Anacortes Ferry Terminal (Joe Mabel/wikimedia)

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.

March’s Point P&R (AvgeekJoe/Flickr)

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:

Route Depart Arrive At
Sounder 4:05pm 5:04pm Everett Station
90X 5:10pm 5:55pm Skagit Station
40X 6:15pm 6:40pm March’s Point
410 6:40pm 7:00pm WSF Terminal

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.

25 Replies to “To the San Juans by Transit”

  1. It looks like a daytrip to Anacortes is also possible, using the routes described. Here’s the best schedule I came up with for doing it on a weekend, avoiding the need to take off work:

    Depart DT Seattle (512): ~7:45
    Arrive Everett (512): 8:36
    Depart Everett (90X): 9:00
    Arrive Mt. Vernon (90X): 9:45
    Depart Mt. Vernon (40X): 10:15
    Arrive March’s Point (40X): 10:40
    Depart March’s Point (410): 10:45
    Arrive downtown Anacortes (410): 10:53

    Depart downtown Anacortes (410): 2:23
    Arrive March’s Point (410): 2:35
    Depart March’s Point (40X): 2:40
    Arrive Mt. Vernon (40X): 3:00
    Depart Mt. Vernon (90X): 4:00
    Arrive Everett (90X): 4:55
    Depart Everett (512): 5:10
    Arrive DT Seattle (512): 6:09

    If you want more time in Anacortes, it is possible to return later, although much more expensive. Amtrak Cascades has a daily trip that leaves Mt. Vernon around 8:30 PM for King St. Station for around $20/person. By this time, the 410 and 40X have long shut down for the night, so you would either have to spend 3 hours in Mt. Vernon, or ride Uber there from Anacortes, at an additional estimated cost of $36.51+tip (according to the Uber website).

    1. If you really want to be cheap about this, and you are doing this in the afternoon / evening, you can take Sounder or Community Transit bus to Mukilteo (these are one-way expresses so it has to be in the afternoon, or you are stuck with a really slow trip on one of the locals), and then take the ferry over to Clinton and use Island Transit to get all the way up to March’s Point. I’ve done this a few times because coming north from Portland or going south to Portland means arriving or departing through Skagit County during the middle of the day dead service period on the 90X and 40X.

      There are other options, including the Amtrak thruway buses and Greyhound that also stop in Mt. Vernon.

      Belair Airporter is a service that I have used twice – once to get south from the San Juans and once going north. Going north I took the 6:30 am BoltBus out of Portland to get to downtown Seattle. This gave me time for lunch before the 11 am departure of the Belair bus to Burlington, connecting with the 2 pm ferry departure to Friday Harbor. As Belair doesn’t stop in downtown Seattle during peak periods there was no way to go further north until mid-day. Since the Portland Amtrak departure isn’t until 8:30 am the transfer from Tukwila to SeaTac would have been too late in the day to have any advantage over taking the Thruway bus.

      The one time I attempted a southbound Belair Airporter worked ok from Anacortes to Burlington, but on that particular day the southbound express lane closure was particularly bad and the BelAir bus wound up going by way of I-405 to SeaTac, and was almost 2 hours late. I almost had time to get down to the Tukwila station and get my intended train there, but this was before RapidRide F and the schedule showed the trip taking between the airport and the Tukwila Amtrak station requiring about an hour. I wound up taking Link into Seattle and getting the last seat on the last southbound BoltBus that day.

    1. Have ridden that high-speed ferry several times over the years. One reason I think our area should have a lot more of them. If car traffic keeps growing at its present rate, there’ll be no question about the amount of time and money these boats will save.

      Also, one of the reasons I why I could fight the rest of my life to get that streetcar back on our Waterfront.
      A passenger from anywhere in the world used to have a three transfer transit ride: IDS to streetcar, streetcar to the Victoria Clipper, Victoria Clipper to Victoria to everyplace connected with Victoria.

      An experience for a visitor from anywhere in the world to tell that particular territory, wherever it is, all about, all of it good. Destroying that route said a lot about Seattle, all of it bad. Laying streetcar track where it recently used to be, not that big a deal.

      Having it share communications an maintenance with the rest of our re-emerging streetcar system, a lot less of one. Just do it, Seattle, just do it. Plug your arrogant overpriced present self back into the rest of the decent parts of the planet.

      Many thanks, Mark Dublin

      1. Let’s also not forget the late George Benson Streetcar was often mentioned as one of the best streetcar rides in the world. Photos of the streetcar often featured in various Seattle related promotional material. I’m still shocked the powers that be quietly killed something that was well on its way to being just as iconic as the Monorail, Pike Place Market, or Space Needle.

        Alas at this juncture the ship has sailed on bringing the waterfront streetcar back. Furthermore it appears a fight may be needed to make the CCC happen.

        Otherwise the legacy of streetcars in Seattle will be to have two joke lines which people can use as examples of why “streetcars are a waste of money”.

    2. I’ve taken it for closer to $45 round trip, but that was off peak during the recession.

      1. While looking for something else, I just found my receipt from 2012. The Clipper was $67 round trip to Friday Harbor.

    3. I remember taking that clipper r/t ride for
      much much less some years ago, around $40 as I recall, and bike for $10. But Friday Harbour only served during summer. Inter-island ferries were free.

  2. I love that it cost you that little. When I recently had to head to North Seattle from Poulsbo, it cost me a similarly small amount (albeit I had already purchased a 10-ride ferry card). But with the transfer from Kitsap Transit to Metro, I definitely bragged about spending around $3 for my trip.

    Thanks for the writeup. Would enjoy other similar trips, like “here’s how I got from x to y on transit”. Could make a fun series. :)

  3. Do island residents also have to book months in advance or are there spaces reserved for them? I don’t know that I’d want to live on an island where you couldn’t leave it for months.

    1. I don’t know. My guess is that the reservations are only really needed during the summer tourist season, and at other times of year, they can just drive on.

    2. There aren’t special reservations for residents. We have to plan ahead just like everyone else. It is difficult in the summer but I have never been stuck here when I had to go off Island. Ferries can be a pain sometimes but…I get to live in this beautiful place!

    3. Not 100% of the space on the boat is reserved in advance. Some is first come, first serve. You may end up having to wait a while, but you will eventually get on a ferry. Also the problem is primarily in getting from Anacortes to the islands, not in getting off the islands.

      The amount you might have to wait for a first come, first serve slot varies with time of day, day of week, and season. Even in the summer you might not have much of a wait for the first boat of the day midweek.

    4. Anyone can leave on any ferry. You just have to make arrangements to have your car transported.

  4. I didn’t expect the San Juans to have transit at all. Good for them. And it even runs Sundays. The website says spring, summer, and fall, but does it run in winter? Is it useful for residents, or only tourists?

    1. No winter service. It’s mostly useful for tourists. It’s a commercial tour operator and gets no county subsidy. They use school bus drivers on summer break for a number of trips.

      Orcas service isn’t great but San Juan service goes to most places tourists want to go. Annoying that American Camp service starts at 11 am. I’ve walked it one way and taken the bus back.

      Lopez service is only 3 days a week.

      There is also a Friday Harbor Jolly Trolley that goes to a few of the major attractions but not American Camp.

  5. Random fact I discovered this summer: If, for some reason, you need to drive there but have a large ORCA e-purse balance you’d like to use, you can pay with your ORCA card. I doubt I’ll ever see a transaction anywhere near that high ($55.20) on my card again.

  6. Martin;

    a) You really did justice to our transit situation in the North by Northwest. Why we needed ST3 light rail to Everett (try highways clogged up), and then how Skagit Transit rolls and how to make that ferry connection. Thanks for plugging Skagit Transit and my photo, much appreciate.

    b) How was the ferry connection from the 410? I haven’t done this, so curious.

    Thanks again;


  7. The ferry fares you quoted are roundtrip not each way. The spaces on the ferries are reserved in three tiers. 30% can be reserved two months ahead, 30% can be reserved two weeks ahead and 30% can be reserved two days ahead. The final 10% is for medical emergencies and standbys. The advantages of having the reservation system far outweigh any inconvenience.

  8. While the area around March’s Point park and ride isn’t particularly scenic itself, on two trips up there what I wound up doing was walking from the 40X over to the bike path that takes the old railroad route into Anacortes. While the refineries dominate the scene to the east there are scenic views to the north from the bridge.

    The walking to the bike path from the park and ride lot isn’t good as the road is narrow with very small shoulders at best. However, the distance isn’t too bad and the times I have done this the only traffic was a few tanker trucks that got over into the other lane to go past me. I imagine this is quite different during a shift change.

    There is also a trail right at the Anacortes ferry terminal, so if you wind up waiting there for a long period you can cross over to the auto waiting lanes, walk over to the east sidewalk that runs next to the auto lanes, and find your way to a trail going down to the beach that connects to the boardwalk. This trail leads east right along the water’s edge as far as around Georgia Street and it also provides good views of the surrounding area.

    This really only works southbound, but you wind up with several hours between your ferry arrival and the next possible southbound trip out of Mt. Vernon, one thing I have done is take the 410 over to Washington Park from the ferry terminal, and then walk around in the park for a few hours. It also has some amazing viewpoints and some good trails. This doesn’t work well going west to the ferry as the bus serves the ferry, then the Washington Park area and then returns directly to Anacortes and March’s Point. The distance between the ferry and the park isn’t huge and I have walked it once, but it’s a busy road and therefore isn’t so great to walk next to.

  9. Need for reservations on a state ferry probably a surprise for many first-time users. This summer on a long sight-seeing drive, planned to come home to Olympia from Oak Harbor via Port Townsend. Turned up for the boat on time, but as told the ship was full, and I’d have to wait three hours for the next one.

    So drove on down Whidbey Island to Clinton, I-5 and home. No complaint. It was a fact-finding drive. Since I moved to Olympia, have made it a point to memorize every possible emergency entry or escape. With Seattle as starting point or goal. I-5 across the marsh-land dividing Thurston from Pierce County notorious for sudden shut-downs.

    Have been told that large obstacle to joining STright now is union feeling that Sounder train service will take Intercity Transit jobs away, ending up with all express passengers being carried by Pierce County drivers.

    My own thought is that with the station being so far out of Olympia city center, and potential train riders in expanding subdivisions, the system will need bus routes from both Downtown Olympia and at least a half dozen other centers. Buses will definitely save on parking lots and structures around the station.

    But he main draw of the trains will finally be a “Freeway-Free” ride north. If driver apportionment is main problem now, think we’re about there with ST to Oly. Remember, my own arrival in 2014 preceded Seattle’s residential supernova. I-5 was driveable.

    No longer anybody’s grandfather’s Olympia anymore. A lot of my present neighbors are now Metro’s former passengers. But now have a lot longer trip to work, in distance, wasted time, and aggravation.

    So just put ST and IT colors on it and we’ll get one terrific advantage. If we end up buying these from Finland, won’t be any problem fitting hydroplanes to what’ll serve for tracks.


  10. Calling all transit fans! I’d like to issue a challenge on knitting together a morning (before 8am), mid-morning and afternoon trip from Edmonds to Sea-Tac Airport. I’ve taken an early Sounder (25 minutes to downtown), then walked across 1st to catch Link and the fastest time on public transit is in the order of 70 minutes. On a good day I can drive in 35 minutes to do a pickup; longer if parking at all. Once the 416 CT bus ends its last morning run, it’s a slow slog. Unlike Bellevue, West Seattle, Federal Way, Tacoma and many locations south of the University District there is no direct service from Snohomish County to the airport.
    I’d love to see some thoughts on the fastest combination of routes and services for an Edmonds-SeaTac Airport trip.

    1. CT 115 or 116
      ST 511/512/513
      Link light rail.

      I come from Mill Creek occasionally and take these routes. It takes a while but it’s decent. Highly subject to traffic conditions. Early morning or late night fights are typically not possible if the local routes are not running.

    2. Edmonds Sounder at 7:11 gets to Seattle at 7:44.
      Cross the platform and take Sounder southbound at 7:55.
      Get off at Tukwila station at 8:08.

      From there the fastest way is to take a taxi, but RapidRide F to A or Link could also work if you want to be cheap about it. It’s no faster than your 70 minutes but it sorta works.

      The long layover in Seattle works against the two through Amtrak trains that could let you do this. Probably faster to take Amtrak to Seattle and get Link from there. This gives you the option of the Empire Builder or an additional Cascades train.

      The Dungeness bus runs from Edmonds to the airport with 0 transfers, but takes 90 minutes as it also goes to a bunch of the hospitals on First Hill.

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