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If you’re wondering about how to get to San Juan Island from the mainland, I suggest taking the ferry from Anacortes. To get to San Juan Island in Washington, you have three choices–hop aboard a seaplane, hire a private boat, or take the ferry. We discovered that the ferry is the most economical way to get to San Juan.

Taking the Ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor–The Background

As we planned our road trip that included two nights in Seattle, a friend I worked with suggested we check out Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I’d never heard of this area, but since we were considering taking a whale tour, and I discovered this was a popular place for orca-viewing, we made a plan to spend a day on the island.

Knowing what I know now, a day is simply not enough time to enjoy all that San Juan has to offer, especially if you throw in a whale tour. If I had it to do all over again, I would’ve booked a night on the island. Still, we got to experience the highlights, though it was at a pretty quick pace.

It is possible to just walk onto the ferry and walk off when you arrive at your destination. The problem is, you won’t have a car. If you’re just staying in Friday Harbor, that would not be an issue at all. If you plan to drive to various sites throughout the island, you’ll want your vehicle.

If you take the ferry from Anacortes, Washington, you can drive your car onto the ferry and then have it on the island. This is exactly what we wanted to do. The thing is, we live in Missouri and have never had a reason to drive a car onto an enormous ferry and head to an island. The whole idea was completely foreign, and as we tried to plan this part of the trip, I found it stressful. I thought a post about our experience may help other people plan and set their minds at ease about what to expect.

Reserving the Ferry

As we planned the trip, we realized that we needed to reserve our departure and return on the ferry. The ferry actually has stops at three other islands, so the schedule accommodates four stops after leaving Anacortes.  Our tour was scheduled for 1:00 p.m., so we needed to plan. We needed to drive to Anacortes from Seattle, and we needed to be in line ready to board at least 30-90 minutes before departure. Reservations are recommended, though there are a few spots for drive-ups and replacements for no-shows.

Since we’d booked our whale tour, we didn’t want to chance not getting a spot. Reservations are released at 2 months, 2 weeks, and 2 days. Two months out, I was on the website booking our ferry times. You use the WSDOT website to book your reservations.

Using the schedule, we figured out that we could go straight to Friday Harbor without other stops if we chose the 9:05 a.m. departure. It takes about an hour to travel on the ferry from Anacortes to Friday Harbor. If all were on schedule, we’d arrive a little after 10:00 a.m. ready to explore a little before our whale tour.

Boarding the Ferry From Anacortes

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

Early on our whale-watching day, we drove from Seattle to Anacortes and found ourselves in the boarding queue about an hour before departure. I’d printed out our tickets, and they scanned them with no problems. Everyone in the queue seemed to turn off the car and get out. We stepped outside to take a look around.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

The ferry launch area of Anacortes is a beautiful place.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

Before we knew it, the ferry arrived, so we returned to our car.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

The boarding process is super easy; everyone is guided on where to go every step of the way.

Taking the Ferry From Anacortes

They have the car-parking down to a science.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

After your car is parked, you are welcome to move about the ferry.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

Riding the Ferry

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

After the car is parked, you can join the walk-on passengers upstairs. There are nice places to have a seat.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

There are also seats near the windows.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

We saw some vending machines, but we didn’t use them on the way to Friday Harbor. We’d nibbled on snacks during the hour-and-a-half drive from Seattle.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

We were excited to see what we could see, so we spent much of the ride on the outside decks.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

It was a tad chilly, though, even in July.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

We loved watching the water and scenery.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

This area is gorgeous.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

Arriving at Friday Harbor

Soon, we heard the announcement that we arriving at Friday Harbor, and we could return to our cars. Just as efficiently as we’d loaded, we disembarked and found ourselves on San Juan Island. We had some time before our whale tour, so we explored Friday Harbor and visited the Whale Museum. Below are links to two of our adventures on San Juan Island.

Orca Whale Tour at Friday Harbor

Pelindaba Lavender Farm on San Juan Island

Leaving Friday Harbor and Returning to Anacortes

After our whale tour and a quick spin around the island, it was time to go back to the ferry launch. If you are not there at least 30 minutes before departure, you’ll be moved to the standby line. We missed the cut-off by 5 minutes, so that’s where we ended up. I was worried about getting a spot on the ferry, but it all turned out fine. So, if this happens to you, realize that it will probably work out since the island is small and there won’t be a mad rush for people to get to Anacortes.

Once we were parked on the ferry, we headed up to the passenger area again.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

I was sleepy after a whale tour in the open air and exploring the island, so I didn’t spend as much time on the decks this time.

Taking the ferry from Anacortes

The light was beautiful, though.

Once we arrived back to Anacotes, we drove off the ferry, grabbed some fast-food for dinner, and drove back to Seattle. If you’re wondering if you should take a trip to San Juan Islands while you’re in the Seattle area, I’d definitely recommend it! The whale-watching tour was a highlight of our trip, and the island is lovely. Again, I’d recommend staying a night on the island if you have the time. It would have been less hectic if we’d done that, but we didn’t know what to expect. Also, there are some cute restaurants in Friday Harbor. I would’ve loved to have time for dinner on the island.

Give San Juan Island a go. It’s a truly beautiful place!

Taking the ferry from Anacortes
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  1. I’ve really been wanting to go to San Juan Island to do some whale watching and see the beautiful island. This is the perfect guide to know about taking the ferry from Anacortes. The logistics can be so tricky sometimes, so it’s great to know what to expect!

  2. It sounds like you had a great day exploring San Juan Island. If it is as spectacular in person as your pictures are I’m sure it does warrant an overnight stay to really explore. I’m sure your whale-watching tour was fabulous too.

  3. Lisa, Casey, Barrett Dog Reply

    What an excellent way to travel to San Juan Island. The ferry views were terrific. We have done ferry travel a few times, but they were for short destinations lasting about 15 minutes. Glad you were able to get on board and make it to your whale-watching tour.

  4. Taking the ferry is a fun way to relax and take in the scenery! Looks like you had a wonderful experience.

  5. Lisa Manderino Reply

    Ferry rides are cool! I went on my first one this summer too! I like walking around and taking in the view!

  6. I love ferry rides because I can relax and admire the scenery and someone else is responsible for getting me to the destination- LOL. Anacortes is beautiful BTW!

  7. There are lots of details and planning to take the ferry from Anacortes. I’ve never taken an auto ferry, so this will be helpful for the future.

  8. Do I need to book a separate ticket to come back from Friday harbor to Anacortes for our vehicle or is that automatically included in the initial reservation? I’m confused. Hope you can help. Thanks

    • Stacey Reply

      There is no charge from Friday Harbor to Anacortes, so it’s like it’s round trip. Since you’re going to an island, they get they money when you leave the mainland.

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