San Juan Islands of Olympic Peninsula?

Old Mar 25th, 2019, 10:44 PM
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San Juan Islands of Olympic Peninsula?

We are interested in a a several day add-on to a trip to Seattle in mid-August. We are considering the San Juan Islands and the Olympic Peninsula. We don't have specifics yet, but want to get some sense of what each place has to offer. Two adults, like the great outdoors -- hiking, wildlife, not too commercial. Any thoughts?
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Old Mar 26th, 2019, 06:55 AM
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Both fit the bill. The big difference is that with the Olympic Peninsula, you need to do a lot more driving to see the sights. The way the roads are laid out, you cannot drive through it, so it is more like a bicycle wheel with the spokes being roads, but you can't cross at the middle. So it requires a lot of backtracking as well as just a lot of driving get to the scenic areas. For instance, the Hoh is on a road that is 18 miles from the main road (101) each direction, on a two lane, windy road where you typically go about 25 mph. Cape Flattery is beautiful, but quite a distance from most everything else. Same with Ozette. So you get the idea. IME, the San Juan's are more about relaxing. I much prefer the hiking at ONP. Neither area is very commercial, except the main cities such as Port Angeles, but that is only a drive through to get to Hurricane Ridge.
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Old Mar 26th, 2019, 07:04 AM
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They're very different.

Olympic National Park, which comprises most, but by no means all, of the Olympic Peninsula, has a wilderness core which no roads penetrate. The principal visitor destinations are all on the periphery, ranging from Hurricane Ridge and Lake Crescent on the north side of the peninsula to spectacular beaches on the park's Pacific "coastal strip," and the famous Hoh and Quinault Valley rain forests. There are waterfalls, alpine meadows, hiking trails, stunning mountain views, beautiful lakes (especially Lake Quinault on the park's southwest corner) as well as wildlife and a wealth of natural habitats and environments.

However, visiting these marvels comes at a price - it can take hours (and hours) behind the wheel, on roads that are not scenic at all (surrounded by forest, much of it second- or third growth after logging) to get from one sight to the next. Plus, there is very little lodging capacity within the national park (just a couple of places) which fill up instantly and stay that way throughout the summer. Accommodations in the towns around the park's periphery - Port Angeles, Forks, La Push, some near Lake Quinault - varies between okay and not so hot, and is also heavily booked. Most people feel that seeing the minimum in the park requires a three-day investment at least, because staying in one of the locations and "commuting" to the others is not practical given the distances. If you want to hike or see some less frequently visited places, then three days isn't enough.

However, as I said, while Olympic NP comprises a big part of the Olympic Peninsula, it's not the whole of it. The peninsula also includes the wonderful, historic town of Port Townsend, with its splendid Victorian buildings, maritime heritage, whale watching opportunities, and ferry to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, and Port Angeles with its access to Victoria BC by ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Between the two is the Dungeness Spit, with its fine lighthouse and long trail. Earlier in the summer (but maybe still visible when you're there) the fields around the town of Sequim ("skwim") are covered in lavender. Out at the northwest tip of the lower 48 is the Makah reservation, with its museum (featuring articles from the Ozette archaeological dig, one of the most important in the US) as well as fishing access, a trail to Cape Flattery at the extreme corner of the lower 48, and so on. So visiting the Olympic Peninsula offers tremendous variety, both natural and cultural, but it requires some planning and is NOT a "sit and stare" sort of national park.

The San Juans comprise part of a large archipelago in the Salish Sea (comprising Puget Sound and Canadian waters between mainland BC and Vancouver Island) which also include the BC Gulf Islands. The main US islands with ferry access are San Juan, Orcas and Lopez; there are other islands, some with ferry access (like Shaw Island) that have very limited services for visitors, and many more that are accessed by private boats or floatplanes. The main islands are reached by Washington State ferries from Anacortes, a town on Fidalgo Island reached by road from the mainland. WSDOT - Ferries

San Juan is the most heavily populated of the islands, with its main town, Friday Harbor, serving as the county seat and main tourist destination. Orcas is the biggest of the islands and has more geological diversity than the others (tallest mountain, etc.) and Lopez is arguably the most rural, much beloved by cyclists. The islands are mainly agricultural and offer a well known "island vibe" - lots of counter cultural life, hidden coves and beaches, pretty little villages (google Roche Harbor on San Juan Island) and some interesting historical sites. (Google the "pig war.") There are sailing, whale watching and cycling options galore, a lot of farmers markets and art galleries, etc. In the summer there's a daily service from Friday Harbor to Sidney on Vancouver Island, from which Victoria is reached with a half-hour drive.

Visiting the islands also requires the investment of several days if your aim is to see a lot. Unlike the Olympic Peninsula, distances aren't great, but having to wait for ferries slows you down a lot. In the peak of the summer, getting to and from the islands and Anacortes can be a half-day affair; while vehicle bookings are possible on the main line, "spur of the moment" inter-island travel is complicated and impractical. You need a car on the islands as places are somewhat spread out and public transportation is minimal. In terms of accommodations, because of the islands' popularity, there are numerous options, mostly of the "inn" and B&B sort. However places also get booked up early, so if visiting the San Juans is your aim, you should be lining things up asap.

If you want to visit BOTH the San Juans and Olympic NP, the way to do that is to drive from Anacortes (San Juan Islands ferry terminal) over stunning Deception Pass (WA Hwy 20) to a ferry that leaves Whidbey Island (near the cute town of Coupeville) to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula, then drive west to Port Angeles and the national park. The Port Townsend ferry is very small and also takes vehicle bookings; having them is essential during the summer.

I'll also put in a plug for the BC Gulf Islands, which, like the San Juans, are extremely attractive and offer a similar range of services and sights. The southern Gulf islands are reached from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal on Vancouver Island and also from the Tsawwassen terminal on mainland BC, not far from the Canada-US border. If your travels are to include Vancouver or Victoria BC, I'd give a good look at the Gulf Islands, for example Salt Spring or Pender Islands, which are quite lovely. https://www.bcferries.com/

Hope this helps.

Last edited by Gardyloo; Mar 26th, 2019 at 07:11 AM.
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Old Mar 30th, 2019, 03:28 PM
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We will on Lopez Island in late April for 3 days - I can report back then my impressions.
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Old Mar 31st, 2019, 11:46 PM
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Originally Posted by Gardyloo View Post
The peninsula also includes the wonderful, historic town of Port Townsend, with its splendid Victorian buildings, maritime heritage, whale watching opportunities, and ferry to Whidbey Island in Puget Sound, and Port Angeles with its access to Victoria BC by ferry across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

. . . . . . . .
​​
​​​I'll also put in a plug for the BC Gulf Islands, which, like the San Juans, are extremely attractive and offer a similar range of services and sights. The southern Gulf islands are reached from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal on Vancouver Island and also from the Tsawwassen terminal on mainland BC, not far from the Canada-US border. If your travels are to include Vancouver or Victoria BC, I'd give a good look at the Gulf Islands, for example Salt Spring or Pender Islands, which are quite lovely. https://www.bcferries.com/
​​​​​​Both MMS and Gardyloo have given good advice.

I just want to mention that with both the BC Gulf Islands and Victoria, you are entering British Columbia, Canada, and would need a passport. Also, you may need to check with your cell phone carrier to find out if you will have excessive roaming charges and if you should sign up for a plan during any days outside the US.
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