Washington State is surrounded by a variety of islands, both large and small, that you need to put on your travel list. There is something about driving aboard an iconic Washington State Ferry with wind in your hair and the stunning views that put you in vacation mode. All these islands can be visited on a day trip or weekend getaway. For a longer trip, combine a few together for the ultimate land and sea road trip.
What makes Washington Islands unique are the views. Unlike a Caribbean island where the vistas are miles of ocean, our views are stunning in a different way. Imagine a water and mountain view together. Take the opportunity to hike to one of the high points for absolutely incredible views. On a sunny day from the islands situated in the Puget Sound, you can see the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker, and the Seattle skyline. Our islands also have great coffee. Keep your eyes posted for small walk-up or drive-in shacks. These delightful small local businesses are iconic in the Pacific Northwest.
Pro Tip: Make sure to visit Washington State Ferries for ferry schedules and costs. Most of the ferries are on a first-come basis except to the San Juan Islands and Whidbey Island (note the Coupeville ferry, not the Mukilteo ferry). You can make reservations for both. Both these ferries are very popular so a reservation is a necessity. Many islanders work in Seattle and commute, so avoid rush hours when planning your trip. Locate your terminal on the website, and it will tell you how many slots are available. Plan to arrive a minimum of 30 minutes before departure.
1. Fidalgo Island
Located north of Seattle, this scenic island can be reached by car with easy access from Interstate 5. Fidalgo Island is known for the breathtaking Deception Pass State Park and the iconic bridge that spans the pass. This is Washington’s most visited state park, and it is easy to see why, with coves, beaches, rugged cliffs, and some of the most beautiful sunsets in the state. Traffic gets very congested near the bridge so plan to visit the north side of the park and hike the Lottie Point Loop Trail. It is 1.5 miles roundtrip with only 100 feet elevation change. You will have lovely views of the pass and the bridge. Also, stop at the Bowman Bay area of the park to visit the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Interpretive Center. If you have ever marveled at the architecture in many state and national parks, it was probably built by the CCC during the Great Depression.
Anacortes is known as the “Gateway to the San Juans,” but it is more than just a ferry stop. This charming small town has adorable cafes, shops, and galleries. It is also a great destination to explore the water with a kayak rental, fishing trip, or whale-watching cruise. The Tommy Thompson Trail is a 3.3-mile one-way, paved trail that starts in Anacortes and ends at March Point following the bay. An abandoned railroad trestle connects the eastern and western shores of Fidalgo Bay. It is ADA accessible. Blue Heron love this area at low tide.
Pro Tip: There is a delightful park with a marsh located next to the ferry terminal. The trail weaves around the marsh for a scenic way to stretch your legs before getting on the ferry.
2. Bainbridge Island
Just a short ferry ride from downtown Seattle, Bainbridge Island is a perfect day trip from the city. From the ferry terminal, you can walk into the town of Winslow, but I prefer to have a car to explore further afield. There are some great shops in Winslow, including Esther's Fabrics, the oldest fabric store in Washington. One can’t-miss place is Mora Ice Cream, with one of the best ice creams I have ever eaten. It is worth the inevitable line due to its popularity.
Outside of town, spend a couple of hours wandering the Bloedel Reserve. It consists of 150 acres in an experiential public garden and forest. There are 14 distinct landscapes which comprise about a 2-mile walk. Just gorgeous. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a lovingly designed outdoor space with a winding trail leading to a memorial wall commemorating Japanese Americans’ internment from Bainbridge Island during World War II. It is a very moving experience. Many of the islanders kept in touch with their friends during their internment. The local newspaper used a stringer at the camp for updates to print for the community to read.
3. Vashon Island
Sitting in the middle of the Puget Sound, Vashon Island can be reached by ferries from Point Defiance, Port Orchard, or Seattle. I like to arrive in the south and work my way to the north, exploring the island along the way. The small town of Vashon is where you will find most restaurants and shops on the islands. The island abounds with beaches and waterfront parks, a lighthouse, and miles of farmland. There are small local wineries and even Nashi Orchards, a perry maker (cider made out of pears). In season, visit the local farmer’s market. It is very popular, and people even travel to the island just to visit it.
Pro Tip: This island makes a great base for exploring the area. Three ferry options will take you to Seattle, the Kitsap Peninsula to Olympic National Park, and to Point Defiance in Tacoma. The Vashon Island park system has three historic cottages available for vacation rentals. The Point Robinson Keepers Quarters are two quaint cottages available for rent. Each has a cozy porch overlooking the Puget Sound. The Belle Baldwin House at Fern Cove is my favorite. It is tucked away near the lovely Fern Cove with 750 feet of shoreline, streams, and a 100-year-old forest. The home has been restored to its 1912 glory with lovely woodwork in the interior. It is a relaxing haven and a great place to get away from it all.
Check out the Best Things to Do On Vashon Island for more information.
4. Lopez Island
Lopez Island is a less-visited island in the San Juan chain, and that is its charm. Arriving on the island, you immediately slow down. The only traffic is the rush when the ferry comes in. People visit Lopez to disconnect and enjoy the simple life Lopez has to offer. Lopez Village is the island’s commercial hub with coffee shops, a few restaurants, shops, and a grocery store overlooking Fisherman Bay. The many farms on the island produce everything from sheep and llamas to fruit trees and fresh produce. There is even a winery.
The gently rolling terrain on the island and lack of traffic make it a wonderful location to cycle. The quiet of the area makes it perfect for enjoying the outdoors. Enjoy the many driftwood-strewn beaches or hike on one of the many trails in the state and county parks. You may find yourself so relaxed you just want to lounge with a good book. That is what is so nice about Lopez Island -- there is no pressure to do anything and no distractions.
5. Camano Island
Camano Island is mostly a residential island, but there is still plenty to do for the visitor. Begin your trip to the island by having breakfast at the Cama Beach Cafe located amid Cama Beach Historical State Park. The park was once a thriving beach resort and you can still rent a beach cabin overlooking the Puget Sound. The beach is flat with gentle waves making it perfect for beachcombing and wading. Beautiful views of the sound and the mountains in the distance.
Some of the farms on the island offer some interesting experiences. Visit the Arrowhead Ranch to try your hand at forged ax throwing, or if you are lucky, watch a soapbox derby race on the largest track West of the Mississippi River. Kristoferson Farm has you-pick lavender in season and a Canopy tour that involves ziplining. Both farms offer crafts. You can book an experience and learn to make everything from a lavender wreath to a charcuterie board. Both make nice souvenirs of your day at Camano Island.
Editor’s Note: For additional inspiration, consider How To Spend A Perfect Day On Washington’s Scenic Camano Island.
Pro Tips For Visiting The Islands
Pacific Northwest weather is very unpredictable, especially in the spring, and winds blowing off the Puget Sound can be very chilly. Always bring a jacket. These islands are extremely popular once the weather warms up, so make reservations for as much as you can. Do not go to any of the San Juan Islands without a ferry reservation. Consider visiting mid-week when there are fewer visitors.