Bike Touring San Juan Islands September 2019

Bike Touring San Juan Islands September 2019

Over and over when I talk to other bicycle tourists , they keep telling me that I need to check out the San Juan Islands. Naturally, when my cross-country trip on the Northern Tier route was set to end in Anacortes, Washington, I decided to jump into my own bike tour of the San Juan Islands.

Considering that my partner, Ryan, and I had been planning and running points on our tour for 11 other riders, this trip was absolutely necessary to unwind and slowly transition back into the “real world”.

Here is how it went!

Adventure Cycling trailer van with my Salsa Vaya waiting for departure.
Touring bike is waiting for departure

Getting rid of the van & trailer

A major logistics we had to figure out was where to leave the Adventure Cycling van and trailer so that the next tour could go and pick it up. Luckily for us, the location we selected was within riding distance to the Anacortes ferry terminal.

It was also the location where our tour ended for the Northern Tier so we were very familiar with where to park the van and trailer.

So on the morning of September 11, 2019, we both left our motel in town and drove to the Anacortes boat launch parking lot. After unloading all of our stuff onto our bikes, we paid for a week’s worth of parking and began our ride to the ferry terminal.

Johnny & Patrick on ferry ride over to San Juan Island
Reconnecting with Patrick in Washington after meeting in Texas

Reconnecting with Patrick

When we reached the terminal, we saw a long line of cars waiting for the next ferry to either one the San Juan Islands or to Canada.

We found the path on the left-hand side that directed pedestrians and bicyclists to the ticketing office and waiting area.

We purchased a ticket for Friday Harbor in San Juan Island of the San Juan Islands and learned that inter-ferry travel between the other two islands was free for a certain amount of days. When you come back to Anacortes, you’ll have to pay to go back if you like.

This certainly made things cost-effective and opened up our time to explore the islands.

Shortly after our purchase, we had time to kill in the waiting area. My friend Patrick showed up! I had posted an open invitation on Facebook to come join us, and Patrick obliged.

Patrick lives in Bellingham, Washington and we had met earlier in the year on my Big Bend trip in Texas. It was his first mini-tour since I completed the Southern Tier.

Arriving in Friday Harbor

Soon we boarded our ferry towards Friday Harbor, which is a busy little tourist town of San Juan Island.

It took a few hours to get there, and gave us the chance to catch up with Patrick and talk about our Northern Tier trip with him. The time passed by really fast as we were all excited about the journey.

Upon arrival, the ferry operators allowed pedestrians and bicyclists to disembark first before the cars started their departure.

Friday Harbor is a hilly little town with all sorts of quaint shops to entice tourists visiting and provide locals retail reprieve for goods they may need for their day-to-day consumption. Naturally, we walked around with our bikes to see what this town had to offer before we found the Island Brewery.

The next 4 hours was a blur of razzing one another and nonsensical banter between the 3 of us and the bartenders at the brewery. All I remember was how delicious the beers were. We must’ve indulged a good amount before we left the establishment.

We found the town market and stocked up on dinner and breakfast supplies. After shopping, we found Roche Harbor Road and proceeded to bike northwest towards Roche Harbor.

Settled in San Juan County Park

Both Patrick and Ryan had been on this island before so I was the only newcomer.

It was a challenging 9+ miles of riding to Roche Harbor. Who would have thought a little island had so many steep hills!?

After taking a couple of minutes to lounge around the harbor and watch sailboats navigate around each other, we decided to get back on the road and find camp for the night.

Ryan suggested we go to San Juan County Park which was on the west side of the island, a short 7 and a half mile ride. We all agreed to this plan and made it into the park well before sunset.

At the park, we got to interact with all sorts of people that night. Our immediate neighbor in the next campsite was a nurse who lives in Arizona and travels up to San Juan Island every few months to watch killer whales. She does this without a car.

Then there was Maridee. We had passed her on our way into camp. I made the mistake of getting in her way while she was shooting uphill into our campground. She had some choice words for me, but I was forgiven later in the evening as she came around to chat us up about our trip.

Maridee lives in the Washington area (I forget which city) and would come to San Juan Island to bike around to explore the island on her own. An exercise (pun intended) of preserving her health. She told us stories of Woodstock and various inspiring travel stories from abroad.

Her adventuring soul sees no bounds as she looks to continue traveling. She was certainly an inspiration that left a good impression on the 3 of us as we slowly burned through our cache of campfire logs that night.

Riding back to Friday Harbor

Leaving Friday Harbor

The next morning on September 12, 2019, I naturally awoke early and was surprised to see Patrick all packed up and ready to ride. We took our time to have our first breakfast of coffee and oatmeal, while we waited for Ryan to get up.

We said our goodbyes to our neighbor Maridee and started up one of the steepest hills on the island right out of the park. After about an hour of rolling hills and screaming downhills, we found a beautiful pull out to soak up the beauty of the day.

Little did we know, the weather was going to turn for the worse later. More on that later.

We eventually made it back into Friday Harbor. We found a local diner, Rocky Bay Cafe, and had our second breakfast. It was a busy Thursday with people entering from the mainland. We spotted many bicycle travelers as we ate our meal.

After breakfast, we had about 3 hours to kill before we had to catch our ferry to our second island of the San Juan Islands, Orcas Island.

Typhoon conditions ahead

It was refreshing for Ryan and me to go with the flow of the trip and not have to worry about logistics.

Patrick naturally took on that role. While we were waiting for our ferry, he informed us that we were going to face a big storm coming in with “typhoon-like” conditions.

This prompted him to look for an indoor overnight stay in the ever so useful Warmshowers website/app. He was waiting to hear back from 2 potential hosts.

Eventually, we got confirmation while on our ferry ride over to Orcas. At the same time, the rain had finally settled around us. It was wet, but I wouldn’t say it was anywhere near what I would consider “typhoon” conditions.

Riding in the rain towards East Sound

Getting lost

When we got off the ferry in Orcas, which is the town south of the island, the rain was coming down on us. Embracing the moment, we hunkered down and pedaled our way north.

Orcas Island is the toughest of the 3 islands to bike with lots of rolling hills. On any other day when the weather is better, it would have been a fantastic ride, but with the constant deluge of rain, it became a miserable slog.

To top it off, I had missed a turn on a side road and ended up taking us on an 8-mile detour into Deer Harbor on the west side of the island. Oops!

Jessica Diamond riding her touring bike

Meeting Jessica

Once we got back on the road and proceeded to make our way north into East Sound, tempers settled and we were back in the groove. East Sound is much bigger than Orcas, but not as big or busy as Friday Harbor with lots of high-end (expensive) stores and restaurants.

Ryan and I played the role of  sheep as Patrick navigated through town and into our Warmshower hosts’ home. We were all tired and wet, but our spirits were still high as we waited for Patrick to check in with Jessica before we entered her home.

We all strategically placed our wet luggage inside her home on top of towels that she had laid out for us. Our bikes stayed outside in the rain.

Jessica welcomed us into her home warmly and made us feel comfortable quickly. She allowed us to stay in her living room and guest bedroom, where there were bunk beds.

Patrick and I took the bunk beds while Ryan took residence on the couch for the night.

She left us for a few hours to pick up her nieces who we met. During her time away, we got cleaned up and started drying ourselves out.

Once her nieces departed for home, we got to know Jessica a bit more. Apparently, she is an avid bicycle tourist who lives in Orcas to earn enough money in the Spring and Summer time so that she can travel to various places around the world by bike the rest of the year. She’s fluent in Spanish and enjoys dancing so that is one way she connects with the locals. In the last few years, she’s been visiting Central and South America.

We all immediately bonded over her stories and our own. It’s great to find kindred spirits on the road, and Warmshowers makes it so easy to find them.

Conquering Mt. Constitution

Patrick had to leave us the next morning as he had an interview to prepare for. Jessica went into work in the morning, which left Ryan and me at her home.

We decided to follow through on our ambitious goal of riding up Mt. Constitution. We only hesitated because the previous day of riding in the rain made us think twice, but we quickly overcame any hesitation after convincing ourselves that it wouldn’t be too challenging if we left our gear at the house.

I’m not going to lie. Riding up to the trailhead was challenging, and that was even before the non-stop uphill ride to the summit.

The grade only got up to 8-9% at some places, but it was relentless. We saw many riders pass us on their light road bikes. Some even made it to the top and was already making their descent as we slowly continued our ascent.

When we made it to the top of the road, our elevation was almost 2400 feet (highest elevation for all the San Juan Islands). It was damp and cold as we were literally in a cloud of mist at the top.

We walked around the property and visited the tiny visitor center up top. Regrettably, we didn’t bring enough layers to stay warm coming down. Luckily, the bottom was warmer than the top, so the discomfort went away quicker than we anticipated.

Along the way down, we bumped into Russ from The Path Less Pedaled, who I knew was in the area since I was checking social media frequently. A serendipitous encounter that  he captured his YouTube channel.

When we got back to Jessica’s house, we asked her if it was possible for us to stay another night in which she graciously obliged. Again, we made dinner, shared some alcoholic beverages and spent the evening with her and her friend, Jenna, talking about life and travel.

Splitting up in Lopez Island

The next morning, Ryan and I loaded up our trusty bicycles with our dried out gear and started our journey to the last of the San Juan Islands, Lopez Island. We were told that Lopez Island was the flattest of the 3. Relatively, this may be true, but it was still hillier than a lot of places I’ve ever ridden.

Jessica was already at work when we left, so we popped into the restaurant where she worked to say goodbye before we rode out of East Sound back to Orcas to catch our ferry.

The ride back to Orcas was much more relaxing than when we left Orcas a few days ago. The ferry ride over to Lopez Island was short and simple.

Upon docking, we had about 4 more miles to go to reach town. This was where we took a quick coffee break and waited for Ryan’s friend, Jenny, to join him.

I say him because I wanted to explore the rest of the island, but they wanted to just hang out close to town for the night. The logical thing to do was to split up.

I continued my ride down south towards Islandale where Jessica’s friend, Sean, lives. He invited me into his schoolie (a converted bus home) for dinner. I pitched my tent right behind the bus and didn’t sleep in the bus, in case you’re wondering. Sean specializes in agriculture and is part of the property’s collective homestead.

He has a tribe of goats on the property that he milks to share with his community and to make cheese with. I got to sample some of that cheese, and it was delicious!

Victoria, British Columbia, why not?

Thankfully, the rain came overnight and ended when I awoke at 4 am. Before Ryan and I split up the day before, we had decided to try to visit Victoria, British Columbia in Canada.

We figured out that the first ferry leaving Lopez Island back to Anacortes would put us in a great situation to get over to Vancouver Island with time to ride into Victoria.

That’s when I found myself navigating back up to the ferry terminal in pitch dark with my bike light and headlamp. It was one of the most eerie experiences of riding I’ve ever had to go through.

I heard and saw deers on the side of the road scurry away as I approached them. We startled each other which made the ride a bit hair-raising. There was only 1 car that passed me the entire ride to the ferry terminal.

By the time I got to the terminal, Ryan was already there. We ended up waiting for 15 minutes before boarding a desolate ferry back to Anacortes.

Good bye, San Juan Islands.

When we got back, we immediately purchased a ferry ticket to Vancouver Island. It was deja vu again while we waited to board the next ferry.

I got to ride this ferry coming back from Vancouver Island back on my 2014 Pacific Coast tour, so I remembered it taking  a lot longer to get over.

We spent the rest of the day navigating down from the ferry terminal on beautiful bike paths into the city center. Let me tell you, Victoria has changed a lot in the last 6 years.

Incredible biking infrastructure! I was so impressed and was in awe of it all.

We ended up staying at the same Hosteling International location from 6 years ago. In fact, our beds were right next to the ones that we slept in back then.

The next two days were a blur as we met the niece of Brett Hart. You know, the pro wrestler in the 80s-90s. We drank a lot and ate a lot, but didn’t film a lot.

Back to work

Leaving Victoria back to the terminal, we decided to try putting our bikes on the bus. It all went well except for the fact that we didn’t get off on the right stop.

Thankfully, the bus driver was kind enough to arrange for us to catch the next bus without paying additional fare to correct our mistake. We got to the terminal with plenty of time to board our ferry ride home.

The ferry ride home was very choppy. We’re talking about vomit-inducing waves of water. It took all I could to keep it together until we got off.

We then checked back into the same motel in Anacortes. I mean why ruin a good thing?

The next morning, we left the motel and started the last leg of our adventure, which was to Larrabee State Park. Ryan had to scope out the campground to reserve a couple of sites for his next tour on the Pacific Coast.

I hung out with him for a couple more days and visited Bellingham again. I got to meet his partner for this tour named Joe, and we spent an evening of bonding before getting a ride from them to the Bellingham Amtrak station for my train trip back home.

Changes are a constant

It was a bittersweet departure as I made my way back down to Los Angeles, and  Ryan embarked on another long trip down the coast.

Unfortunately, about 2 weeks into his  trip, a car pulled out in front of him which knocked him off his bike. His injuries rendered him to resign from the trip and travel back to Rochester, New York.

Life is so strange. After 4000+ miles of travel with me in 3 months, 1 incident in Oregon changes your trajectory.  Similar to what we are going through these days with the coronavirus pandemic.

Be grateful for the experiences you have and take it day by day. Looking back on this trip, we certainly did that and now have really good memories to look back on.

Take care of yourself and one another.

1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    Posted at 16:23h, 23 March

    thanks for the video! we are thinking of doing a trip like this and it was really cool to see.