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Exploring Washington by Ferry

13 Ferry Rides in One Day? Challenge Accepted.

Whether it’s a trip to visit family or the first leg of an adventure, a lot of Pacific Northwest travel includes a ride on a Washington State Ferry. On a sunny day, the Salish Sea is utterly captivating: diamonds winking across an expanse of blue, with snowcapped mountains rising in every direction.

As a native Washingtonian, I have ridden nearly all 14 routes and docked at almost every terminal. My wife, Ann, and I wondered: Would it be possible to ride the most extensive ferry system in the continental United States — every route — in one day?

We became captivated with the proposition and began puzzling over the ferry map and schedules, coming up with an itinerary that — on paper, at least — could be completed in a day. For expediency, we’d have to drive on some routes and be foot passengers on others.

Image of Point Defiance Ferry Terminal
Point Defiance Ferry Terminal. Photo by Getty Images.

A Journey Commences

Beginning in the south, with the 5:05 a.m. sailing out of Point Defiance, we’d work our way north to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, finishing after 11 p.m. That’s 13 sailings total. (Our task was made easier by the suspension of the 14th route — Anacortes to Sidney, B.C. — because of COVID-19). We checked the weather forecast and picked a clear day to embark on our trip.

I felt a childlike excitement starting our journey in the dark. We were the only foot passengers on deck at Point Defiance, sailing to Tahlequah, a small community on Vashon Island, and back. I counted nine vehicles for the 15-minute trip. One of the deck hands on board gave us some tips about parking at our next stop, the Fauntleroy terminal in West Seattle, where Ann said, “I like this neighborhood. It’s classic Seattle.”

Image of Ferries Between Fauntleroy and Vashon
Ferries on the Fauntleroy-Vashon route. Photo by Urban Glimpses/Getty Images.

Vashon, Vashon and More Vashon

We were foot passengers again, going from Fauntleroy to Vashon to Southworth. The return trip to Fauntleroy included a stop back at the Vashon terminal, so by 9 a.m. we had touched Vashon Island three times.

Driving north with one eye on the clock, my anxiety level rose as we took a couple of wrong turns through a convoluted maze of construction in West Seattle, but Ann and I made the sailing from downtown to Bremerton on time.

With renewed confidence in our itinerary, I thought ahead to the smaller ferry that sails from Port Townsend.

“Could you call and make reservations for the 3:30 sailing?” I asked Ann.

That was our first mistake. By then the ferry was booked.

“What about the next one?” I asked.

“Also booked,” Ann said. “They have some unreserved ‘drive-up’ spaces, but those are taken, too.”

Image of Ferry in Elliott Bay
A ferry sails in Elliott Bay. Photo by Steven Tran/Getty Images.

The Plan Unravels

We pressed on, making the Bainbridge Island connection back to Seattle, then headed north to Edmonds, enjoying our favorite view of the Space Needle, all the while hoping that a spot would open in Port Townsend.

Our remaining hopes sank as we approached the Edmonds terminal and saw the electronic highway sign that read: Two Hour Wait.

“It’s only 1:30 in the afternoon,” I said.

“Yeah, but it’s Friday,” Ann replied.

Always strategic in her planning, Ann bounced right back.

“Let’s make the Port Townsend reservations now, for next week,” she said. “And this time, let’s travel on Wednesday.”

Image of Seattle-Bremerton Ferry at Sunset
The Seattle-Bremerton route at sunset. Photo by LoweStock/Getty Images.

Round Two

The following week we sipped coffee while waiting for the 5:05 out of Point Defiance. We retraced our steps, admiring Tacoma’s Ruston Way Waterfront, and sailed the Fauntleroy Triangle again.

We made our way to downtown Seattle for the Bremerton ferry (at 60 minutes, the longest single crossing). Over my shoulder, Mount Rainier stood majestic and commanding. The Cascades and Olympics kept us company throughout the day, and I was struck by the breathtaking scenery each individual ferry ride provided.

Image of Mukilteo Ferry Terminal
Ferry Terminal at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park. Photo by Tashka/Getty Images.

Another Setback?

We continued north to Bainbridge Island, sailed back to Seattle, then drove to Edmonds to catch the Kingston ferry. The traffic alert sign didn’t say anything about a delay, and, although the Edmonds lot looked mostly full, we felt confident pulling up to the toll booth with 12 minutes to spare. As the ferry began loading, however, we became nervous enough to start counting the remaining cars in front of us. Five … four … three … . Wait, they’ve stopped. Oh, they’re letting another on. OK … another.

Then an orange traffic cone was placed in front of our bumper. We were the last car and didn’t get on.

“It’s alright,” Ann said, as we watched the ferry pull away from the terminal. “To be on the safe side, I made our reservations for 5:15 out of Port Townsend, not 3:30. We can still make it.”

My confidence returned, knowing we’d be the first car off in Kingston. I breathed a sigh of relief.

We drove to Port Townsend, arriving with time to spare. We took the opportunity to admire the town’s charming Victorian architecture after checking in, adding Port Townsend to our growing list of places to revisit — along with Fauntleroy, Ruston Way, Point Defiance and Port Gamble.

We landed on Whidbey Island near the small community of Keystone, then headed south along the island to the town of Clinton, where we would catch the ferry to Mukilteo.

“We’ll have to come back and bicycle Whidbey Island sometime,” I said. “It’s so pastoral.”

Image of San Juan Ferry at Night
Nighttime landing on San Juan Island. Photo by Mlesna/Getty Images.

Victory, At Last

Passing through the beautiful new Mukilteo terminal, we again drove north on the interstate, heading to Anacortes for the 9:05 p.m. sailing to Friday Harbor, which includes stops at Lopez, Shaw and Orcas islands.

“The scenery from every ferry deck has been stunning,” Ann said as we navigated through the San Juans. “The blue, irregular waterways, the forested islands, Mount Rainier, Mount Baker.” 

“For me, it was the journey plus all of the destinations,” I said. “There are so many picturesque places I want to see again.”

We landed in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island a little before midnight. Our adventure started in the dark and ended in the dark but felt luminous. We high-fived each other, exhausted and jubilant.

–Written by Mike Nolan, a freelance writer based in Port Angeles, Wash.
–Top photo of Bainbridge Island Ferry at Sunset. Photo by Getty Images.

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