10 Thoughts On Living & RVing The San Juan Islands, WA
Back when I had the idea of living on an Island with “the beast“, hubby thought I was slightly mad. I can’t exactly tell you why I wanted to do it, just that I really, really did. Thankfully I’m more stubborn than a dead mule and I have to admit the entire thing turned out quite nicely. We landed a sweet deal, got most of our ferry costs paid for, paid absolutely nothing in camping costs & got to experience true Island living….at least for a month. What an adventure! Of course then we went on to sightsee like crazy and I had so much to blog about that I didn’t actually get around to telling your what our experience here was really like.
So, that’s what this post is for. A wrap-up of our Island experience. What we liked, what we didn’t like and what I might do differently if I could.
1/ Island Living Ain’t Cheap – I knew this coming into the whole deal. I’ve been to other islands (Hawaii) and I know it costs to get things physically hauled over the sea and into these remote spots, so that cost gets transferred to the consumer. This means groceries cost more, gas costs more, eating out costs more. If you stay longer-term expect to hike your budget on groceries & entertainment. It just is what it is.
2/ You Can Find ANYTHING You Need – This was a total surprise to me. I figured we might get lucky to find one decent store and a few greens, but there is more fresh produce on the San Juans than I ever imagined. All the “main” Islands have excellent (really excellent) organic food stores and wonderful farmer’s markets with amazing organic greens and pastured meat…ALL locally raised!! There wasn’t a single thing I needed that I couldn’t find, even my special gluten-free flours and some oddball ingredients. There are farm stands all over the place, we bought local meat, pastured eggs and we ate fresh produce everyday. Wow!
3/ The Ferries Are a Pain In The Butt – Oh, the dreaded ferry. I can’t imagine anyone likes the darn things. Most of the ferries require you to be there an hour or more ahead of time and then you may be stuck waiting for delays due to fog or other issues. In summer the lines can be atrocious and if you happen to get bumped you’ve typically got to wait another 3 hours (!!) before the next ferry. When we went Island-hopping to our neighbors we spent an average of 5 hours total travel time just to get there and back giving us precious little time on the Islands themselves. It’s enough to make you bang your head on the wall. If you have the time, I highly recommend staying overnight (or a few nights) at each Island just to spread out the time spent on ferry rides. Trust me, you’ll enjoy it much more.
4/ Leisure Boating Is Fabulous – If I didn’t get sea-sick I would ditch the RV and spend the entire summer boating around the San Juan’s. Even if you don’t have the luxury of a full summer of boating, if you come here you must (must, must) take at least ONE boat ride (*not* a ferry ride) to go whale watching or visit one of the outlying Islands OR at a minimum get out in a sea kayak. The experience of the Islands from the water is totally different from that on land. It’s amazing, serene, gorgeous and cannot be missed. This is the true spirit of the San Juan’s.
5/ Summer Is Crowded – The San Juan’s are a popular summer destination, and given how short the summer is in the PNW people flock to come here when they can. San Juan is probably the most crowded Island, with Orcas a close second and Lopez much more laid-back. You’ll have people at all the tourist spots, lots of folks in the restaurants and can expect chock-a-blocked campgrounds everywhere you go.
6/ You Can Still Find Peace – Luckily the Islands are big enough that you can find your own little corner if you go a little outside the box. On Orcas we had no-one on the mountain in the early mornings, many of the less popular trails were often empty and we could always find a quiet spot to swim in the lakes. It’s kind of amazing that on an Island you can still find spots to get away from it all, but you really can. You may not have acres of empty space, but you can definitely find a good-sized corner to call your own. Of course if you’re a boater you’ve got the best of everything. No END of spots to be on your own with plenty of active harbors to stock-up inbetween boondocking runs.
7/ Hosting Is The Best Way To RV Here – There are *some* RV parks on the Islands, but they’re really not made to accommodate “beast-size” RVs and even those that do are expensive & basic. Plus, it costs an arm and a leg to ride the ferry over (~$315 for our rig). If you want to bring your RV onto the Islands, hosting is really the absolute best way to do it. When you host you get a nice full hookup site, you get your ferry costs paid for (at least here on Orcas with Friends of Moran) and you get to spend an extended time on the Islands really experiencing them. Volunteering rocks! (Note/ there are also RV volunteer opportunities on Lopez & San Juan Island)
8/ Tenting & Cabins Are A Great Alternative – If I didn’t host here, I would store the rig and either bring over a tent or rent a cabin. RV storage at Anacortes is super-cheap (a local told me he pays $45/mo for his 40-footer!!) and there are no end of choices for places to stay on the Island when you come over by car. Plus, you pay way less to bring the car on the ferry than you do a rig. Also, given how time-intensive the ferries are to ride I would plan to spend a few days on each Island before going back to the rig. Nice, easy, relaxed.
9/ Island Time Is A Real Phenomenon – Many of the negative reviews you see on Yelp from the local restaurants have to do with wait time. People complain about the time to get food, the time to get served, the time waiting for the ferry. It’s part of the local culture that things just take a little extra time to get done and it’s one of the quirks you should prepare yourself for if you come here.
10/ You Just Gotta Go With the Flow! – Slowing down is a part of living on the Islands! If it takes 15 minutes to get your Mocha…well, it’s not going to kill you. Once you’ve lived on the Island for a little while you might even find yourself adopting the same habit. You’ll stop for a chat with folks you know, strike up a conversation with the barista and spend some time getting to know the docents dog at the museum (oh yes I did). In short, you become an Islander. So, just slow down and embrace it baby!
Phew! That was more than I expected to write, but it guess I had a lot to say. The bottom line is our time here has been just fabulous! These Islands are even more diverse and interesting than I ever imagined. The sunrises over the mountain, our swims in the lake, the lighthouses and the people & fellow volunteers we’ve met here will be fond memories forever etched in our minds. If you get the chance to RV here, don’t pass it up. The Islands are a magical place and you won’t be disappointed!
Books, Books, Books:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Looks great! and such fantastic reporting!
All of us old skiers know that Warren Miller the ski film producer lives on Orca’s Island…Of course, this is a man who has been all over the world shooting film, he chose Orcas Island to retire. Must be a great place…(smiley face)
Now, that’s something I didn’t know. Cool!
For those who haven’t experienced the San Juans..your photos should give them the incentive to visit those wonderful gems. The location of the last photo…would be a perfect spot to grab a glass of wine..and make a toast(or several))…to the beauty of the San Juan Islands!
Well, thank you for the lovely compliment. Believe it or not the last photo was sunrise at ~6:30AM from the top of Mount Constitution (where we’re hosting). I didn’t catch many sunrises while we were here, but that was a good one.
Bear Tracks Blog says
Ahhh, this brings back fond memories of island living during our years living on our sailboat. We never went to the San Juans (we preferred warm water cruising), but we met several other live-aboards who raved about sailing the San Juans. Now I can see why!
Some of the boat moorings we saw on our lighthouse trip looked amazing. Lots of small islands around with gorgeous little coves.
Island hopping by bike would save a huge amount of time because you don’t have to get there an hour early just to wait in a long line. Can you park a vehicle overnight at the Orcas Island ferry terminal?
Yes, you can. Many folks do it actually. If you’re fit and like to bike, it’s a great way to see the islands.
You guys are living the dream for sure. Love the photos and love the blog. I always look forward to your posts
Happy to have you along for the ride!
Michael Elliott says
Nina and Paul–
So glad we were able to meet you guys today! As usual, appreciate your take on the world…in this case, our beloved San Juans. You are right about boating these Islands. It is truly magical. Our daughter-in-law, Yurika, from Okinawa (who you met today) was fascinated with your lifestyle. After an early dinner in Eastsound, we took off and flew over the top of the mountain and bid you adieu. Safe travels!
Mike, Sarah, Yurika and Chris
It was a real pleasure to meet you guys too! Cheers for coming up to the mountain, and for the fly-by. I’m pretty sure I know which plane it was. Good travels to you too!
What a lovely post, and chock full of some good information for any of us thinking of a visit to the Islands. It sure sounds like you’ve enjoyed your stay thus far. I hope you have time for a few more island outings before you hit the road again
Sadly we’re going to be rushing down to Oregon now. It’ll be travel everyday with a few maintenance stops thrown in. This is going to be a busy week!
Good summary of positive elements. The kind of post I enjoy.
Cool! I figured it would be nice to finish our time here with a balanced wrap-up. There’s positives and negatives to every place, but the San Juan’s have their own special character. It’s been a wonderful adventure!
Box Canyon Mark from Lovely Ouray, Colorado says
You guys are to RV travel what Rick Steves is to European travel. Might as well publish your growing list of extensive reviews into book form and make a buck.
Box Canyon Mark from Lovely Ouray, Colorado
Well that is fine praise indeed. Thanks much! 🙂 Maybe one day I’ll get around to making some real $$ off all this.
wonderful post…have a safe trip to the next place…
Will do and thanks!
Jodee Gravel says
I find that the ability to slow down to “match” a culture is critical to truly enjoying a new place. Doesn’t hurt to have you and Paul scope it out for us first so we are prepared :-). Great balanced summary – I’m thinking island-hopping in the Jeep and leaving the MH on the mainland is in our future!
Slowing down to match the local culture definitely makes the whole experience better. In fact, without it you can become rather frustrated. I think your plan to Island-hop with the jeep is a great one. I’d definitely recommend it!
Karen @ Sock Monkey Trekkers from NM says
Great idea! Love it
If you have not visited Rosario Resort yet, it is worth a visit. The 4 pm organ concert and Rosario history narrative (open to the public and no charge) was enjoyable and interesting when we went last summer. We walked to the Resort from the Moran campground. We fit in the campground with our 27 ft Class C, but, as you have noted, the campground is best for smaller rigs. We also enjoyed visiting Obstruction Pass State Park.
All good tips. Believe it or not Rosario was the one place we didn’t get to see. Kept putting it on the list and other stuff got in the way. But, it’s always good to have something to come back for. I can just about see a Class C in Moran SP, but there can’t be many spots to fit. And agree that Obstruction Pass is great. We managed to get out there and hike the loop our first week. That would probably be my #1 pick for tent camping in the area.
Nina, will you be adding your island locations, campgrounds, to you google map? Its helpful when following your adventures and i plan to soon visit some of those awesome places. I love your advise about stowing the rig and getting on the ferries. I tow a 19 footer and total length is around 33 feet. Are you finding that since you have a larger blog following that when you return to locations they are crowded with fans?
I’ll definitely link-up all the blog posts to the Google map, as I usually do, but won’t be doing any specific campground reviews (I only review campgrounds we actually stay in). I’ve got Orcas on the map already. Just need to update the blog links.
As for finding hordes of fans, I can’t say that we do LOL. I like to think the blog is well-read, but we’re not *quite* that popular tee hee.
All told I’ve spent 10 years of my life living on an island. Oahu, Hawaii twice (60-66/87-90) & Vashon-Burton islands in Puget Sound for a year (76-77)at the lighthouse when I was in the Coast Guard.
Island time goes along with island life, it is different & takes getting used to.
Wow! You sound like you’ve had some amazing experiences. Maybe one day we’ll catch up and you can recount some of your many (I’m sure) stories from these spots.
Karinda Elliott says
Thanks for all your wisdom as we are headed to the islands next week! (With our 35 feet RV)
Oh how exciting! Do enjoy. The temp & weather is PERFECT right now. Can’t ask for better.
Randy Warner says
You make some great points about RVing in the islands. I think the only way we’d be able to would be to camp host as you suggest. But I like the info and sounds like you all made the most of it! And some terrific pictures!
I do think camp hosting (or interpretive hosting) is the best way to RV the islands. Hookups, ferry costs paid, free site….it’s a good combo.
Wonderful wrap-up Nina! You have given us a lot to think about, but then you always do! 🙂
Excellent points, Nina. I agree with everything you’ve said — although Eric and I do love the ferries — but then again, we only leave Lopez once a week at most, and we walk-on instead of driving, which makes it super simple. We definitely think camp hosting is the way to experience the islands in-depth — the only downside is that we love it so much that we keep coming back for the same gig, even after four years!
You guys have definitely fallen for Lopez in a big way and are practically local islanders at this point. All good tips, especially for walking on the ferry.
Sounds like island life is sort of like Mexico, slow and easy. Just means you have to stay longer to get into the flow. Hard to believe your time here is over.
Yup, I think there are definite similarities.
Dan & Jen says
Agree on the boating. Cruising a big river back east or the California Delta in a small boat is on my bucket list. Maybe even cruising around an archipelago.
We go to Jamaica almost every year. Island time (called Jamaica time there) is real. You just have to adopt the same attitude and it’s no biggie. But we see so many people that can’t and get so angry. What a shame. It’s so nice to sit and relax and not worry about how long things take.
I just found your wordpress site today. Most people that write about their RV travels leave a lot to be desired. I first read your ‘About Us’ page and was delighted to find out that you are educated and had been exposed tot he world. You are very much like my wife and I (only on a grander scale).
Anyway I read your solar posts as I have almost finished our 640 watt system. So my interest is piqued. Your husband is an EE, so am I. You fix things, so do we. You go off in the woods/desert by yourselves with no amenities like we do. You are semi retired like we want to be (boo). We have a big ass Ford truck and a 35 foot 5th rather than a class A. We kayak most any time we can.
And finally, we went sea kayaking in the San Juans around Memorial Day this year and could very much relate to the way you found the area. I am having fun reading what you have done and are going to do.
Any chance of seeing pictures of the interior of your beast?
Definitely sounds like we’ve got alot in common. I have some internal pics of our rig from when we first moved in and a few from some decorating posts.
Here’s one post:
And here’s another:
I pointed out your site to my wife and she read a little further than I did and told me that you like to stay at Markham Park in the winter months (or at least have in the past). We just live a bit up the road (Sawgrass Expressway) in Coral Springs. We did a lot of initial testing in our rig on weekends at Markham Park. Let us know when you might be back there and we will look you up. We have a lot of gator tales:)
Yup, Markham is our favorite park in that area. Haven’t been back in a few years, but if we do we’ll certainly be staying there again.
Live Small Ride Free says
Thanks for writing this post. We were thinking about visiting Orcas Island in the coming weeks in our 5th wheel (we are also full-timers) and your post provided us with a lot of good first-hand information (from an RVer’s viewpoint). Did you notice any boondocking options while you were on Orcas Island? ~Ching
Noooo (zero) boondocking options on Orcas. In fact real estate on the island is so limited that even RVing spots are in very short supply. Moran State Park has camping, but most spots are small, uneven and completely unsuitable for bigger rigs, plus it books out far in advance. The RV park at West Beach Resort (http://www.westbeachresort.com/rv.html) is the *only* place on Orcas that can take larger rigs and it’s quite nice, but it’s got very limited space so you must reserve ahead. Also be prepared for the ferry costs in a big rig. You’ll be looking at $300+ for larger rigs.
If you’re only looking at a limited (time wise) visit I really recommend parking the RV at Anacortes and car camping (or hotel/B&B hopping) on the islands instead of bringing the rig. Much cheaper and easier, not only in terms of ferry ride but also in the ability to island hop and get around.
If you do decide to come across to Orcas in the 5th wheel book well ahead and plan to spend some extended time so the costs make sense (West Beach Resort offers decent monthly rates). Also make sure to time the tides too. The dock at Orcas is fixed which means at low tide the ferry ramp is very steep (we almost bottomed out when we arrived), so try to hit a higher tide level for the big rig trip across and back.
Lastly in case you didn’t see my other Orcas Island posts, have a read of these two before you go.
Enjoy the islands. We loved it there!!
Thank you for the info on the San Juan islands & RVing. Gives me some things to sort out before I do that.