge for a single ride ticket but during the winter months there is no surcharge. It is best to take a look at the Washington State Ferries web site, and in particular the PDF fare document, as it shows the complete fare structure. It can be complicated depending on length of vehicle, over-height requirement, kayak stowage, and other items that add or subtract from the fare.
Photos: For an example of a few of the things that can be seen on a clear day, please see my May 3, 2013 Travelogue.
Please be advised that the Orcas Island Shuttle is the only reliable transportation on the island. The cost is $5 one way. The shuttle uses the ferry arrival and departure as its basis for times around the island. It meets all ferry arrivals. I recommend it highly. The drivers are incredibly helpful and kind. Renting a car on the island is almost cost prohibitive.
We rented a car once we arrived from the short flight from Seattle. I would highly recommend renting a car ($40/day) otherwise you are limited to exploring the entire island and the taxis and shuttles are rather expensive. The short flight from Seattle was 45 minutes compred to the ferry.