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Exploring the Pacific Northwest by RV

Helpful Tips on Traveling the Pacific Coast from California's Redwoods Through Washington's Olympic Peninsula
Article Date: August, 2008



Anacortes and the Islands

Heading north from Keystone on Washington 20 you pass through Whidbey Island, cross the bridge at Deception Pass, and drive up through Fidalgo Island into Anacortes. Anacortes is the northernmost point on the Whidbey-Fidalgo Island chain that borders the main coast of Washington. You can take 20 east across another bridge to the mainland where you can either head south on I-5 or head east on Washington 20 and cross the Cascades.

Yet Anacortes is known as the gateway to the San Juan Islands. The San Juans consists of San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and a number of smaller islands. San Juan, Orcas, and Lopez are all served by the Washington State Ferry System via the Anacortes terminal. In addition it's a popular spot from which to take whale watching trips to view the resident Orca pods in this area. More information on Anacortes can be obtained on the www.anacortes.org website.


Mount Baker From Our Campsite

When staying in Anacortes we stay at Fidalgo Bay RV Resort. They have sites right on the shore of the bay that are designed for motorhomes. You drive right up to the edge of the beach and view it all right out your windshield. You'll see eagles flying and sea lions frolicking in the water. There is another upper campground as well but there are no views from there. If anything you may get a view of the mud flats at low tide, which isn't that great. The Tesoro Oil Refinery is across the bay but it's not a bad view, doesn't smell or make any noise, and it frames Mount Baker in the background. It's also nicely illuminated in the evening.

Raven on Piling

Anacortes has a number of nice restaurants and of course you can find anything seafood related when here. The Anacortes Chocolate Factory is located at 23rd Street and Commercial Avenue (the main drag in Anacortes) and has great pies, ice cream, chocolate, and even deli sandwiches to go. The Rockfish Grill is a popular microbrewery and restaurant, Randy's Pier 61 is a nice dining establishment with a view overlooking the water, and Gere-a-Deli is a great spot to pick up a deli sandwich to take along on the boat or when exploring.

The Island Explorer II

Anacortes is also a great spot to base a whale watching cruise out of. You can go to the islands and take a tour out of Friday Harbor but that requires getting to the island, staying there, and dealing with the ferry traffic in both directions. If you base your trip out of Anacortes it will be more convenient. We use Island Adventures for our whale watching cruises. They have a pretty good record regarding sightings and the Island Explorer II is fast so it can get out there and have the most time to spend with the whales.

Orcas Off The Boat

There are three resident Orca pods in the San Juans. Each pod is considered a family group and may have 20 whales in the pod. Orcas are also known as Killer Whales because they have teeth and are known to attack sea lions. However, that occurs in other areas where food is less prevalent. Salmon are constantly running in this area so these three pods simply feast themselves on the salmon in the area.

Orca Breach

While the pods normally roam by themselves, occasionally two pods will get together. When this happens they tend to get more active and playful, almost as if they are greeting long lost friends or relatives. In rare circumstances all three pods will get together, forming a super pod. Super pods are extremely active and that's what the photographer dreams off. Whales will be breaching and spy hopping and very active. Most whale tours have underwater microphones ands will be able to play the Orca sounds over a loudspeaker.

Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles frequent this area. After all, they like salmon too. They can be spotted from the boat as well as land. Your skipper will pilot the boat past known populations and the guide will direct you to locations of eagles, sea lions, and other marine life, such as dolphins, Minke whales, and Dall's Porpoise. Actually, this particular photo was taken from out campground at Fidalgo Bay RV Resort so you can find them in many places.

San Juan Islands

Anacortes Ferry Dock

Washington 20 Spur heads right down the main drag in Anacortes, it then heads left on 12th Street and ends at the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. This is the jumping off point for traffic between Anacortes and San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, and Victoria, British Columbia. These are the large Super Ferries that handle plenty of vehicles and passengers. Traffic to the San Juans is heavy during summer and especially on weekends. Wait times for vehicles can be as long as two hours so it really takes a chunk out of your day. You could fit a large RV on the ferry but it's not recommended. It would cost an arm and a leg, the wait time would be unreal, and the narrow roads of Friday Harbor and San Juan Island really aren't great for any large vehicle. Most semi-truck deliveries are accomplished with shorty trailers to handle the tight turns. This was also the area where "Free Willy" was filmed so you may recognize some of the buildings in Friday Harbor from that movie.

Friday Harbor

When visiting San Juan Island we prefer to take the toad to the Anacortes Ferry terminal and park it in the day lot, then walk onto the ferry. We do this early in the morning when it's not crowded and we get to Friday Harbor early in the morning to make the most of our day. I then walk about a mile up Spring Street to M&W Auto Rentals and pick up a vehicle to rent for the day. Another option is to rent a moped from Susie's Mopeds if you are into that kind of transportation. San Juan Island is home to the San Juan Island National Park. Two sections are American Camp and English Camp. It was actually based upon the Pig War of 1859, where America and the United States both sent troops and were close to going to war over a farmer's dead pig. It's an interesting and humorous story and the camps of both parties are preserved. More information can be had at www.nps.gov/sajh. Friday Harbor also hosts the Whale Museum, which is right downtown and features exhibits and information on Orca whales. Be sure to check out www.fridayharbor.com for more information. We've found that a long day trip is generally enough to see San Juan Island.

Orcas Island Landing

San Juan Island is the most popular island of the chain and has the most facilities. Orcas Island is more of a quieter place and tends to feature natural beauty rather than man-made features. Eastsound Village is small but has everything you really need. If you want excellent pizza, Portofino Pizzeria is renowned and a must stop. We ate lunch there and arranged to have some extra pizzas boxed and ready so that we could pick them up when leaving on the ferry back to Anacortes so that we could heat them up in the RV for the next day's lunch. You can also rent vehicles right at the ferry landing by calling M&W Rentals and making those arrangements so the walk-on ferry idea still works if you don't want to stay on the island overnight.

Obstruction Pass From Mount Constitution

Leaving east sound we drove to Moran State Park. This beautiful state park includes a number of scenic lakes as well as Mount Constitution, which rises about 2,000' above sea level. A stone tower at the top looks out over Rosario Strait and a short hiking trail leads from the parking area to the tower. Views from this tower extend to hundreds of miles on a clear day. For more information on Orcas Island check out www.orcasislandchamber.com .


Seattle Space Needle

Seattle is a big city with the typical traffic and parking issues as well as lack of nearby campgrounds. We choose to day trip Seattle from Anacortes. Washington 20 heads over the bridge to I-5, which takes us south into Seattle. We've seen the Space Needle. It's expensive to access the observation tower but if you are into high views you can't beat it. It's surrounded by a carnival type atmosphere as well as the Seattle Aquarium. You can take the monorail to downtown from here. From there it's an easy 1/2 mile walk down to Pike Place.

Pike Place Market

Pike Place Market is really amazing. It's way above and beyond what any farmers market could ever be. The multi-story building houses a large number of vendors. Three large seafood markets are hear as well as excellent fruits, vegetables, and anything else you would ever need to make dinner. In addition to the main building, Pike Street is lined with similar businesses that offer ethnic foods, bakeries, cooking supply stores, etc. We always make sure to bring a large cooler and ice packs when heading down here. For this reason we no longer drive to the Space Needle and take the monorail to downtown. Hauling all of that food that distance would be prohibitive. Instead, we park in the Pike Place parking structure behind the market. That minimizes the distance we have to travel when toting all that food. Our RV's freezers and fridge are definitely well stocked when we leave.

Another popular attraction is the Underground Tour. It's a 1 mile walk from Pike Place market so be sure to see that first, then return to the market and load up on food. In Seattle's early day's the area known as Pioneer Square was actually below sea level. When they finally figured out that this wasn't working they just built up higher and left the old levels abandoned beneath the new levels. The roads rose as well and the underground area became a seedy area before being eventually abandoned totally. The tour is very interesting as you walk beneath the sidewalks of the city and explore the old buildings. The guides are excellent story tellers and make the tour very humorous. You will need to call ahead to reserve a spot though or you may have to wait a few hours before you can get in.

Moving On

Deception Pass

Leaving Anacortes you have a few choices, depending on where you want to go next. You can head back down Washington 20 through Fidalgo Island, Deception Pass, and Whidbey Island. From there you can take the Keystone Ferry back to the Olympic Peninsula at Port Townsend. At that point you can take US-101 back around the Olympic Peninsula and down the coast or you can head south along the Hood Canal, see the naval base at Bainbridge Island, and wind up in Olympia. Or you can take the Mukilteo Ferry to the mainland and pick up I-5 there, although taking the Fidalgo Island bridge east to Mount Vernon would be easier, faster, and less expensive. Either way gets you to I-5 to head south.

Heading south on I-5 will eventually get you to Mount St. Helens although you'll have to deal with Seattle traffic, which is notorious. If that's the case be sure to time your passage for off-peak hours. If you are heading east consider staying on Washington-20 and seeing the North Cascades. Normally if we want to see the North Cascades we'll enter Washington this way and exit via the coastline to the south, either continuing on through Oregon to the California Redwoods and back out I-80 or else heading east through the Columbia River Gorge via I-84. However, it can be done in either direction, depending on what works best for you.


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