Cheap thrills; touring Seattle’s Elliott Bay and Puget Sound via ferry boat!

Two ferries, one departing, one arriving, at Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Washington.

Cheap thrills; exploring Seattle’s Elliott Bay and Puget Sound via ferry boat!

Issaqua class ferry, the Kitsap, loading passengers and vehicles in Anacortes.

From our first visit to Seattle some 48 years ago, we have loved the Washington State Ferry System. Stately, oceangoing fairies, cruising the serene waters of Puget Sound with the Olympic Mountains to the west and Seattle and the Cascade Mountains to the east. The fleet offers an inexpensive way to experience some of the most stunning scenery and reach bucolic destinations throughout the area, from Tacoma on the south to Anacortes on the north.

On our most recent visit, we experienced a number of the newer ferry boats. The Washington State ferry system has sailed the waters of Elliot Bay and Puget Sound for over six decades, and with a fleet of 22 classic and high-tech ferries is largest in the US and one of the largest in the world.

Friends Bob and Diana at work on one of many unfinished jigsaw puzzles on the Kitsap ferry.

It’s legacy harkens back to the “Mosquito Fleet” of the 1850s, ranging from tiny jitneys to larger sternwheelers, carrying goods and residents back-and-forth across the Sound. The last private ferry service, Puget Sound Navigation, sold out to the state in 1951.

Today’s ferry fleet ranges from the largest, the Jumbo Mark II class, 460 feet long, 90 foot beam, carrying 200+ vehicles and up to 2500 passengers. We sailed one of these, the Puyallup, to Kingston. Next size down, Jumbo class, includes the Spokane, 440 feet long, carrying 188 cars and 2000 passengers. Most frequently seen are the Issaquah class, including the Kitsap we took out of Anacortes, 328 feet long, 79 foot beam, carrying 124 vehicles and 1200 passengers. Each ferry can do from 16 to 18 kn, or about 20 mph.

Kitsap ferry at Friday Harbor on San Juan Island.Our first voyage on this trip was the Edmunds to Kingston ferry, part of our journey to the Olympic National Park’s most northwestern point, Cape Flattery. We would return the same day – all-in-all, a pretty good bargain, our vehicle and two seniors, $27 roundtrip. On the return sailing, with rain pelting down, we discovered the lovely fact that, on each ferry, travelers leave unfinished jigsaw puzzles, from 500 to 1000 pieces, for other travelers to try to patch together.

On another day, we toured the lovely LaConner daffodil fields, then took the Deception Pass bridge across to Whidbey Island, south to Clinton and the ferry over to Mukilteo, our shortest ride. Another day, it was a Seattle to Bainbridge Island round-trip, pleasant to stroll the quaint island town and take the return trip back, getting the most marvelous views of the Seattle Space Needle, downtown skyline, and, on a clear day, Mt. Rainier.

A sea plane lands just outside Friday Harbor.

But our most impressive day-long ferry tour was our day up to Anacortes. Here we caught the San Juan Island ferry to Lopez Island, then to San Juan Island and Friday Harbor where we lunched and walked the town for several hours, returning late in the afternoon to Anacortes. It cost five dollars to park our vehicle in Anacortes, and, the ferry cost us $14, roundtrip for two seniors. In the summer season, Anacortes ferries also depart for Sidney, B.C., so tourists can visit Canada’s lovely provincial capital, Victoria.

Friday Harbor offers a wealth of choices for touring on foot. From the ferry terminal on the edge of the old port city, it’s a block walk to fine dining on the waterfront; the quaint, historic town runs up the hillside for about five blocks.  After a delightful lunch at Downriggers Restaurant, we gathered information at the Chamber of Commerce and toured the Whale Museum.

Skeleton of a 30' yearling gray whale towers over the Whale Museum. Adults reach over 100' in length!

The museum’s Gallery of Whales covers the smallest of species, up to the huge gray and blue whales.  It’s daunting to stand under the 30 foot-long skeleton of a yearling gray whale that died caught in plastic netting near Neah Bay, when one realizes its adult parents reach 100 feet. The museum offers special programs and tours aimed at youngsters (see their calendar for special events).

Had we more time, Friday Harbor offers many other attractions, including whale and kayak tours, the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, San Juan Historical Museum and the San Juan Community Theatre. As you’d expect, a host of hotels, inns and B&Bs offer lots of options for spending several days, and most offer bikes for use by their guests.

The Kitsap ferry arrives at Lopez Island to pick up passengers and vehicles. Lopez is most rural of the San Juan Islands, but loved by bicyclists for its quiet country roads.

Our ferry also stopped at Lopez Island, the most rural of the San Juans and popular with bicyclists for quiet (and mostly flat) backroads.  Because the town with lovely secluded harbor is about two miles from the ferry terminal, we saved it for a future visit. The ferry system also makes stops at Orcas Island, at 57 square miles the largest of the islands, but today it was not on our schedule.

On this voyage, we discovered the San Juan Islands and surrounding Salish Sea contain 172 islands, islets and skerries (rocky reefs) at high tide. For the entire four hours at sea, the views are both endless and inspiring. Despite a gray and misty day, even Mt. Baker, towering 10,781 feet over the Cascade Range and covered in glaciers, smiled down on us, allowing occasional glimpses as we returned to Anacortes.

The Kitsap ferry disgorges vehicles and passengers at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal at the end of our full-day adventure.

How to get to Seattle, WA: From Stockton, take I-5 north; it’s 810 miles and 12.5 hours; or, fly into SeaTac Airport.

For more information: WA State Ferries, ; San Juan Islands,; the Whale Museum,; for Washington State tourism,

Read more from Tim Viall’s travel blog, follow him on Facebook or Twitter; or, email him at Happy travels in your world!

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