Finally, the San Juan Islands

Rosemarie has mentioned her desire to visit the San Juan Islands for years. These are a group of islands between Whidbey and Vancouver famed for tourism, beauty, and whales. I had not really internalized how badly she wanted to see them until, during our time on Whidbey Island, we were planning out the rest of our summer and she placed it as her number one priority. (In my defense, she has a rather extensive list of must-see places.) And so we planned it. Doing so this late in the game was hardly ideal; many of the RV park options, especially the county and state parks, are full, and the ferry spots for large vehicles can fill up, but we made it work.

On the ferry with the other large vehicles. Several other RVs, but none quite as big as us.

Let’s start with that ferry. The Washington Island system provides service from Anacortes, less than an hour up the road from Rhododendron Park, to the four largest islands, San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw. Based on our RV park selection, we needed a round trip from Anacortes to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Due to the size of our rig (52 feet with the tow vehicle attached to the motorhome) it cost us over $400 for the journey. We paid less than $100 for the trip from Port Townsend (near Sequim on the Olympic Peninsula) to Whidbey back in July, but this is a longer trip, though not by a lot, taking about 90 minutes each way.


As for our accommodations, there was really only one game in town available: the county fairgrounds in Friday Harbor. The county and state parks were either full or could not accept rigs our size, and even most of the private resorts were at capacity even with their exorbitant prices. As it was, the partial hook up (power and water) fairground was over $50 a night, despite which we were lucky to find four days available split between two different sites.

So many beautiful coastal lookout points.

Friday Harbor is a fun little tourist town. Our campsite was within easy walking distance of downtown where we enjoyed the plethora of boutique shops and seaside sights. We found the locals very helpful with recommendations as to what to see, how to do it, and where to eat. Such freely given advice helped us plan our car tour of the island during our second day.

We had a great little sightseeing adventure, taking the mostly coastal road along the west side of the island to Lime Kiln State Park. While enjoying the views and heading to a couple of geocaches, we noticed a distinct and rather loud vibration coming from the Tracker’s engine. Popping the hood, I could not spot anything visually, but we resolved to head home. Unfortunately, Loki had seen enough of the island, and dropped what we would later learn was the harmonic balancer pully straight off the engine into the road within the next half mile of travel. This is one of the main pulleys, and the associated fan belt powers the engine cooling fan, among other things.

Though we were able to retrieve the actual pulley, and Loki would still start and run, it would overheat almost immediately unless coasting downhill. Now, we only had about nine miles to get back home, and it’s possible that we could have made it by pulling over, shutting down, and letting the engine cool off every half mile or so, but man if we screwed that up we could be looking at another blown engine. Instead we coasted to a wide spot along a cliffside pull out, and I hitched a ride back to the rig. Since nothing can be simple, I of course forgot to bring the door key, and had to break into the RV through a window, managing to crack the screen of our front TV with my wildly careening foot in the process.

I made it back to the lookout point in the motorhome where, with some assistance from a couple of locals, we managed to push Loki into position and hook up while the limited traffic along the road waited patiently. Thank you, San Juan Islanders, for your assistance and understanding during this stressful event. The silver lining: Rosemarie got to see orcas swimming and broaching along the coast while I was gone.

OK look, we have been here before. The tracker is 23 years old, and even with a fully rebuilt engine, things break. We were on a beautiful island, within walking distance of a cute town, biking distance of other interesting sights, and with plenty of bus tour options as well. Heck, we did most of our first year of full time RVing with no tow vehicle whatsoever, so we would manage. The next day we took advantage of the tour bus availability and enjoyed a day trip around the island with a lengthy stop in the ritzy, yacht-filled Roche Harbor on the northwest side of the island.

We toured the harbor, the main waterfront drag, and a few of the points of historical interest before enoying a light lunch overlooking the harbor at one of the lovely outdoor restaurants. We spent most of our time, however, in the beautiful botanical garden filled with installation art pieces. We found a handful of geocaches before catching our bus back to Friday Harbor. Once back in town, we closed out the day with a rather odd pizza buying experience, involving as it did a seemingly closed restaurant, ordering through a cracked open door, cash only of course, and waiting in the parking lot for it to be done. Fun experience, mediocre pizza.

On our last full day, lacking a working car, it was bike time. We took our old, rickety bicycles on a multi-mile tour of the Pear Point Peninsula, hitting half a dozen geocaches along the way, enjoying the coast, beautiful weather, wild raspberries, and exclusive looking neighborhoods.

The next morning we had reservations on the first ferry out, and awoke before dawn to get things ready. Unfortunately, with Loki broken, I had a very difficult time getting connected for the drive to the terminal. Much swearing, sweating, and panicking ensued as the minutes raced by. Eventually we got it done, arrived at the ferry, and despite being beyond the show time, they let us on for our journey to the mainland.

We would definitely return to these islands, although next time with a bit more advance planning, and hopefully the ability to visit a couple of the others. Next up: Spokane, Fairchild Air Force Base, and auto repairs.

8 thoughts on “Finally, the San Juan Islands

  1. Jack,
    Spare keys are cheap. your local locksmith has many clever things that can give you access to a spare. Some of these are padlock style that can be locked on to something, others can be screwed to a flat surface.

    Glad to see you are still having fun.

  2. Pingback: After Two Months in Coastal Washington, We Head Inland: Spokane | Shell On Wheels

  3. Pingback: 80 Months Full Time RVing: August 2021 Report | Shell On Wheels

    • When I first saw this comment, I had a moment of panic: Did I inadvertently insult the people of San Juan Island? I reread my post, in which I said, amongst many other positive things: “Thank you, San Juan Islanders, for your assistance and understanding…” So it appears Chris’ dripping contempt and judgmental disdain for those of us who dare to visit San Juan Island is just a function of their cramped personality, combined with a sort of NIMBYism dressed up as conservationism. As people who have lived most of our adult lives in high tourist destinations (Central Florida for me, NYC for Rose, and Miami Beach for both of us) I can understand a general sort of frustration with tourism and the challenges associated with it. But I just can’t imagine either of us attacking a random stranger for merely entering our town and writing of its charms.

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