Every year thousands of people go to one of the most beautiful places on earth, the San Juan Islands. Some are chartering a boat for the first time. Others are world travelers returning from the South Pacific. They come to visit the crown jewels of the Pacific Northwest, the marine parks that encompass entire islands Some seek challenging passages or secluded anchorages and others are looking for a one or two week family adventure with fun for everyone.
This article is the first in a series to discuss our favorite family friendly places in the San Juan Islands. These are places that are not accessible by ferries, shuttles, or cars. There are places set aside for recreational boaters, easily reached in a small boat, safe for anchoring or tying to a buoy or dock, and full of fun activities for everyone. Many now have bigger docks, more campsites, fancier tables, new composting toilets, and modern log shelters. But they have retained the rustic, magical ambiance that allows families to create memories for a lifetime. Here you will find nature at its finest, with sea creatures, wildlife on shore, and lots of fun for everyone, young and old.
Sucia Island State park is my favorite family friendly marine park.. It’s north of Orcas Island at the southern end of Georgia Strait. Access is by boat only, about 16 NM from Blaine, about 20 NM from Bellingham, 22 NM from Anacortes, and 16 NM from Friday Harbor. Its also a short distance from three other islands that are State Parks, Patos Island, Matia Island, and Clark Island. To visit Sucia there are tides, currents, and moderate winds to consider but it is a safe and short trip to a wonderful place.
If you are leaving from Blaine you must consider winds and currents in Georgia Strait. From Bellingham you may encounter rough water at the north end of Rosario Strait and from Anacortes you will encounter currents in Rosario Strait along with winds from the north or south. From Friday Harbor, the main concern will be currents in San Juan Channel and Presidents Channel then a short patch of possible rough water at the north end of Presidents Channel. During the summer months the weather is mostly benign and predicable. But before you go listen to the weather reports on VHF radio and the local AM and FM radio channels. Study your nautical chart, check the tides and plan your route to accommodate the currents. The rough conditions will be worst when winds blow against the currents, causing short, steep waves. But even when that happens the distances are short and planning is easy.
The best time to visit is July or August when the weather is usually warm and the chance of rainy days is minimal. It will be a bit less crowded in June and September but mid-summer is the best time of the year for Pacific NW boating.
Sucia Island State Park has multiple sheltered bays and coves. You can pay by the night to use a dock or a buoy or buy an annual park pass before you leave. http://www.parks.wa.gov/boating/moorage/?subject=permit. If you arrive between 11:00 am and 1:00 pm you are almost assured of finding a vacant buoy.
Fossil Bay has buoys, two docks, and space to anchor. Fox Cove and Ewing Cove have only a few buoys and are not suitable for anchoring due to strong currents. Shallow Bay has buoys and room to anchor. Use caution to avoid the shallow areas. Echo Bay has numerous buoys, a linear moorage system (heavy ropes strung between permanent buoys), and ample anchorage area. Fossil Bay, Fox Cove, Shallow Bay, and Echo Bay all have very nice campsites with composting toilets in clean outhouses.
Sucia Island is place with lots of things to do and room to roam. Plan to stay for at least three nights. Bring your flashlights for evening walks in the forest, your binoculars for watching eagles soar overhead, a good cooler and a gas stove or bar-b-que for picnics or dinners onshore on or on the dock. Bring an attitude to relax, slow down, kick back, or run wild. Leave your “smart” phone behind or turn it off. (The cell service is poor a.) Don’t bring a TV or computer. You don’t need it.
The docks in Fossil Bay have picnic tables for family meals or gatherings. There are numerous campsites with more tables, room for multiple tents, fire pits, and water spigots. (Some may be turned off during dry summers.) The campsites are perfect for kids to set up tents for sleeping ashore and enjoying some time away from the adults. There are Park Rangers to answer your questions and help in emergencies.
Snoring Bay, Shallow Bay, and Ewing Cove have pebble beaches that yield agates to diligent seekers. The bluffs on the south facing beaches near Fossil Bay are littered with tiny fossils and the reefs exposed at minus tides are wonderful places to explore the tide pools. Bring a book that identifies marina life so the kids can have a miniature biology lesson. You just might start a child on a lifetime career as a marine biologist or fisheries expert. Expect to see multi-colored starfish, baby fish, small crabs, sea urchins, mussels, huge barnacles, sea cucumbers, and other assorted marine life in the tide-pools. Watch for harbor seals as they float offshore. If you see a baby seal on the beach, don’t worry and don’t approach. Mama just left him there for the day while she hunts for fish. Trust me, she will return. Marine mammals are very diligent parents.
There are numerous trails for walking and small forest roads used by the Park Rangers that are great for bikes. The loop trail along the north side has great views of Georgia Strait, the Gulf Islands and the ocean freighters headed north to Vancouver or South-west to the Pacific Ocean. If you look up you will likely see bald eagles high in the trees looking for fish or other prey. There is a nice trail all the way to Ewing Cove, the site of Native American camps from days long past. We have found ancient arrow heads on the beach there. If you find one you must leave it but the fun of finding an old arrow head from the distant past surpasses the urge to take it home.
Early in crabbing season the waters of Fossil Bay and Echo Bay yield tasty dungeness crabs. Fishing is good (when the season is open) along the north side of the Island inside Clements reef. When the weather is calm if you have a good sized dinghy with a reliable engine a trip to Patos Island is a real treat. Patos Island has an old (restored) lighthouse very nice trails, and great beachcombing. , You can also go to Matia Island, tie to the dock or land on the beach and walk the nature trail through the old growth forest. Little Sucia Island adjacent to Fox Cove is a very short distance and you can explore the exposed reef and tide pools on its west side.
The rocky hillsides above the beaches in Shallow Bay are great for kids to climb (carefully). There is just enough danger to make it interesting. (Be sure you have a good first aid kit to treat the scrapes and bruises that may result.) During the summer months it’s also a good idea to have some insect repellant to ward off the mosquitoes in the evenings, especially on the beaches at Shallow Bay. (If you get bit, find a dried fern with the brown seed spots on the underside of the fronds. Rub a bit of the brown seed on the bite with a drop of water and the itch will stop.)
On hot days the water in Fossil Bay, Fox Cove, Shallow Bay, and Echo Bay will be refreshingly brisk but warm enough for brave swimmers. It’s not the tropics but on a hot day when the incoming tide covers the warm rocks swimming is an option. Bring along an air mattress or an inner tube so the kids can paddle around. Let them launch a log big enough to ride and paddle but be sure to drag it back up the beach when they finish so it does not become a hazard to boats.
In Echo Bay expect to see harbor seals floating placidly and slapping their tails on the surface after dusk. If you have a kayak or dinghy with oars take a tour of the rocks along the north side of Echo Bay and keep a sharp eye out for sea otters poking around in the tiny coves. Canadian geese will beg for handouts. If you feed them many more will come. But don’t feed the sea gulls unless you fancy cleaning up the deck of your boat the next morning.
In the summer when the sky is clear the sunset views from Shallow Bay (and Matia Island) are spectacular. Sit on the beach or on a bench above the bay and watch the sun disappear over the horizon. You won’t be disappointed.
There is a reason why people who started visiting Sucia Island 50 years ago still return each summer. If you schedule three or more days for a visit you will discover why. But be sure to bring your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews. Its that kind of place.