(Photo: Sunset Avenue Productions/Photodisc/Getty Images)
I knew I was on to something good as soon as I got to the terminal for the San Juan Islands ferry. There was a long line of cars creeping back from the dock, but I rolled my bike past them onto the ferry, claimed space on the deck just as the ferry set sail, and watched Mount Baker and the rest of mainland Washington recede into the distance.
The San Juan Islands are an archipelago of 172 islands at the top of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, off the coast of Washington state. They are home to the highest concentration of bald eagles in the continental United States, resident pods of orca whales travel their waters, and they’re equally full of dense forest and fertile farmland.
And they are made for bike touring.
Biking Lopez Island (Photo: Jean-Pierre Chamberland/Flickr)
Bike touring is a good way to cover a fair amount of ground at a leisurely pace that allows sightseeing, and the San Juan Islands — which are laced with quiet, easy-to-navigate roads, campgrounds, and charming inns — are the perfect place to do it, especially if you’re just starting out.
View of San Juan Islands from a ferry on the San Juan strait (Photo: Bob Stefko/Photodisc/Getty Images)
The ferry from the main port in Anacortes (on the mainland) is free among the four major islands: Lopez, Orcas, San Juan, and Shaw. Shaw is small and not particularly exciting for a bike ride, but the other three have miles of quiet, rolling roads, jaw-dropping ocean views, and excellent local food.
Related: Solo Adventures on Seattle’s Travels
(Photo: Jonathan Hover/Flickr)
Lopez Island farmers’ market (Photo: San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau)
Lopez is the smallest, quietest, and flattest of the three islands, so it’s a good place to start. The island is filled with small farms and green fields, and Lopez Village, on the edge of Fisherman Bay, has a good weekend farmers’ market and a locally famous bakery, Holly B’s.
Roche Harbour, San Juan Island (Photo: Ed Freeman/Stockbyte/Getty Images)
From there, move on to San Juan Island. The ferry docks at Friday Harbor, which is the biggest and busiest town in the islands. Have lunch at the Market Chef or one of the food trucks on the dock, and then bike north to Roche Harbor, a tiny resort town that looks like a European seaside village. The Hotel de Haro, which has been there since 1886, is the hub of the town. Stay there, or camp a bit farther down the coast at San Juan County Park. All the campgrounds on the islands have spots for bikers, so you’ll always have a place to put up a tent. Of all the islands, San Juan has the best and most consistent whale-watching, and Lime Kiln Point State Park, on the west side, is a good place to spot orcas. There’s a local pod that spends a lot of time there, so you can usually catch the whales breaching the water.
San Juan Islands from Mount Constitution in Moran State Park (Photo: Mark Stevens/Flickr)
All of the islands are filled with small farms, but Orcas is known for its food scene. It’s also known for its hills, so you’ll need the extra fuel. In Eastsound, get in line at Brown Bear Baking to score pastries, or head to Hogstones for wood-fired pizza. Both places lean heavily on local ingredients. To work that food off, climb to the top of Mount Constitution, in Moran State Park, which is the highest point on the islands. From there you can see all of the roads you’ve traveled.