Bicycle touring is a whale of a good time on the magical San Juan Islands.
Riders flock to this bicycling paradise for its varying terrain, quiet two-lane roads and scenic beaches. But the abundance of wildlife draws visitors too. The opportunity to spot a whale was a major reason for visiting the islands for my first multi-day bicycle adventure.
Every hard-earned tire rotation during my seven-day, 269-mile, self-guided tour of the islands, located some 80 miles north of Seattle in the Puget Sound, was validated when I witnessed a pod of whales playfully swimming up the shoreline of San Juan Island.
Until then, the trip had not been without a few challenges. The first day, 90-degree heat near Seattle had me wondering why I hadn't booked a cruise. And the roads to the ferry terminal in Anacortes, Wash., were busy, loud, and hilly. Every passing truck rattled my nerves. I hadn't ridden next to vehicles traveling at highway speeds before.
But I stayed positive knowing my riding partner, Ross Jonak, had survived a much tougher trip last summer, when he rode coast-to-coast on his bike.
When we arrived at the ferry terminal, I was too tired and sore to care that for the first time in my life, I was wearing Spandex shorts in public.
After buying the round-trip ferry ticket between Anacortes and our first destination, Shaw Island, we were relieved to learn that bicyclists and walk-on passengers can ride for free between islands. (Summer fares for adults are $13.15, plus $4 for a bike, Wednesday-Saturday, and $11.85 Sunday-Tuesday.)
The Washington State Ferries serve the four biggest islands in the San Juans. We spent the short ferry rides taking pictures, snacking, napping and studying maps of the islands.
Shaw Island was idyllic for getting us in the island groove. The island has only one store, a post office, a school and a campground. We only saw one car on the road leading to the campground. It had a completely different feel than the roads on the mainland.
We arrived at the campground without a reservation because we'd read that most campgrounds offered designated areas for hikers and bikers.
After setting up camp, our nightly routine consisted of one person preparing the mostly canned food dinner and the other going from site to site looking for abandoned firewood.
We needed the fire to keep warm as we had decided to leave our sleeping bags behind in the Seattle heat. That turned out to be a mistake; neither of us slept well during the trip because of the cold nightly temperatures. Even in late July and August, the average high temperature in the San Juan Islands is around 70 degrees and the average low is a chilly (for summer) 50.
Day two of riding took us from Shaw to Lopez Island, which proved to be a true cycling paradise. The mostly flat island has little car traffic and features many beautiful public beaches.
Upon our arrival at the campground, two bicyclists raved about the riding and shared their must-see destination points. That convinced us to camp two nights on the island.
Each of our rides on Lopez ended at a scenic beach with the exception of trips into town for groceries and to join the locals for fresh cinnamon rolls at Holly B's bakery.
We were a little hesitant to move onto our third island, San Juan, because of crowds we expected to encounter in Friday Harbor, the biggest town on any of the islands. At this point in the trip, it seemed like we had seen more wildlife than people. We'd seen a bald eagle, a great blue heron, harbor seals and numerous black-tailed deer.
Fortunately, we weaved through the crowds of tourists in Friday Harbor and were out of town in no time.
Once again, the sunny skies and mild temperatures were perfect for riding. The scenery was breathtaking along the south end of the island. We hiked to a lighthouse on Cattle Point and then headed for San Juan County Park.
Along the way we noticed a minivan on the side of the road. The passenger was pointing to the water. When I got closer, I saw a couple of Orca whales popping in and out of the water.
Farther ahead, groups of people were gathered at Lime Kiln Point State Park with binoculars in hand to get a view of the half-dozen whales in the pod.
This was the first time I'd ever seen whales outside of SeaWorld.
From San Juan Island we went to Orcas Island, which is extremely hilly. By this time in the trip, our biking legs were getting stronger, but we still struggled to get to Moran State Park, which features Mount Constitution, the highest point on any of the islands.
"You made it," said the park ranger at the entrance. "If you can do that, you can get up the mountain."
Exhausted from the elevation changes, we set up camp and crossed our fingers the sunshine would stick around for another day.
Fueled by our first showers of the week, we reached the top of the 2,500-foot mountain and enjoyed the 360-degree views. It was a perfect cap to a wonderful trip.