The San Juan Islands, located in the Salish Sea northwest of Seattle, WA, between northern Washington and Vancouver Island, Canada) are an absolute treasure — and the San Juan Islands Ferry is a great way to get there.
All the islands have that incomparable Pacific Northwest vibe…
You know: beautiful evergreen forests, crystal clear lakes, and picturesque coastlines. They are each a little different and all are worth exploring.
Most visitors are interested in seeing The Big Three: San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez Islands.
However, the San Juan Islands technically include: San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Blakely Island, Decatur Island, Waldron Island, Stuart Island, and a number of smaller islands scattered about the area.
- San Juan Islands Ferry…Getting There
- Important Things to Know
- Catching the Ferry: Anacortes to San Juan Islands
- How to Travel between the San Juan Islands
- Returning to Anacortes from the San Juan Islands by Ferry
- Final Tips on Taking the San Juan Islands Ferry
- San Juan Islands Ferry FAQ
San Juan Islands Ferry…Getting There
The cheapest and most convenient way to travel to the San Juan Islands is by the Washington State Ferry (WSF) system.
The ferry system is very good and plenty of information is available on the Washington State Ferry (WSF) website.
However, it can be a little challenging to navigate at times. Consider this your first-timer’s guide as you prepare for a magical visit.
Important Things to Know
The Washington State Ferry (WSF) website is the place to start for planning your trip by ferry to the San Juan Islands. Reservations – especially to and from the mainland – are highly recommended. Consider also reading the WSF First Time Riders page.
Here’s a quick and easy four-step process to plan your trip: (1) select a route and determine which sailings are available on your date(s) of travel; (2) make a reservation; (3) purchase your tickets; and (4) arrive at the ferry terminal early to queue up for departure.
Easy, huh? The devil is in the details, so read on to see how each step is done!
Read more on travel in the San Juan Islands:
• What to do on Orcas Island
• What to do on San Juan Island
• The best whale watching tours in the San Juan Islands
Select your route. It all starts in Anacortes, WA, a 90-minute drive north of Seattle, and the principal mainland ferry terminal for traveling by foot, bike, motorcycle, or car to the San Juan Islands.
From Anacortes you can reach San Juan Island (Friday Harbor terminal), Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and Shaw Island.
Other islands are not accessible by ferry but can be reached by private boat or chartered sea plane.
Find sailing times for the date(s) you want to travel. To determine if there is a spot available on your preferred travel date, check the Schedule by Date page and look for the route time you prefer.
If it appears on your selected date, there is a spot available and you can make a reservation.
Get reservations ahead of time. Reservations from Anacortes to any of the four destination islands are highly recommended – especially for peak travel times (mid-May through September).
The reservation system usually opens for the summer high season in mid-March or so. Note that a reservation simply holds a spot for your vehicle; it is not a ticket.
The nominal fee to reserve a spot a “no show” fee that you forfeit if you do not cancel by 5 pm the day before travel.
Reservations are for motor vehicles only and are not available (or necessary) for walk-ons or bicyclists.
Where to Stay in the San Juan Islands
Check real-time prices and availability on both hotels and vacation rentals on all three of the San Juan Islands on this map. Just add your dates to see what’s available.
Book your ferry reservation as early as possible. Otherwise, you will likely find all reservations to be sold out.
(We spoke to a local about her frustration trying to get off the island due to the reservation situation during summer.)
Blocks of reservations may open up at different times, so check again if nothing is available on your first try.
Return reservations back to Anacortes can only be made for departures from Orcas Island and Friday Harbor (San Juan Island); return legs from Shaw and Lopez are first come, first served.
Inter-island ferries are first come, first served. There are inter-island ferries for travel between islands.
Inter-island ferry trips cannot be reserved; they are first come, first served. Since some have limited capacity for cars, you’ll want to queue up early to avoid waiting for the next one.
Purchase advance tickets online. Your ferry tickets (from Anacortes as well as inter-island) can be purchased online in advance or at the time of travel from the ticket booth at Anacortes. You can use the online fare calculator to know what your tickets will cost. Peak Season fares usually kick in around May 1.
Tickets are valid for 90 days from date of purchase.
Arrive early to board the ferry. WSF recommends arriving about an hour ahead of departure to queue up for your ferry.
You may want to leave a little extra time is you don’t have a reservation – especially during summer high season.
From the ferry queue, you will be directed onto the ferry. After parking your car, you can proceed to the upper deck(s) for commanding views of the Salish Sea and the beautiful surroundings.
Keep your eyes peeled for interesting wildlife – particularly pods of Orcas or other whales.
The information here pertains to peak season travel (mid-May through September); off season travel may have slightly different routes available.
Check the WSF site for further information. For up-to-date fare information, check the WSF Tickets page and use the online fare calculator. The WSF First Time Rider page is also very helpful.
Catching the Ferry: Anacortes to San Juan Islands
Anacortes is the main terminal for traveling from mainland Washington to the San Juan Islands by ferry. Anacortes is situated about 90 minutes north of Seattle by car and is itself on an island – Fidalgo Island.
The ferry terminal lies to the west of downtown Anacortes. If you find you have time to burn in the Anacortes area, there is plenty to do in this charming seaside town.
There are numerous interesting restaurants, pubs, coffee shops, and boutiques in the downtown area.
Closer to the ferry terminal, beautiful Deception Pass State Park on nearby Whidbey Island is definitely worth a look.
Scheduled routes are clearly shown on WSF’s Schedule by Route page. You can also view routes on the Schedule by Date page.
The passage is typically pleasant with lovely views of the Salish Sea and its many islands and coastlines.
As mentioned above, all outbound (westward) fares include your return (inbound/eastward) trip. Plan to arrive about an hour ahead of departure with a reservation and a little earlier without.
At the terminal tollbooth you will be instructed to queue up in a numbered lane according to your ticketed destination.
How to Travel between the San Juan Islands
Inter-island ferry trips cannot be reserved – they are first come, first served. WSF recommends arriving an hour ahead of departure to queue up for your trip.
The WSF site has a real-time ferry map that is fun to view. In addition, you can check out the capacities of specific sailings by visiting the pages for each terminal.
For example, for Lopez Island terminal you can find ferry capacities by scrolling to the bottom of the Lopez Island page. Sailing times and capacities may change depending on the season.
While there is no reason to hurry, you may want to keep an eye on which route you are selecting, as some ferries may take a bit longer to reach your destination.
We accidentally took the “long way” from Friday Harbor to Lopez but had a thoroughly wonderful sail in glorious weather.
Here is where a little pre-planning may pay off.
One strategy for “island hopping” is to travel from Anacortes to the western-most island, San Juan Island (Friday Harbor terminal).
The “round trip” fare you pay for this ferry could cover your return trip to Anacortes as well as visiting the other ferry-accessible islands, if done in the right order – always moving eastward.
Check the Schedule by Routes page for more options and times. Keep in mind that westbound routes will have a fare while eastbound routes are free.
Returning to Anacortes from the San Juan Islands by Ferry
You can get back to Anacortes, WA (the mainland), from any of the four islands served by Washington State Ferries (WSF).
Note that return trip reservations are only available from Friday Harbor (San Juan Island Ferry Terminal) and Orcas Island. From Lopez and Shaw Islands, the return trip is first come, first served.
Final Tips on Taking the San Juan Islands Ferry
The ferry fleet is aging and occasional needed repairs may ground boats at times, leading to possible schedule delays and longer wait times.
As a side note, you can also fly to the islands. San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez islands all have both public and private airports.
It is also possible (and fun!) to take a sea plane. See the San Juan Islands visitors bureau site for information on flying to and from the islands.
And finally, the Washington State Ferry system normally has ferry routes to Sidney, BC (Vancouver Island, Canada), from Anacortes, WA, and Friday Harbor Terminal (San Juan Island).
However, these routes have not been active during the 2021 season due to Covid-19. Check the WSF site for updates.
The San Juan Islands are truly wonderful and worth a visit.
Getting there – driving your car onto a ferry and sailing across the Salish Sea – is a unique and fun experience and I hope this information helps demystify things for the first time ferry traveler.
San Juan Islands Ferry FAQ
How much is the ferry to the San Juan Islands?
Fares from Anacortes to one of the four islands served by WSF vary based on destination, vehicle, and number of passengers. For current fare prices, see the WSF Online ticketing page as well as the online fare calculator.
Motorcycles, bicycles, and over-sized vehicles all have different fares.
How long is the ferry ride to the San Juan Islands?
The direct passage from Anacortes to the westernmost island, San Juan Island, takes 1 hour and 5 min.
Lopez, Orcas, and Shaw are all about 50-55 min direct passage from Anacortes. Routes with stops prior to your desired destination will, or course, take longer.
Inter-island routes take from 10-45 min. Check the Schedule by Route page for details.
Is there a ferry from Seattle to the San Juan Islands?
WSF does not run a ferry from Seattle to the San Juan Islands. There is a private ferry company that runs a passenger-only (no vehicles) from Seattle to Friday Harbor.
Which of the San Juan Island is best?
San Juan Island is the most visited of the main islands. Friday Harbor where the ferry docks is fun to wander. History lovers will enjoy wandering English Camp, site of The Pig War near scenic Roche Harbor.
Orcas Island is hillier and wilder. It’s perfect if you’re looking for fewer people and fantastic hikes. Head to Moran State Park there and hike Mount Constitution.
Lopez is more rural and flat, and is a favorite of cyclists.
What is the best way to see whales in the San Juan Islands?
If you’re lucky, you’ll see transient orcas from shore. Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan Island has been called “Whale Watch Park” due to the ease of spotting them here in former years.
However, these days the Southern Resident pod that usually lives here is nowhere to be seen due to the shortage of salmon.
To see whales, book an eco-friendly whale watching tour…ideally one with a naturalist on board that follows regulations to keep whales safe will still delivering for travelers. Look for a tour certified by the Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA).
The most tours depart from San Juan Island but you can get them from Orcas or Lopez as well.
You can book an eco-friendly whale-watching tour here.
Do you need a car in the San Juan Islands?
The San Juan Islands offer beautiful, pastoral scenes with rolling hills, farmlands, fantastic coastlines, lakes, and forests.
You can, of course, stay “in town” when you arrive – Friday Harbor being the largest town on any of the islands – but unless you hire a driver or rent a car (possible, but none of the usual national companies rent on the islands), you will miss out on much of what brings people to the islands.
Be advised: the reservation system was suspended several months back (because Covid staffing problems) and it is not yet reliably back. So, try for reservations but allow for a good book and some snacks if you end up in line for an hour or so.
Thank you so much for taking time to let readers know! 🙂