Island Biking

Island Wheels

Greg Van Belle Adventure Features

Island Biking

Words: Greg Van Belle // Photos: Mal Nowles
Bringing a bike aboard while cruising
the San Juan Islands offers a whole new
world of adventure.
Cruising the San Juan Islands on your own boat allows you to glimpse parts of the archipelago most tourists will never see. The uninhabited islands, the narrow passes, the quiet coves, and sea life beyond the ferry routes are what make the islands such a special destination.

HHowever, most of us barely let our feet dry out on land long enough to see the islands beyond the marinas and resorts. Arriving by boat, we stick to the water, and unless an attraction is a quick walk from the harbormaster’s office, we tend not to see it.

As I walked around the village at Roche Harbor recently, a group of cyclists whipped past me on their way south toward Friday Harbor. I’ve always wanted to tour the islands by bike, but the idea of taking the ferry, finding a place to stay, and planning the route kept me from pursuing it. If I’m going to the islands I want to be on my boat, after all. Besides, bikes on rooftop racks trigger an over-height charge on the ferries. What a hassle.

Wandering back down to the boat, I pause to admire a beautiful old Grand Banks. It took me a minute to notice the bicycles lashed to the pulpit. Of course! Why this hadn’t occurred to me sooner is a mystery. We drag our paddleboards, kayaks, dinghies, and fishing gear with us everywhere we go. Why not bring the bikes? Carrying a bike aboard opens up every corner of every island. It removes your reliance on public transportation and gives you access to what life on the islands really looks look for the locals, most of whom don’t live on the water.

Beyond the marinas and waterfront towns, the San Juans quickly show their true face: quiet, rural, and slow-paced. There is no better way to explore than by bicycle. Riding the islands can seem pastoral and relaxing, but remember that the San Juans are the peaks of mountains, and the terrain can be hilly and challenging. Roads tend to be narrow and winding, often with limited visibility around curves and through trees. The good news is that locals tend not to be in a hurry and most drivers are used to cyclists on the roads. Sure, you can ride on the ferries. Sure, you can rent a bike for an afternoon. But why not give yourself the freedom to take off whenever you want, for as long as you want?

A good road bike is fine for most of the riding you will do on the major islands, but a mountain bike or cross bike expands your access to more terrain. On the smaller islands you will encounter unpaved roads, trails, and rough old roads. As much as I like going fast on my road bike, the islands generally call for a bike that will do it all.

SAN JUAN ISLAND

San Juan Island is known to most boaters for the allure of a stop at Friday Harbor or Roche Harbor, and for good reason. But the rest of the island is worth taking the time to explore. A trip on two wheels gets you beyond the throngs of tourists, the ice cream shops, and the ferry traffic, and a fit cyclist can see the whole island in an afternoon. From Friday Harbor, it is a quick 10-mile ride north to Roche Harbor, and along the way you pass the San Juan Vineyard (and neighboring Mona, the dromedary camel) and several parks worth a short stop.

From Roche Harbor, ride south to British Camp for the first stop on the Pig War history tour. Stay on Westside Road to get to Lime Kiln Point where you watch other boaters struggle through the tide rips, which I find more entertaining than whale watching (the reason why everyone else is usually there). Ride back across the island and south toward Cattle Point. Visit stop number two on the Pig War history tour at American Camp, and watch even more boaters struggle with the tide rips in Cattle Pass. Pedal back north to Friday Harbor and you’ve earned that ice cream cone.

Since you are never far from the water as you ride around the island, you are rewarded with stunning views and perspectives of the Salish Sea that you likely haven’t had before. We “discovered” our new favorite anchorage while on a bike ride. From the water, I never would have considered it, but seeing it from land changed that. No, I won’t tell you where it is.

Island Biking - Photos by Mal Nowles

Winding, forested trails on Orcas Island are perfect for mountain bikers and the mountainous San Juans offer challenging, hilly rides.

 

Friday Harbor has two excellent bike shops for buying gear or getting repairs done. Island Bicycles on Argyle Avenue is known for excellent service and a friendly vibe. Meat Machine Cycles will set you up with anything you need from their location on Web Street.

LOPEZ ISLAND

Riding Lopez Island is a dream: mostly low and rolling terrain, good roads, and tons of roadside attractions to serve as rest stops. The locals here are as friendly as anyone you will meet anywhere, and you will find yourself a little exhausted from waving back to every motorist who passes you while you are riding. If you’ve come to Lopez by boat, chances are your first landing is in Fisherman Bay. From here it is a quick ride north to Upright Channel Park, Odlin Park, the ferry landing, and Lopez Island Vineyards.

BIKES ONBOARD
On large boats, transporting a bicycle or two is not a challenge. Those of us cruising on smaller boats must be creative. Short of a folding bicycle that can fit below, transporting a bike onboard usually means lashing it to a rail, swim step, or coach roof. I ran into a couple in Port Ludlow who had fork mounts installed in the cockpit of their C-Dory. This very slick idea for hauling bikes, unfortunately, came to them too late. While crossing the Straits of Juan de Fuca last year, they got caught in a rip, took a large wave over the bow, and lost one of their rides to the sea. With that in mind, here are some tips for stowing your two-wheeler aboard and riding from your boat:

  • If possible, store your bike below decks when making passages.

  • A simple soft-sided bike storage bag will pay for itself quickly. Break the bike down by removing wheels, seat, and handlebars and it will easily stow in a locker or quarter berth.

  • A simple soft-sided bike storage bag will pay for itself quickly. Break the bike down by removing wheels, seat, and handlebars and it will easily stow in a locker or quarter berth.

  • Keep your bike off the bow or side rails if possible. Waves and spray will do a number on your components.

  • Keep your bike off the bow or side rails if possible. Waves and spray will do a number on your components.

  • Immediately rinse off any salt spray when you get to your destination, and re-lube your components.

  • Be extra cautious when loading a bike into a dinghy. Consider lashing a PFD to the frame in case she goes overboard in the process.

  • Lock your bikes to the boat! Marinas are typically safe and well-secured, but it would not be hard for someone to lift your unlocked bike while you were getting coffee in town.

  • Carry tools. Your boat-specific tool kit likely doesn’t have the hex wrenches and other specialty tools needed to work on a bike onboard.

  • Carry spares. There are great bike shops on the major islands, but as you get farther afield, the chances of finding the tube or cable you need decrease significantly.

  • Install racks and paniers. This is touring, not racing. You’ll want to be able to carry a camera, some tools, and maybe a picnic lunch with you. More importantly, you will want room to carry the treasures you buy at roadside stands and in the small villages you visit.

  • Carry printed maps. Sure, we all have smart phones with great maps and GPS, but coverage in the islands is spotty.

Across the island, take the time to visit Spencer Spit in an entirely new way. In the center of the island you will find Lopez Hill, with winding mountain bike trails tucked into the 400-acre site. Head all the way south to Point Colville or Iceberg Point, once again seeing the approaches to the San Juans from a different perspective. Keep your panniers empty so you can load up on produce at the many roadside stands around the island, and take your time exploring the back roads of Lopez.

On my last ride on Lopez I was greeted by a local farmer as I paused to check my map. He invited me up to the house for a cold beverage and he regaled me with stories of growing up on the island. You don’t get that sort of thing hanging out at the marina or driving by in your car.

Village Cycles handles sales, rentals, and service and the staff knows every road, trail, and route on the island.

ORCAS ISLAND

The ultimate ride in the San Juans is the road to the summit of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park. This is the highest point in the islands at 2,400 feet above sea level and the view is, not surprisingly, spectacular. For mountain bikers, this is the place to be. The climb to the summit and the descent can be done on trails that switchback the side of the mountain.

In the off-season (after September 15), many of the dedicated hiking trails are open to cyclists. It would not be unreasonable to spend all day riding in Moran State Park. Your best and easiest access to the park is from Rosario Resort, but it is also reachable from the town of Eastsound.

But Orcas has a lot more to offer than just Moran State Park. The side roads connecting the various sites on the island are hilly and sometimes unpaved, but you can easily avoid the crush of traffic coming and going from the ferry terminal on the main roads. Except for Olga Road from Eastsound to Rosario, side roads will get you anywhere you want to go on the island. Be prepared. Orcas is huge, and the terrain is steep. From Deer Harbor to Doe Bay it is over 22 miles one way, and most of it is challenging, but beautiful, riding.

Orcas truly requires at least two days to fully enjoy on a bike. Spend one day cruising the roads and visiting Deer Harbor, West Sound, and Eastsound. Another day will give you a good sense of the area around Moran State Park. Don’t short change yourself here. Stay awhile.

If you need anything for your ride, Wildlife Cycles in Eastsound will set you up.

SHAW ISLAND

Shaw Island is the smallest of the islands served by the ferry service, and tourists often skip it completely. The lack of amenities for visiting boaters makes it a little more challenging to explore by boat and bike, but it is worth the effort for the quick ride on this very peaceful island. You’ll need a dinghy capable of carrying you and your ride to shore, as there are no dock facilities here.

Island Biking - Photos by Mal Nowles

Easier rides bring lots of great sights, like the San Juan Island Lighthouse (photo by Scott Mies); Cypress and Orcas Islands have miles of more difficult trails with gripping descents.

 

From anchorages in Blind Bay or Indian Cove, the island’s 12 miles of roads are all yours. Ride to the ferry landing and visit the Shaw General Store. You won’t be disappointed in ambience or the ice cream. The beach at Indian Cove has the warmest swimming water in the islands, so leave time for a cooldown before heading back to the boat.

If you are moored at another island and want to visit Shaw, you can ride on the inter-island ferry, explore to your heart’s content, and head back on the ferry when you are done.

OTHER ISLANDs

The value of carrying your bike onboard is truly realized when you get to the islands that aren’t served by the ferry. A mountain bike is the right call for exploring the smaller islands, as most roads are not paved and the terrain can be rough (and fun).

RIDING SAFETY
Of course, basic bike safety should be observed at all times. But riding on the Islands requires a few reminders and some emphasis:

  • Be seen. Many of the cars you will encounter on the islands will be driven by tourists who are often too busy looking at the scenery or checking a map to pay attention to their surroundings. Wear your bright colors. In the morning and evening, light yourself up.

  • Take it easy. There is little reason to race around the islands. Take your time, pull off the road, and give space to vehicles

  • Ride in small groups. Groups of two or three are perfect for exploring. Ride single file and don’t take up too much of the road.

  • Watch for wildlife. Deer are all over the islands, and they seem to like to play chicken with cyclists. Hitting a deer at full speed will seriously ruin your day.

  • Watch for hikers and runners. On dirt roads and trails you are almost always sharing space with pedestrians. Pass carefully and pay attention when you are coming around corners on those narrow trails. Stay in control on your descents.

Some of the finest riding is on Cypress Island, just minutes from Anacortes. Old logging roads lead into the interior of the island from Pelican Beach and Eagle Harbor. Landing your skiff with a bike aboard is a challenge, but from there it is glorious. The climbs are strenuous and the descents gripping. Side trails lead to scenic viewpoints and lakes. The undeveloped island gives you a window into what the early settlers must have seen when they arrived here: rugged, untamed, and beautiful landscape.

A mountain bike will get you around Stuart Island as well. Dirt roads lead away from the park docks in Reid and Prevost Harbors. Visit the one-room schoolhouse, museum, and Turn Point lighthouse. There aren’t miles and miles of road and trails here, and it isn’t the place to bomb around turns, but riding here is very pleasant.

Decatur Island is private with little public access to its roads. The locals love the privacy, but it is a shame to pass on exploring the island with two wheels if you get the chance. Landing your skiff at the boat launch at the south end of the bay behind Decatur Head is your best access to the steep and quiet roads of Decatur. Don’t expect the hospitality or services of the other islands. All you will get is dirt roads and solitude here. Worth it. Carry spares. There are no shops of any kind on the island.

Guemes Island doesn’t have much in the way of boat access, but the flat, rural island does have some great cycling. The best bet for accessing the quiet roads of Guemes is to moor at Cap Sante Marina in Anacortes and ride onto the ferry that zips back and forth across the channel. The fare for a cyclist is five dollars, which is well worth the price to visit an island most boaters overlook.

Anywhere you can legally beach your dinghy or tie to a dock in the San Juans will provide you with cycling opportunities. Bring your ride and explore!

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Greg Van Belle

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Greg Van Belle grew up sailing, cruising, and fishing Puget Sound. He lives in Seattle and teaches writing at Edmonds Community College. You can follow him on Twitter @gregvanbelle.

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