If you’ve driven to the San Juans, especially in summer, you know the horror: scheduling a ferry slot months in advance, struggling with an overloaded website when the slots are released, allotting plenty of extra time in case you hit traffic, and showing up no later than 45 minutes before sailing. And then you fork over $30-$50 each way (plus the passenger fare) to haul the car on board.
Last Labor Day weekend, I tried a different way: public transit all the way from Seattle, to join my party already on Orcas Island with the car. Google Maps told me to leave downtown Seattle at 3:15pm to make the 7:20 sailing from Anacortes. It’s a 90 minute drive under ideal conditions, though if you’re driving to the islands you’d best leave some extra time.
That same uncertainty did me in, even on the bus. It will surprise no Snohomish County commuter that my 512 capitulated to the traffic. The HOV lane failed, and even though I’d departed 15 minutes earlier than recommended, I didn’t come close to making the (hourly) Skagit Transit 90X to Mt. Vernon. I grabbed a sandwich and schemed to get as close to possible to the ferry before switching to Lyft.
I couldn’t sample the many delights of downtown Mt. Vernon because the transfer from the next 90X to 40X there was seamless. That express took me to the March’s Point park and ride, where the highway forks to Anacortes and Oak Harbor. While riding that 40X, I realized there’s a timed transfer there, where it arrives at about the same time as hourly buses to either point. In fact, the 40X arrives at 6:40 — just as the 410 to Anacortes is scheduled to depart. This coincidence is why trip planners want you to show up an hour early, an hour I burned sitting on I-5 and in Everett.
The driver assured me that we would make it barring a traffic jam, but I was thumbing through taxi options as the bus’s clock struck 6:40. As we pulled into the park & ride, the Anacortes bus was waiting. My run across the platform proved to be entirely unnecessary. Skagit Transit confirmed with me afterwards that drivers can call ahead to hold a bus for up to 5 minutes (except the 90X to Everett). After I talked to the 40X driver, I was never in any danger.
The March’s Point P&R, where a sprawling finger of Anacortes meets an industrial zone, was the least scenic part of my trip through Skagit County. But if you’re stuck there for a while, the Bastion Brewing Company is directly across the highway. It was my dinner plan before I-5 ruined it.
As we continued down the road to Anacortes, I was finally able to relax. And what a time to relax: a quick tour through central Anacortes, and then the glorious ride along the coast to the ferry. After an evening of angst, I’d covered 85 miles in 4 hours and 15 minutes, for a grand total of $3 and an ORCA pass (a $3.75 equivalent).
Now that I’m aware of the timed transfer, next time I’ll do it differently. The 5:10pm 90X is both early enough to make a series of tight transfers, and yet late enough to link with the (much more reliable) 4:05 Sounder out of Seattle. That’s 3 hours, 15 minutes from King Street to the 7:20pm ferry departure, which is competitive with driving and its various planning allowances.
Here is the summary from King St, though details will vary seasonally:
Driving to the San Juans has its advantages; the car is a place to put all your stuff, and you’re not at the mercy of an infrequent San Juan Transit system. Skagit Transit has very little for you on a Sunday or Holiday. But the bus is a less stressful and massively cheaper way to get to one of Washington’s most beautiful — and most isolated — locations.