Louisville Bicycle Club

Louisville Bicycle Club Newsletter -- September-October 1996

An Island Haven for Bicycles

by Michael Lowe

For four glorious days this past June, my family enjoyed the San Juan Islands, a chain of mountains submerged in the northern reaches of Puget Sound, just southeast of Vancouver, northwest of Seattle and east of Victoria. Reachable only by ferry or airplane, they offer solace to beachcombers, hikers and sea kayakers. But best of all, they are bicycle friendly.

There are 172 islands in the San Juan archipelago, but the major ones are Lopez, Shaw, Orcas and San Juan. Ferries stop at each of these, and while the cars line up and sometimes wait for hours to get aboard, there is always room for bicycles. Coming from Anacortes, the main ferry terminal north of Seattle, Lopez Island is the first stop. Because of its relatively flat terrain, Lopez is the favorite for casual bicyclists. The roads are reasonably well paved, the speed limit only hits 45, motorists expect bicycles to be everywhere (and they are), and sections even have broad shoulders beyond the white lane lines that serve as bike lanes. Do not expect a tourist island. Lopez is one big piece of farmland (54 sq. miles), with shallow water bays, bald eagles overhead, rugged bluffs on the south end, and lots of shady wooded areas.

The second stop on the ferry route is Shaw Island. The ferry landing is run by nuns of the Franciscan Sisters of the Eucharist. Not your typical longshoremen. Smallest of the islands (only 5000 acres) it might be best described as one big forested park. It is definitely the quietest of the islands. In a hurry you could cover it in no time. Enjoy its solitude and it becomes a wonderful half day bicycle exploration.

Third stop is Orcas Island, largest at 58 square miles, and also the most challenging for bicyclists. The island has the highest mountain in the islands, Mt. Constitution (2409 feet over sea level), and several others at 1002, 1200 and 1048 feet. The roads go up and down, up and down, etc. etc. (Duc would love this place.) The road to Mr. Constitution is a twisty, winding, steep climb similar to Gatlinburg, but shorter. However, the view from the top is better. You can see all the other islands, the straits, Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains to the west, and the Cascades and Mt. Baker to the east. I could see Mt. Rainier, 100 miles to the south, the day that I hiked to the top. From my perspective, this is the best island for mountain biking. The trail I hiked through the Moran State Park to Mt. Constitution was open to mountain bikes and very well maintained. Wooden bridges, wild flowers, clear fresh water lakes and tall, tall trees are your companions. My maps showed several other mountain bike trails and the trail heads I passed looked inviting.

Last stop before the ferry heads on to Canada is the island of San Juan and its main city — Friday Harbor. This is the biggest town on the islands (1500 people) with the best collection of restaurants and shops, all nestled around the three blocks of downtown and the ferry landing. Two National Parks, a State Park and a County Park are good places to tour to on your bicycle. The whole loop is barely over 35 miles. When we arrived at the trail head to the lighthouse in the State Park there were twice as many bicycles as cars lined up under the trees. The State Park is the only official whale watching park in the United States. Off its rocky shore is where much of “Free Willy” was filmed. The southern National Park has a stand of huge fir and spruce trees that would be marvelous to pass through on a mountain or cross bike. The trail was good, but skinny tires are questionable. Most of the best whale watching sites are along the western highway, and it was well paved, with lots of places a bicycle rider could stop and watch where a car could not.

We stayed on Orcas Island, right at the ferry landing, in the Orcas Hotel, a 100 year old B&B with 12 rooms. The entire landing, all the shops, and even the Hotel's kitchen closed up (rolled up?) at 8:00 pm every night. That's when the birds, the water, the red sunsets, the cool evening air and eventually the millions of stars took over. In the morning we would enjoy breakfast on the porch and watch as forty to fifty bicyclists disembarked off each of the first two or three ferries from Anacortes.

Expect 70 degree temperatures in June. No humidity. The wind can be stiff on some of the open stretches. July 4 through Labor Day is very, very busy. Definitely make lodging reservations in advance. Even the campgrounds require six month advance reservations in the busy season. There are many B&B's, a couple of “resorts,” but no major hotels. Lopez, Orcas and San Juan all have bicycle shops, with rentals. I recommend bringing your own. The rentals were mostly of mountain bikes, and very basic. But repairs and parts are available. People and bicycles ride free inter-island on the ferry, with a reasonable charge to ride out to the islands from Anacortes.

On the whole, a very nice place to visit — with a bicycle.

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last updated: 30 August 1996
by Duc M. Do