In less than 85 miles in the San Juan Islands, boaters can enjoy 11 beautiful Washington State Marine Parks.
It is the fourth evening of our week-and-a-half-long cruise. We woke this morning to misty clouds that clung to the evergreen-clad hillsides of the San Juan Islands, but now we are sitting on the back deck, Jimmy Buffet playing on the stereo in the background, a cold beverage in our hand as we watch another magnificent sunset close a wonderful day of boating. Whip-like strands of kelp are shepherded by the current and the warm breeze. Not a word is spoken as we absorb the experience.
Few cruising grounds can match Washington state’s San Juan Islands for their array of natural beauty, wildlife and idyllic boating conditions. Living on the eastern edge of the islands in the small town of Anacortes, Arlene and I get the opportunity to cruise the islands regularly. And from Anacortes Marina, where we moor Easy Goin’, it takes only a few minutes of cruising to find ourselves in the protection of the islands.
The San Juan Islands occupy approximately 450 square miles in the very northwest corner of the United States. They are situated off Washington state’s inland coast, north of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, west of the northwest mainland, east of Haro Strait and south of Boundary Pass. The protected channels between the islands are very scenic as they wind between rocky shores that host scattered homes and summer cabins tucked among the trees, their backdrop provided by glacier-peaked Mt. Baker, the snow-capped southern end of Vancouver Island and, depending on where one’s boat is, the northern end of the Olympic Mountains.
With the islands’ rugged beauty, unique wildlife, intriguing history and secluded anchorages, the San Juans are the Holy Grail for boaters from all over the world. The locals take for granted that we live in one of the most desirable cruising areas in the world. The 172 or so islands — some pretty tiny and only islets at low tide, and at other times considered navigational hazards — are in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, thus receiving less than 25 inches of precipitation annually, much less than the 37 and a half inches received by Seattle, 50 miles south.
One of the great pleasures of cruising in the San Juans is the islands’ impressive selection of Washington State Marine Parks and how close they are to one another. In the past we have visited them all many times, but never all of them in one cruise. With that in mind, on a recent week-and-a-half-long trip into the islands, we visited 11 out of the 13 parks — the parks at Doe and Pose islands are better suited for human- or wind-powered watercraft — and only logged 85 nautical miles under the boat’s hull.
We began our cruise with a short two-and-a-half-mile run east from our homeport.
① The island offers decent anchorage over sand and gravel in the north cove, but the 24-acre park is small and exposed to the north. Many boaters anchor here for a day visit or to soak their crab pots during the season. A nearly mile-long hiking trail leads around the perimeter of the island, and from April through May the wildflowers bloom and fill the tiny isle with color.
② The following morning, next on the float plan was Clark Island. The 55-acre island is popular with and best suited for kayakers, who use its 15 campsites. There are nine mooring buoys and anchorage available, but the island lies in the intersection of Rosario Strait and Strait of Georgia, with a shipping channel adjacent, so it can be windy and rolly. While Clark Island is long and narrow, it does have extremely nice beaches with sand on the west side and smooth pea gravel on the east side.
The day of our visit the weather forecast had the winds increasing through the night, so we decided to take shelter at nearby Matia Island.
③ Matia Island, one of the 83 islands protected within the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, is a quiet 145-acre island co-managed by Washington State Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Five acres of Rolf Cove are available to boaters as a marine park, but there is a limit of four boats at a time, to protect the refuge, which makes it difficult to get access during the busy summer season. The cove has two buoys and a 64-foot dock. Due to the intense swirling currents that run through the cove and foul the bottom, it is not advisable to anchor here.
A loop trail — no pets allowed — meanders along the perimeter of the island, and there are massive trees on display. The trail passes the site of Civil War veteran Elvin H. Smith’s cabin. The famed Hermit of Matia lived all alone here from 1892 until 1921.
④ Sucia Island is considered by many boaters to be the most beautiful of all the San Juans, and it is particularly special because it was purchased by a group of 65 cooperating yacht clubs and businesses to be kept strictly for boater use for all times. The island and several other islets form the horseshoe-shaped, 564-acre park, which offers 640 feet of docks in Fossil Bay, 60 campsites, 48 buoys and bays with excellent anchorage. Ten miles of well-marked trails crisscross the island and there are miles of exquisite sandstone shoreline.
Renowned for its spectacular sunsets and warm-water swimming, protected Shallow Bay provides a peaceful setting. The bay’s attractions include three sand beaches, good crabbing, and a magnificent shoreline of eroded sandstone, caves and body-size hollows. China Rock is on the northeast side of the bay.
Echo Bay on the east side of the island offers the largest anchorage and a breathtaking view of Mt. Baker and its snowcapped peak set against a deep blue sky.
Visiting boaters need to use caution in the waters around the park. “Sucia” is a Spanish word meaning foul or dirty. It refers to the numerous rocks and reefs that surround the island.
⑤ The most northern island in the San Juan archipelago is the least visited, which of course adds to its charm. The only real protected moorage around Patos Island is tucked behind the western tip of the 207-acre island in Active Cove. Moorage is limited to two mooring buoys, and the cove can be rolly as a result of currents and passing ships in Boundary Pass. Anchoring in the cove is not suggested, because there is little room over a poor-holding bottom. The entry to the cove is narrow, shallow and has some large rocks.
The cove has all the ingredients for cruisers looking to get away from it all — spectacular sunsets, magnificent sandstone sculptures, a gently sloping pea-gravel beach, and a few campsites with picnic tables and fire rings. There is a one-and-a-half-mile loop trail to roam, a lighthouse to visit (with tours on most weekends from Memorial Day through Labor Day), and views of the Canadian Gulf Islands and Mt. Baker.
All boaters — moored to a state marine park dock, buoy or linear moorage — are required to self-register on shore and pay moorage fees, which are $0.70/foot on a dock and $13/night on a mooring buoy.
The annual moorage permit fee is $5/foot, with a minimum of $60. Boat owners who moor at docks, floats and buoys multiple nights a year can save money by purchasing an annual moorage permit, which is valid Jan. 1 through Dec. 31. However, boats larger than 45 feet are not allowed to moor on buoys, only at the docks and linear moorage. Boaters also need to respect rafting limits posted on mooring buoys. Boats rafted to another boat that’s on a park facility must also pay the appropriate fee.
Annual moorage permits are available online, at any Washington State Marine Park or at state parks headquarters in Olympia.
If You Plan to Visit
Take some time to get acquainted with the San Juan Islands before a visit. Check out the following charts, channels and websites:
- Washington State Parks, parks.wa.gov
- NOAA Charts 18421, 18424, 18427, 18428, 18430, 18431, 18432 and 18433
- VHF Weather, Channels 1 and 4
- Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wdfw.wa.gov
⑥ While Stuart Island’s 433-acre state park is bordered by private lands, visiting boaters do have access to two excellent harbors, Reid and Prevost. Each offers protected anchorages with numerous mooring buoys, linear moorage and park docks. Reid Harbor is half a mile long, contains no navigational hazards and offers good holding over a mud bottom. Prevost Harbor’s irregular shape and hazards on approach and in the harbor make for a more challenging anchorage, so consult the charts. On no occasion should boaters enter the harbor from the east end of Satellite Island. The only safe entrance is from the west end of Satellite Island; stay in the middle of the channel.
The park offers 18 campsites, and three and a half miles of hiking trails. A county road offers a longer walk, including a lengthy jaunt to the historic Turn Point Lighthouse. Built in 1893, the lighthouse offers the perfect spot to enjoy a picnic and look for orcas.
The island is home to the historic Stuart Island School, a one-room schoolhouse that had two students in 2008 but closed its doors in 2013. Be sure to take a self-guided tour of the school and museum.
⑦ Also nicknamed “Deer Island” by children and adults, for its abundance of resident black-tailed deer that have become used to the presence of visiting boaters and are quite tame, Jones Island is a state park, all 188 acres of it. There are two anchorage/moorage areas on the island. The north cove, with 128 feet of dock and four mooring buoys, is the most popular, probably because the south cove’s buoys can be a bit unsettled due to boat traffic. The southern moorage settles in the evening and remains calm until morning.
Visitors need to study the charts well before their visit. There is a marked reef at the northeast entrance to the north cove and several unmarked but charted rocks along the southeast shore.
Besides four miles of hiking trails with excellent views, the island also has water, toilet facilities, beaches, campsites and good landing areas for kayakers. Signs of a 100-mph wind storm that hit the island can still be seen, nearly 30 years later.
⑧ Blind Island is a three-acre island located in the entrance of Blind Channel Bay, which cuts into the north shore of Shaw Island. It offers four mooring buoys, and the bay has some anchoring over a good-holding bottom. The four campsites on the island are reserved for visitors arriving by human- or wind-powered watercraft. Be sure to soak a crab trap, or a few, in Blind Bay; it is closed to commercial crabbing, so recreational boaters have better odds of a good catch.
⑨ Practically a stone’s throw from Friday Harbor, the entire 35-acre island is a marine park with three mooring buoys, 12 waterfront campsites, sand and pebble beaches, and a scenic trail around the island’s perimeter. The island comprises a portion of the San Juan Wildlife Refuge, so visitors are asked to stay on the trail and not wander across the island.
⑩ Another immensely popular park, of 138 acres, the triangular-shaped sand spit extends out from Lopez Island’s eastern shoreline, almost touching Frost Island. Spencer Spit is one of the few state marine parks in the San Juans that is accessible by car.
The park offers good anchorage, along with 11 mooring buoys and some of the best crabbing and clamming in the islands. The sandy spit, with picnic tables and fire rings, is a great relaxation and play area. The beach gradually tapers off, so the truly bold and young can easily enjoy playing in the water.
The lagoon and saltwater marsh make up two-thirds of the spit, which is home to a large variety of migrating birds. Two miles of hiking trails wend through the area.
Spencer Spit was a gathering place for the Salish Indians of the area, who used it as a summer camp to collect and preserve shellfish and herring. The spit and uplands were homesteaded in the mid-1800s. The cabin out on the spit was originally built by Theodore Spencer, the park’s namesake.
⑪ This beautiful 113-acre island on Rosario Strait can be difficult to access for visiting boaters. The west-side cove has a pier and a dock, but the currents can make docking problematic. Poor holding combined with the currents mean anchoring is not recommended. There are really no other anchorages except for the east side, which has four mooring buoys. It is open to Rosario Strait, so weather or commercial traffic can cause an uncomfortable visit.
A large portion of the island has been designated a Natural Forest Area and is closed to access, except for designated recreational areas. The park offers 13 campsites at three locations and one and a half miles of high bluff trails with sweeping views of the Cascade Mountains, Rosario Strait and the west cove moorage.