If the vacation you’re craving this year calls for a mellow place that’s an escape from stress, and also offers beautiful scenery and accessible adventures under bright blue and sunny skies, then set your sights on the San Juan Islands.
It’s not Puerto Rico you’ll be headed to, but an archipelago located between the state of Washington and Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. At high tide, the San Juan Islands, officially part of Washington, have more than 400 islands and rocks, 172 of which are named. Four of the islands have become popular destinations for tourists and are accessible only by ferry, boat and airplane.
San Juan, Orcas, Lopez and Shaw islands feature unlimited opportunities to hike, kayak, whale watch and experience the spectacular scenery of ocean, mountains and pasture lands. There’s also bountiful shopping, museums, arts and crafts exhibits, as well as fine dining and casual eateries, and plenty of places to relax and soak up the sun.
For those who worry about rain in the Pacific Northwest, the islands are drier than most areas of Western Washington, with the last two weeks of July through the first week of August usually the driest period.
Can wheelers enjoy the scenery and participate in the adventures and tourist activities that the San Juan Islands offer? The islands can be hilly, and not all places are up to ADA standards, but Barbara Marrett, communications manager for the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, says there are ways to get around obstacles. “I’d say that most folks in the islands will go the extra mile to help those with disabilities get around or accommodate them,” she says.
“The main issue to remember is that the San Juans are islands that have a lot of rock bases and hills, so even in town and along the waterfronts there can be issues with running slope and cross slope when they have sidewalks,” explains Rory D. Calhoun, a T12 para who lives in Graham, Wash. “Go there expecting some wheelchair access challenges, roll with the flow and you’ll do fine.”
Calhoun is familiar with the San Juan Islands both for his job (he’s a recreation accessibility specialist for the state’s Recreation and Conservation Office) and in his personal life (he’s an avid boater and fisherman).
“When vacationing there, we just eat, drink and enjoy touring by car, stopping at different places and seeing the views by different spots on the islands,” he says. That is, when he’s not fishing or crabbing somewhere on the islands.
Calhoun advises visitors who use wheelchairs to consider taking their cars over to the islands on the ferries (see accompanying story for details) “for more physical access. The freedom of having your own vehicle is worth the hassle of long wait lines in summer and holiday weekends.”
To discover what vacation fun awaits, let’s do some island-hopping:
San Juan Island
This island, with 8,000 year-round residents, has much to offer: an alpaca ranch, valley dotted with cows or sheep, lavender farm, vineyards with a tasting room, and a forest that leads to the sea marked by two iconic lighthouses.
The one-square-mile seaside village of Friday Harbor is where the ferries arrive, and while “in the past it’s not been easy for those in wheelchairs to cover these short distances and negotiate some of the steep sidewalks, that’s been changing for the better,” explains Marrett. The town has retrofitted four intersections with ramps and built new sidewalks with access to the airport, marina and grocery store, she says. Later this year, more new sidewalks with ADA ramps on one of the busiest streets will be added.
“Friday Harbor is the best island without a car because right at the ferry landing there are some shops and the marina,” says Calhoun. “Parts of the waterfront and town have steep hills but with help, sometimes I can navigate it. Power chairs would do OK.”
To go whale watching, particularly for orcas, Calhoun suggests heading to the west side of San Juan Island to Lime Kiln State Park, which, he says, has good parking and a very useable trail from the parking lot down to a viewpoint near the water. The park also has an accessible picnic site, restrooms, .2 miles of hiking trails for bird watching and wildlife viewing and a lighthouse that’s described as “very photogenic.”
Also on the west side is San Juan County Park, which is another good spot to view whales from the day use area near the boat launch, Calhoun points out.
Other places to see on San Juan Island, with access information provided by Marrett of the Visitors Bureau:
San Juan Vineyards: There are ramps to all areas and tasting rooms are accessible, as are the chapel, pavilion and restroom.
Whale Museum in Friday Harbor: Only the downstairs is accessible with a few exhibits and a souvenir shop.
San Juan Island National Historical Park: This marks the sites of the U.S. and British encampments — the two countries settled ownership of the islands through peaceful arbitration. Its visitor center and restrooms at American Camp are accessible. American Camp includes the island’s longest stretch of beach. At English Camp, a motorized vehicle helps bring visitors from the parking area to the parade grounds.
Calhoun suggests going to Cattle Point, which is past the American Camp, “where there is an accessible trail to the old lighthouse and good beach and water views. There’s also an accessible vault toilet on the site,” he adds. The trail is compacted gravel.
San Juan Community Theatre: Both of its theaters are accessible via ramps and have designated wheelchair seating.
This horseshoe-shaped island, known as “the gem of the San Juans,” boasts Mount Constitution, which is the highest mountain in the islands, as well as charming hamlets and beautiful shoreline — all of which can be viewed on the Scenic Byway driving tour. The two-to-three-hour long drive meanders past spots designated for their unique beauty or historical significance, including the 75-year-old Orcas Island Pottery, which sits on a 100-foot-high bluff overlooking President’s Channel.
At Moran State Park, visitors can drive the 2,409 feet to the top of Mount Constitution for a wheelchair accessible view of the islands below, Marrett says. That view includes snow-capped Mount Baker, part of the Cascades Range on the mainland, and the island-dotted sea around Orcas Island.
Calhoun adds the park also has an accessible day use picnic site, one campsite and a vacation house rental.
Other things to do and see on Orcas Island:
Deer Harbor Marina: Located on the southwest side of the island, or the Sunny Side as it’s commonly called, this is the place to go if you’re interested in fishing, crabbing, kayaking and whale watching. The marina and the shops along it are accessible.
Eastsound: This historic village nestled above Fishing Bay is considered Orcas Island’s “downtown.” Strolling along its accessible streets, visitors will find restaurants, shops and art galleries that exhibit paintings, ceramics, photography and more. About half the stores are considered ADA compliant, according to Marrett. During summer Saturdays, there’s a farmers market and live music on the village green.
Orcas Center, the performing arts center in Eastsound, is wheelchair accessible and schedules dance, music, theater and visual arts performances.
Known as the “Friendly Isle,” Lopez is 15 miles long with forests, rolling farmlands, quiet bays and 63 miles of shoreline. Bald eagles and a variety of water birds can be spotted here.
Arriving at Lopez on his 24-foot aluminum fishing boat, Calhoun likes to spend time at Fisherman Bay, “because it’s close to my crabbing and fishing spots.”
Overall, Calhoun says Lopez Island has a lot of useable and some very accessible venues, especially the newer businesses and building areas.
He suggests driving from Fisherman Bay to Fisherman Bay Reserve, which has a gravel parking lot with gravel trail to an overlook at the bay. Other hiking trails take you to a sandy beach at the entrance of the bay where old reef nets and old boats lay on the beach. “There are lots of seals in the area,” he says. “You may even see fishermen on their towers in the water with drift nets fishing for salmon in late July.”
Visitors to Lopez Village, which is four miles from the ferry landing, can roam among the shops and art galleries, coffee shops, bakery and restaurants. Marrett points out that this commercial hub of the island has no curbs, and gravel pathways — not paved — lead to most businesses. Public restrooms are wheelchair accessible.
Lopez Village Park has accessible restrooms and showers for boaters, says Calhoun, but they are often used by campers.
Lopez Islander Resort and Marina has useable docks and pier with easy access to the restaurant from boats. The pool area across the street has good access — once you get through the gravel parking area — for showers and restrooms. The restaurant there has an accessible restroom.
Odlin County Park, just a mile from the ferry landing, is another popular spot. It has been newly remodeled and offers some very accessible features, according to Calhoun. “There’s a day use area, boat launch, small dock, one new accessible RV spot, four useable beach tent sites, some vault toilets and a covered accessible picnic shelter,” he says.
Fewer than 10 square miles, Shaw is the smallest of the San Juan ferry-served islands.
Many visitors take a day trip to Shaw, and if they are staying on one of the larger islands, riding the interisland ferry is free. At the ferry landing, there’s a general store with a deli, but the island has no markets, restaurants or hotels.
Many visitors head to Shaw because its biking trails are easier than those on the other islands. Other tourists plan to visit the University of Washington biological preserve or Our Lady of the Rock Benedictine monastery, where the resident nuns run an active farm.
But even our San Juan Islands “expert” Rory Calhoun says he hasn’t spent much time on Shaw because “there isn’t much to do there.”
Getting to the San Juans
By air: Kenmore Air has several daily flights to Friday Harbor or Eastsound airports from various Seattle-area locations. Free shuttle service is offered to and from their terminals and Sea-Tac airport.
Northwest Sky Ferry flies from Bellingham, and San Juan Airlines flies from Anacortes and Bellingham to the San Juans.
By ferry: The passengers-only Victoria Clipper leaves downtown Seattle for Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. It’s about a three-and-a-half hour trip.
The Washington State Ferry accommodates cars and leaves from Anacortes to the San Juans. Anacortes is about an hour’s drive northwest of Seattle. For information on access for passengers with disabilities and ferry schedules, go to: www.wsdot.wa.gov/Ferries
Rory Calhoun’s Helpful Ferry Trip Suggestions:
• Washington State Ferries will park cars with access placards near the elevators on the ferries if you let them know in advance of boarding the ferry. Go here for more info: www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/commuterupdates/ada/
• You can apply for a disability travel permit. If you need to have an attendant with you, the attendant rides for free in the vehicle.
• Owners of vans with lifts should be very clear on the need for room for the ramp to be deployed. They usually direct you to a specific spot in the traffic lanes for boarding.
• The first stop is at least a 45-minute boat ride with great views from the decks. Most of the bigger ferries leaving Anacortes have elevators, and you can get around the decks with ease.
• If you stay in the car, ask to be loaded in the front for a view.
• Be aware that ferry schedules are approximate and it’s best to get in line at least an hour before leaving an island, especially on Sundays when returning to Anacortes. Try to be two hours early on Fridays when leaving Anacortes for the islands during the busy season — from end of May to September.
Lummi Island: Hidden Gem
By Tim Gilmer
Mike Passo, founder of Elakah Expeditions, a company that specializes in providing kayaking experiences for people of all abilities, has a special appreciation for Lummi Island. “I lived for about two-and-half years on Lummi, and they were some of the best years of my life. It is truly a hidden gem. Hardly anyone knows about it,” says Passo, a para.
Lucky for kayakers with disabilities interested in exploring the San Juan Islands, Passo still takes expeditions to Lummi. It is less than a 10-minute ferry ride to the island from Bellingham, Wash., where Passo now lives. “I’m fortunate to be able to keep my fleet of kayaks on a private beach in Lummi.”
The Lummi expeditions are educationally focused around natural elements, says Passo. “We forage for wild edibles and explore intertidal life. We show people how to make use of seaweed, invertebrates and we get to look down on a wide variety of life in vertical tidepools. Most of the wild foods we gather we use to add in and spice up more traditional dishes.”
Who goes on these expeditions? “We focus on people who have almost no experience kayaking. The routes we take are very sheltered from rough water and good for beginners. We’ll spend three days on one of the lesser-known, undeveloped islands, two nights camping.” Elakah has about 10-12 experienced guides who specialize in a specific area of interest. Besides foraging on Lummi, Passo takes small groups of kayakers to explore James, Jones and Sucia Islands, all of which are uninhabited but have state park campgrounds with privies. Volunteers are available to help those who need assistance.
Sucia Island, far from light pollution, is the perfect natural venue for an astronomy trip that takes place during the Perseid Meteor Showers (August 11-13). A special expedition for women usually happens during the summer solstice and is organized around learning about the native history of the coastal Salish people. Women learn about wild foraging and native crafts. “There is a special camaraderie about this trip,” says Passo.
For those who don’t want to commit to a three-day trip, family-oriented day trips happen on Lopez Island, which is more developed, yet still unspoiled by commercialization. Hiking and camping and kayaking around the coast are relaxed, easy activities for people of all ages.
For more about Elakah Expeditions and the full slate of kayaking activities, visit Elakah Expeditions at elakah.com. For a recent article on Mike Passo, visit: outdoors
How Did the San Juans Become Accessible?
By Tim Gilmer
Every accessible location in the United States was inaccessible at one time, and the San Juan Islands are certainly no exception.
In 1987, attorney Mary McKnew, now 58 and an L2-3 para for 40 years, decided to visit the islands. She had lived in Washington, D.C., working on disability policy, but decided to move to the Pacific Northwest in 1984. “To get away from Republican politics I moved out to Seattle,” she says, and later, to Olympia, Wash.
“Friday Harbor on San Juan Island had real access problems. Practically nothing was accessible,” she says. She was so certain of her legal ground that she filed an administrative complaint with the state’s Human Rights Commission alleging that the entire city of Friday Harbor was out of compliance. This forced the city to begin complying, not with the ADA, which did not yet exist, but Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and a Washington state code that pre-dated the ADA. “There were no curb cuts, no elevators, the city council chambers were inaccessible, and you couldn’t even buy a ticket at the ferry. The dock was inaccessible. They needed to put in a floating dock.”
Her actions stirred up local residents. “There was a big news article stating that the city was not supporting state law,” she says. “The state of Washington had instituted a barrier-free code in 1977.” Her complaint did not meet with unanimous support. “I actually got a hate phone call,” she says. “The call woke me up, and this voice on the other end says something like, ‘You people on Welfare have nothing better to do.’” At the time she had a good-paying job working for Governor Booth Gardner. “The guy got it all wrong,” she says, laughing.
McKnew has always been the kind of fearless advocate who does not hesitate to speak her mind. Earlier, when she lived in D.C., she had served on the board of directors of NSCIA. She got elected to the executive board because, she says, “I wanted to get a guy fired. He was one of these nondisabled paternalistic types.”
Now, 27 years later, when wheelchair users visit Friday Harbor, they will find the city has made many changes, including an attitude adjustment that has spread to include all the islands.
Thanks, Mary, for being a fearless pioneer.
Where to Stay
Rory Calhoun advises travelers with mobility issues to reserve accessible rooms “way in advance — seven months to a year ahead of time” and warns that prices are higher in the summer.
And Barbara Marrett, communications manager, San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau, offers the following information:
San Juan Island
The Place Bar and Grille, a favorite Friday Harbor waterfront restaurant, is wheelchair accessible.
Tucker House Inn and Harrison House Suites, Friday Harbor, offers wheelchair- friendly rooms.
Friday Harbor House is accessible on the ground level, and has one ADA room. Its restaurant and restrooms have easy access for people with mobility impairments, and the restaurant opens onto a lawn with great water views.
Snug Harbor Resort has a one-bedroom unit that is wheelchair accessible. Its waterfront, docks, lobby, gift store, conference space, coffee shop and public bathrooms are wheelchair accessible.
Trumpeter Inn has an ADA room and accessible garden and pond. The kitchen and dining room are not accessible, though breakfast can be brought downstairs to the public sitting room for guests.
Roche Harbor Resort has three ADA compliant rooms, a ramp to McMillin’s Restaurant and wheelchair access to the Lime Kiln Café.
The Turtleback Farm Inn has one ADA room in the Orchard House Building, with a wide brick pathway leading up to it.
Doe Bay has two wheelchair accessible cabins; its famous spa tubs are accessible but there are no lifts to assist guests getting in and out. The café is wheelchair accessible.
Inn at Ship Bay has one ADA wheelchair-friendly room and its restaurant has easy wheelchair access.
These lodgings are wheelchair friendly according to the Lopez Chamber of Commerce — more complete information was not available:
• Edenwild Inn
• MacKaye Harbor Inn
• Lopez Islander Resort