The San Juan Islands offer some of the most beautiful scenery and cruising in the world. Safe harbors are numerous and the weather is largely benign and comfortable and rarely dangerous during the summer months. You will never be far from a safe harbor and assistance if you need it. You can listen to constant weather reports on your VHF radio and charts are numerous and highly accurate. There are many public parks and beaches and you will likely see whales, porpoises, seals, bald eagles, huge herons, raccoons, and deer. At many locations you can catch crab and dig for clams and skilled fishermen can catch salmon and bottom-fish. If you have kids they can spend hours beach-combing and exploring tide-pools. The following list is a small list of places to go. The name of each place is a link to another web-site with additional information.
NOTE: Shellfish harvesting is closed is all of San Juan County (as of 7/9/2010) due to the danger of paralytic shellfish poisoning. (PSP or “red tide”). Do not eat clams, oysters, mussles, or other bi-valve shellfish without first checking for PSP warnings status. Crabs are not included in the warning.
Here are some of our favorite places. To see some photos of places discussed below click here: San Juan Islands photos.
Anacortes: Cap Sante Marina. A stop at Cap Sante Marina is a great way to visit the town of Anacortes. This is a full service town with excellent facilities. The marina has new cement docks for larger boats (40′ and larger) with wide slips and wide fairways. It is much easier to get in and out of than many older marinas. Anacortes has excellent shopping for marine related items and lots of other shopping. There are two supermarkets within easy walking distance and a large West Marine store and two hardware stores as well. Moorage is $1.10 a foot plus $4.00 for power. During the summer months, there is a good chance the town will be having one of its many festivals and events. Cap Sante is an excellent spot for beginning a cruise of the San Juan Islands or for areas further north. If you have the time, make a visit to Cap Sante marina. The staff is helpful and friendly.
James Island State Park. James Island has one very small dock on the west side and four buoys lying off a pretty pebble beach on the east side. The east side is open to boat wake from ferries and other vessels in Rosario Strait. The dock on the west side is too small for most cruising vessels (but perfect to land your dinghy) and the west side near the dock is not good for anchoring due to strong currents. The entire island is a park with very nice camping and hiking trails. The park is never crowded and is a great place to walk your dog and explore the woods on the easy trails. The best way to visit is to tie at one of the buoys on the east side or anchor west of Decatur Head on Decatur Island (just off the beach) then visit James Island by dinghy.
Spencer Spit State Park: Even though it gets crowded during the summer season, Spencer Spit is a crown jewel. We have been going to Spencer Spit for decades. Its a fantastic place for kids. There are long sandy beaches, trails in the woods, driftwood for building forts, kayak rentals, picnic tables, roads for bicycles, clamming, and crabbing. You can spend a day lying in the sun and take a long walk on the beach in the evening. There are buoys on both sides of the spit (north and south) and space to anchor as well. The south side is more protected from a NW wind and not exposed to wake from ferries or other vessels coming or going via Thatcher Pass. (If a north wind comes up it can get VERY comfortable on the north side of the spit.) The south side has more space to anchor but check your depth sounder and tide tables. (There are shallow areas on both sides.) To be safe, its best not to anchor inside the buoys closest to shore. Its safe to transit the narrow pass west of Frost Island but stay close to Frost Island and don’t cut the corner and head west (either north or south of the spit) until you are well clear. Spencer Spit is a wonderful place to walk your dog. 2010 update: The log cabin at the end of the spit has been rebuilt and there are a few less mooring bouys. 4 on the south side and 7 on the north side. Still plenty of room to anchor on the south side. Crabbing can be excellent at Spencer Spit especially in the 30 – 40 foot depths on the south side of the spit. Clamming is also excellent, with an abundance of butter clams, manila clams, and horse clams on the north beach near to the spit. However, in 2010 clamming is closed due to PSP (red tide) warning. If you want to dig clams, be sure to check the bulletin boards next to the log cabin and near the beach campsites for closure notices and warnings.
Fisherman’s Bay, Lopez Island. Do not enter or exit at low tide unless you have a small boat with 3 feet of draft or less. It gets shallow in the entrance. Its best to come and go at or near slack water, high tide. Anchor in the bay (but stay out of the way of the float planes that come and go constantly) or tie up at the Island Marine Center or the Lopez Islander Resort. There’s lots to do here, including kayak rentals, bicycle rentals, walk to the bakery (!!!), eat at the restaurant, swim in the pool (Resort only) or just lounge around. Some years the crabbing is excellent in Fisherman’s Bay. 2010 update. The Island Marine Center is more expensive now ($1.00 per foot) than in the past and charges $7.00 for power and $5.00 for pump-outs or $10.00 if 40′ or more. Expect to pay for your maximum boat length (length overall) as determined by the marina staff. When we arrived on a Sunday in 2010 no one answered the phone or radio or was available to help land in the transient slips. Landing can be a bit tricky due to winds and currents and even some shallow water at low tides. When we left the next day there was still no help available. Due to these changes we recommend staying at the Lopez Islander Resort. The cost is nearly the same and the facilities are nicer, including a fuel dock, a good restaurant, and a nice pool. There is reciprocal moorage for yacht club members at the Resort as well.
Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. Friday Harbor is a classic harbor town, with tons of tourist glitz, ice cream, t-shirts, do-dads, fuel, groceries, etc. The marina is large with lots of boats to see. Its crowded and sort of noisy but you can check through customs & immigration here and get provisions, micro brews, and hamburgers. There are also some excellent restaurants and B & B’s in Friday Harbor. The ferry terminal is a very short walk from the marina so its perfect for picking up or dropping off guests. 2010 update: Friday Harbor is always a lot of fun but it can get crowded. Moorage reservations are available for a fee. Best time to arrive (without reservations) is about 11:00 am. You may be placed on a waiting list. Moorage is $1.00 per foot with a charge of 10 cents per foot for power. Many boats can be accomodated on the floating breakwater and may be rafted 3 deep to accommodate late arrivals.
Jones Island State Park: Another crown jewel of the State Parks. There are buoys on the north and south but you definitely want to be in the north harbor. There is a good size dock and we often get lucky and tie up for a couple nights. You can anchor in the north harbor in settled weather but its not a big area so you need to be skilled. Jones Island is another perfect place for kids and pets. There ar wonderful trails in the woods, and beautiful sunsets visible from the bluffs on the west side. The camping on Jones Island is great, with nice sites, tables, fresh water, and clean composting outhouses. The deer on Jones Island are tame but do not feed them. They can be aggressive if they want something from you. 2010 update: The campgrounds have been improved and are now handicapped accessible. There is a new large picnic shelter in the north campground and both north and south have “adirondack shelters” with bunks for your sleeping bag. Jones Island is always a great spot for kids.
Matia Island State Park. Matia Island is just east of the Sucia Islands. There is a small bay on the northwest, with two buoys and a small dock. Anchoring is not recommended due to the confined area, strong currents. and exposure to west and north winds. We have been here when it was too rough to even tie at the dock. The dock is about 60′ long with a pretty beach at the head of the bay. There is a small campground with composting toilets. No fresh water. The island is a wildlife preserve so walking is limited to a trail through the forest. However, its a very nice, if short, walk. There is a narrow, steep sided cove on the south side of the island, entered from the southeast. Be careful entering. There is a charted rock just off the entrance. The cove gets shallow but there is room for several anchored boats. It’s actually a very beautiful and relatively sheltered spot, with a small beach. You will be lucky to find space at Matia during the summer. With binoculars you can see the bay and dock from Echo Bay on Sucia Island. If space is available, make a stop at Matia.
Olga. The small community of Olga is located on Orcas Island along the entrance to Eastsound. It is just north of Obstruction Pass. There is a State owned dock, managed by the Olga Community Club. The dock is about 100′ long, with water but no power. The moorage is exposed to south winds and occasional boat wake from boats headed north and south in Eastsound. There is a small store and deli at the top of the dock and an excellent gallery and restaurant just a short walk up the hill, featuring local artists and crafts and excellent food. The dock is usually full during the summer. It costs just 40 cents per foot to stay overnight. Anchorage is limited and there are numerous private buoys. Olga is especially nice in the un-crowded fall season (mid to late September). The docks are removed for winter storage on the first weekend in October. 2010 update: The Olga store is closed (again). Future status unknown. The restaurant is now open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food is (as usual) excellent. We stayed at the Olga Community public dock for three nights and enjoyed very day we stayed. Olga is not for everyone but if you want some peace and quiet in a small and friendly community then this is a good place to visit. For some exercise take a walk along the country roads out to the DNR park at Obstruction Pass.
Patos Island State Park. A beautiful park with a scenic lighthouse and trails in the woods. Some very large old growth fir and cedar trees. At low tide you can walk the north shoreline all the way to the east point of the island. There are just 2 buoys in Active Cove and no safe overnight anchorage. The current in Active Cove runs fast and can turn you beam to the wind if the wind is blowing. Active Cove is open to wind and waves from the west and northwest and will get some waves from passing freighters. If the wind is blowing from the west or northwest swells can enter the small harbor and make mooring at a buoy very unpleasant. Patos Island can be visited from Shallow Bay on Sucia Island if you have a seaworthy tender or dinghy that is safe on open water.
Roche Harbor. Roche Harbor has one of the historical resorts in the San Juan Islands. The resort is very nice with a large, permanent marina, lots of transient space, and lots to do. Roche Harbor is a U.S. Customs check-in but expect to wait during the summer season. The best entrance to Roche Harbor is west of Pearl Island. The east entrance is shallow with a charted rock that has been nabbing boats every year for decades. If you plan to stay at the dock during the summer make a reservation. There is ample room to anchor in the harbor. We visit Roche Harbor every few years and always enjoy it even though it’s a busy spot. It’s possible to stay further south in Garrison Bay and take your tender or dinghy to Roche but Garrison Bay is a popular anchorage, crowded in the summer. Roche Harbor is a great destination for kids. The pool is large and nice and the landscaped grounds have room to run and play. We think that Roche Harbor is overall one of the best destinations in the San Juans if you don’t mind being at a marina with lots of other boats and people. The Resort is very well run with friendly and helpful staff.
Semiahmoo Marina. Although not exactly a part of the San Juan Islands, Semiahmoo Marina is just 16 miles north of Sucia Island and is best included with the other San Juan destinations. The Marina has ample room for transient boats and a large reciprocal guest space for yacht club members. There is a store with basic groceries, beer and wine, and local crafts and gifts. The showers and wifi internet are free and there’s room to sit inside and enjoy the fresh brewed coffee and espresso while you check e-mail or surf the internet. There’s lots of room to walk your dog, stroll the beaches, and view the bald eagles that roost in the tops of a few dead fir trees left in place just for that purpose. The Semiahmoo Resort is adjacent to the marina and offers casual dining and fine dining. Semiahmoo Marina is easily accessible and the large fuel dock is a great place to fill the tanks before heading into British Columbia. There is a free pump out facility at the fuel dock and the staff are friendly and helpful. If you are headed north to the Sunshine Coast from Bellingham or Anacortes a stop at Semiahmoo is very convenient. Additionally, the town of White Rock, B.C. is just a mile or so across the bay and has a dock with phone call-in B.C. Customs clearance. The only caveat is that you must be aware of weather conditions in the Strait of Georgia and avoid winds over 10 knots blowing against the current. wind blowing with the current is less of a concern. During the summer months most crossings and passages to the north are flat and calm. The best time to make a transit of the Strait is to begin in the morning hours and plan your passage to go with an incoming tide.
Stuart Island State Park. The state park ashore is relatively small but the harbors are large. Prevost Harbor is on the north and Reid Harbor is on the south. Reid Harbor is very large and an excellent anchorage. There are lots of buoys, some floats, and a small dock. Watch your depth at low tides at the dock and the floats. Boats with over 6′ draft will have to move during a minus tide. The anchorage is flat, about 25′ – 35′ deep throughout, with good holding. Basic anchoring skills are sufficient. Prevost Harbor on the north has fewer buoys (7) but a larger dock, Anchoring is a bit less easy but still very achievable. There is a nice walk through the island to the historic Turn Point Lighthouse that is worth the effort. Take some water and snacks to enjoy when you get to the lighthouse. There is good crabbing in both harbors and good clamming at the head of Reid Harbor. 2010 update: Clamming closed due to PSP. A small museum is now open at Turn Point. The walk to the lighthouse is well worth it and Turn Point can be a fantastic spot for whale watching. If you plan to walk to Turn Point consider mooring or anchoring in Prevost Harbor on the north side of the island. Take your dingy to the County dock at the west end of Prevost Harbor and walk up the road and out to the Point. This will save you about 2.5 miles of walking.
Sucia Island State Park. No one should miss going to Sucia Island. There are four main bays: Echo Bay, Fossil Bay, Fox Cove, and Shallow Bay. Suffice it to say that Sucia has something for everyone. Its a sure hit. Echo Bay has lots of buoys and plenty of room to anchor. Fossil Bay also has lots of buoys and two docks but the water is shallow (4′ at zero tide at the docks). We have never been aground at a buoy but minus tides get a bit scary at the innermost buoys. Fox Cove has only 3 buoys and limited anchoring because of shallow water and strong currents so its the least crowded if you get lucky. Shallow bay has a few more buoys and space to anchor but watch your swinging and check the depth. Anchoring anywhere except Echo Bay requires a bit of skill. There is also a small cove named Ewing Cove lying just north of the entrance to Echo Bay. It is lovely but has only 4 buoys and no anchorage due to limited space and strong currents. The outermost buoy can get very uncomfortable if the wind comes up so we only stay at Ewing Cove if we can get a mooring further inside. If we are lucky enough to tie up in Ewing Cove we wills stay for 3 nights. The beach is beautiful and its un-crowded and quiet. You can pretend you are in the middle of nowhere, just a few miles from Bellingham. 2010 update: Buoy count: 8 buoys in Shallow Bay, 17 buoys in Echo Bay and 4 buoys in Ewing Cove. There are some new shelters for group activities and sleeping shelters with bunks for your sleeping bag.
Westsound Marina, Orcas Island. This is a “working” marina located on the northeast shore of Westsound. It has permanent moorage, a haul out for small or medium boats, and repair facilities. There is also a fuel dock and a long finger with room for about four transient boats. The finger is exposed to waves from south winds but slightly protected by a small island lying south of the finger (Picnic Island). Rocks extend from the north shore of the island so stay close to the dock when entering from the west. Do not enter the marina from the south east of Picnic Island. Westsound Marina is a pleasant and friendly stop but do not expect a busy town or “upscale” facilities. However, if you like to tie up at a quiet dock without a lot of hustle, bustle and noise, this is a good choice.