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A Bike Tour from Vancouver to Friday Harbour


By mike - Posted on 02 October 2008

I have to admit that, apart from the local rides I do all the time, my favourite north west coast rides are in Washington State. There seems less traffic, everything is a little less commercial. In any case, this describes a bike tour from Vancouver to Friday Harbour on San Juan Island. I can't really imagine a better place to go for a short bike trip. The riding on the island is super, the drivers on the island are pretty respectful of bikes, and the restaurants and coffee shops are great (though most of them are in Friday Harbour itself).

The route goes from UBC to the Tsawwassen Ferry terminal, ferry to Swartz Bay, 5km ride to Sidney, then a ferry to Friday Harbour. I'll stick mostly to logistics. It didn't occur to me when I went on the tour to take an useful pictures, so it is mostly descriptive.

Unfortunately, there are some problems involved in getting to Washington state by bike. One of them is the Fraser river, or rather the tunnel they decided to put under the Fraser river to take the millions of SUVs that pack into the Victoria ferry everyday. Bikes aren't allowed through the tunnel, and no one in their right mind would ever try to ride a bike through the tunnel. This means either a bus ride (the bus from Richmond to Ladner has a rack on front that fits two bikes), or a ride in the 'shuttle'. The shuttle is a big passenger van with a trailer on the back with room for 8 bikes.

The shuttle runs April until October. Information is available at this bc government website. It is a really nice thing that there is a service like this I guess, but it means you have to plan your trip to arrive on time for the shuttle. Waiting for the shuttle isn't very pleasant (though there are coffee shops about 3 kms away). One of the great things about biking is not having to go by a schedule, so this is a bad part about the trip, unless of course, you enjoy watching endless streams of cars driving into the tunnel on their way back from the mall.

The plus side is that you'll probably meet some other cyclists while you wait. On our way out we meet a couple of young guys who had just bought new road bikes. They had ridden up from Kitsilano, and were headed out into the country south of the river for a day of riding, which sounded kind of idyllic. On the way back we met a young lady who, again, had just purchased a new road bike. Her wheels had about 6 spokes each, which didn't stop her from adding a couple of heavy panniers. I guess spokes are getting stronger (which gives me a great idea for another trip to the bike store).

Here is my favourite route to the ferry. The shuttle pickup and dropoff locations are marked with little red and white x's. These are just beside the river.

It isn't so evident from the map, but after the shuttle drops you off, don't take the main highway towards the ferry. There is a road just a little east of the drop off point which leads to a dirt path that will take you under the highway and into a very nice park in Ladner. Then you can follow my route, or take Arthur drive back to the highway and on to the ferry (there is a generously wide bike path along the highway right up to the ferry terminal). The ride through Delta is really nice. The ride I have marked has less traffic than Arthur drive but no bike path.

One difficulty with the schedule for the shuttle is that it drops you off about 45 minutes before the ferry leaves. One option is to stop for lunch in Ladner, which you pass through if you follow the route I suggested above. The other is to try to make the ferry. This is what we did. This is tight unless you are riding like a road racer. There is bound to be a headwind (probably quite a strong one), and if you take my route, there is a chance you will be stopped by a train (the Arthur drive route, which is recommended as the bike route on the Delta bike map, has a bridge over the train tracks). The fastest way to buy a ticket at the terminal is to go through the kiosks where the cars buy their tickets. Even if you are fast enough, you are unlikely to make the initial loading since they let bikes on the ferry before cars. If you are late, they let you on, but you have to weave your way through all the cars to the front of the ferry.

Here is the map of the ride that goes from the Swartz Bay ferry to Sidney. As you can see, it is about 6 kilometers.

There is usually only a single ferry each day from Sidney to Friday Harbour. The schedule for the Sidney to Friday Harbour ferry is available from Washington State Ferries. It currently appears that the ferry runs all winter, though when we went it appeared to be a summer only event. The winter ferry schedule seems a bit more bike friendly. The ferry we took left Sidney at 6PM, which gets you in around 7:30. As it worked out we had time for dinner (in the micro brewery - though the beer wasn't so great) in Friday Harbour before setting off on a 10km or so ride to the bed and breakfast. However, we did learn in our subsequent travels that this ferry is often quite late. A non atypical hour delay on the ferry would have meant riding to our hotel in the dark. Anyway, so much for the logistics.

San Juan Island

There are two aspects of riding on either Lopez Island, or San Juan Island that makes them more pleasant that riding the Canadian Gulf islands. The roads are wide and well maintained, and the hills are pretty easy. Basically the worst hills in San Juan were like going over a typical overpass in Vancouver. The main road from Friday Harbour to Roche Harbour has a very good bike path along the side, so though the traffic in a little faster on this stretch, the biking is still good. There is a bike shop in Friday Harbour that looked okay - we didn't go in because I was in the midst of remaking my bike at that point and I had grown averse to bike shops.

I won't give detailed routes to follow on the island, it is more fun to make them up yourself. The two maps that are linked below show two segments of road that I thought were more or less perfect cycle routes - car free, flat, great views, pastoral. The Pear Point Route brings you back into town at a very nice coffee shop. View Interactive Map on MapMyRide.com and View Interactive Map on MapMyRide.com.

The main attractions on the island are a series of state and national parks along the edge of the island, so a typical outing is a longish, but very enjoyable ride through farming country followed by a hike along the seashore. There are only two places to find food and drink. Friday Harbour, is obviously one. That isn't much help, since it is pretty remote from all the nice parks you are likely to want to see. The other is Roche Harbour, which appears to be a place with a bunch of time shares and a marina. In any event, there are a couple of nice restaurants there.

One of the nice surprises for us was an arts festival that happened on the weekend we were there. Along with the usual craft displays, there was a lot of music. In most cases, the price reflected the quality, but it was still fun. Apparently Steve Miller has a house somewhere on the island, but if he was playing at the arts festival, we didn't hear him. We narrowly missed s concert by the California Guitar Trio, which happened the day after we left.