Seven-Day San Juan Islands Sampler Cruise
Many Pacific NW cruisers will consider a week or two spent in the San Juan Islands to be the ultimate realization of boating dreams. Few places on Planet Earth rival the San Juan Islands. Waters within the “circle” formed by the major islands of Orcas, Blakely, Decatur, Lopez, and San Juan will often be comfortably navigated on days when conditions are far worse in the surrounding straits of Juan de Fuca, Haro, Georgia, and Rosario. Rugged, forested shorelines teem with wildlife. The scenery is so spectacular that a greater number of stunning photographs can be taken “by accident” in the San Juan Islands than by deliberate design almost anywhere else.
Over 20 state and county parks (as well as federal wildlife preserves) provide moorage or anchorage. There is just enough human settlement in this 25 x 30 mile boating paradise to provide infrastructure and convenience. The largest town is Friday Harbor, with a population just over 2,000. Resorts vary from casual and rustic to five-star operations routinely visited by megayachts during a round-the-world cruise.
Considerations in the straits: Everyone arriving by boat in the San Juan archipelago will cross one of four significant straits. Boaters originating in US waters will most often cross either the Strait of Juan de Fuca or Rosario Strait to reach the San Juans. Thousands of vessels cross Juan de Fuca and Rosario every year without difficulty. A few crossings prove to be dramatic than desired, but in the majority of cases an ear to NOAA weather radio and a basic understanding of regional winds and tides will help avert problems.
Our summer winds are often strongest in the late afternoon. Air warmed by the sun rises, and cooler air rushes in to replace it. Winds are often calmer during the early morning hours, so all else being equal an early AM crossing may be less troublesome than one in the mid to late afternoon. When currents and winds are opposed, (i.e. an ebb current in the Strait of Juan de Fuca against a westerly wind) waves will normally be steeper and conditions rougher than if currents and winds are more parallel.
The straits of Haro, Rosario, and Georgia enjoy some limited protection from turmoil blowing in off the Pacific. They are in the lee of Vancouver Island and (in Rosario’s case) the San Juans proper. Juan de Fuca is by far the longest and most open option.
Even so, the right combination of wind and tide can whip up froth in the smaller straits. Approach these waters with respect, and be prepared to spend an extra day in port, sometimes, while awaiting weather that is more favorable.
Day 1: Olga and/or Rosario Resort, Olga near 48.37.07 N, 122.50.14 W and Rosario near 48.38.78 N, 122.52.22 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
The village of Olga and Rosario Resort are both on the eastern shore of Orcas Island’s East Sound. Olga is a snapshot in time where little has changed in the last 50 years or so. There is no power at the town dock and limited mooring available. Nearby mooring buoys are privately owned and anchorage here is very exposed to SW winds, but if a boater is lucky enough to find a spot at the dock this is a fabulous stop. There is a very good deli and convenience groceries available in the Olga Store at the head of the gangway. Cruisers visiting Olga will definitely want to walk to the artists’ co-op, a block or two inland from the store. A casual but full service café offers meals at the co-op. Consider stopping here for lunch, even if mooring overnight at nearby Rosario.
Rosario Resort was built as a private residence for a wealthy industrialist, Robert Moran. The century-old mansion has been converted into a hotel, with a good restaurant, swimming pools, and other resort amenities. The marina is better suited for boats under 40-feet, with a few much larger slips available and a field of mooring buoys for rent immediately outside the breakwater. Many visitors consider the pipe organ concert in the mansion library (most nights- in conjunction with a slide show depicting the history of the Moran family and the resort) a highlight of a stopover at Rosario.
Day 2: Jones Island Marine State Park, near 48.37.15 N, 123. 02.77 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
The preferred moorage at Jones Island Marine State Park is in the bay on the north side of the island. The south side bay will accommodate a couple of boats, but there are some cruise-destroying rocks in the south. One of the rocks is quite near the center of the harbor. The rocks are well marked on charts, but will surprise a careless navigator.
Homesteaders once had a small farm on Jones, as the apple orchard between the north and south bays confirms. Deer and raccoons are abundant here; don’t feed the deer, and protect any food brought ashore to prevent raccoons from feeding themselves. After a huge windstorm toppled much of the timber on Jones, State Parks decided not to clear the windfall but rather allow it to decompose in place. Twenty years have elapsed since the windstorm, and it has been fascinating to watch the slow but inexorable progress. A moderately challenging hike around the western half of the island is especially scenic. Watch for some regionally unusual patches of cactus along the trail.
Day 3: Sucia Island Marine State Park, Fossil Bay entrance near 48.44.83 N, 122.53.59 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
Several islands comprise the Sucia Islands Group, and most of the land is in public ownership as the Sucia Island Marine State Park. It is not unusual to find hundreds of boats moored or anchored here on a summer weekend, but there is usually room for more. Major anchorages include Echo and Fossil Bays approached from the east, with smaller harbors at Fox Cove and Shallow Bay approached from the west. A series of reefs and shoal on the N and SW sides of the Sucia Island Group should not prove troublesome to mariners consulting a properly scaled chart.
The Sucia Islands consist primarily of sandstone that was, millions of years ago, a sea floor. Fossils of prehistoric sea life are embedded in the rocks and easy to spot. Break out the walking shoes and explore some of the trails ashore. It’s common to find relics remaining from the era when the islands were an active quarry site, and views in any direction are spectacular.
Day 4: Stuart Island Marine State Park entrance to Reid Harbor near 48.39.78 N, 123.10.60 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
Stuart Island Marine State Park offers two options for anchorage. Prevost Harbor, on the north side of the island is separated from Reid Harbor (on the south side) by a narrow isthmus. Navigators consulting an official and appropriately scaled chart will have little difficulty entering either harbor- the rocks and shoals are clearly marked.
Sparsely populated Stuart Island is one of the larger landmasses in the San Juans without benefit of regular ferry service. Residents come and go by boat, or by private plane. A well-marked trail connects the state park to the county road, where a passing car will rarely interrupt a leisurely summer stroll. Most visitors hike to the Stuart Island schoolhouse to find a free museum and an honor-system kiosk selling Stuart Island tee shirts. Those ready for a longer walk continue on to the Turn Point lighthouse. Fabulous views, a lighthouse museum, and a chance to peer through the windows of the now abandoned light keepers’ duplex make the extra steps worthwhile. Orcas are often spotted near Turn Point.
Day 5: Roche Harbor Resort Marina near 48.36.63N. 123.09.30 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
The prudent northern approach to Roche Harbor Resort Marina, (800-586-3590) is via the channel west of Pearl Island. Anchorage is available throughout the harbor and the resort has mooring buoys for rent, but most visiting boaters will want to request a slip and enjoy, fully, the fabulous accommodation this 5-star resort marina. Uniformed dock attendants greet arriving vessels to help with landing. Service here is over-the-top, yet the staff is never underfoot. Considering the level of attention and amenities, moorage rates are surprisingly reasonable.
Roche Harbor Resort was once an active limekiln, surrounded by a “company town” to house the workers. A day spent at Roche Harbor involves a contemporary resort experience tempered with historic discovery. A variety of restaurants and café’s will appeal to every taste and dining budget. The sculpture park immediately across the road from the resort is worthy of exploration. Many veteran Pacific NW cruisers would never miss the opportunity to hike out to the Mausoleum (directions available at the hotel reception desk) to contemplate a grand edifice of Masonic symbolism obscurely located in a quiet forest.
Day 6: Friday Harbor near 48.32.37 N, 123.00.83 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
Friday Harbor Marina (360-378-2688) is a wonderful public facility. It affirms that this small town in the San Juans recognizes the commercial value of visiting boaters. The marina has been known to fill up, so reservations are recommended. Boaters preferring to anchor out will find space north of the marina entrance. Anchorage south of Brown Island will be better protected from summer northerlies. Few hazards will be encountered during an approach to Friday Harbor, but keep a sharp watch for Washington State Ferries.
One can spend a lazy afternoon browsing through a variety of shops and museums in Friday Harbor. An ice cream shop with perhaps a couple of hundred flavors is midway between the marina and the ferry dock. At least two firms in Friday Harbor rent bikes, mopeds, “Skootcars”, and other motorized vehicles suitable for exploring some of the inland areas of San Juan Island. A movie theater, perhaps a dozen bars and restaurants, a good sized grocery store and two marine supply stores provide opportunities for recreating, dining, and restocking the boat.
The San Juan County Fairgrounds are within easy walking distance of the marina, providing an extra incentive to visit Friday Harbor during the latter part of August each year.
Day 7: Fisherman Bay entrance channel begins near 48.08.15 N, 122.45.59 W (coordinates not for use in navigation)
Fisherman Bay, on the west side of Lopez Island, requires a careful approach. There is 5-feet of water available at a “zero” tide in the deepest part of the entrance. Deep draft vessels will attempt the entrance channel at higher water. Boaters proceeding on a slow bell, (after careful chart work, and with an eye on the depth sounder) should not run aground. It’s critically important to take the last red buoy (#8) to starboard when entering Fisherman Bay- failure to do so may result in becoming intimately acquainted with a mud bank.
In exchange for the attentive navigation required to arrive in Fisherman Bay, two adjoining and hospitable marinas welcome NW cruisers. Islands Marine Center, (360-468-3377) is the first marina encountered when entering the bay. IMC offers haulouts and marine repairs as well as a good selection of marine supplies. Lopez Islander Resort (800-736-3434)
has a bar and restaurant, swimming pool, and a fuel dock.
Lopez Village is a three-minute bike ride or ten-minute walk from either marina. Some craft shops, a bakery, a well-regarded restaurant, and a medium sized grocery store all available for shoppers or diners. The Lopez Historical Museum can be recommended. Every Saturday during the summer, a fabulous Farmer’s Markets converges in a grassy field at the northern edge of the business district. “Fisherman Bay on the final day” is a tradition among many Pacific NW boaters, especially if that final day is a Saturday.