Experience 6 short, scenic crossings on Puget Sound and the Columbia River, plus discover charming towns and beautiful country
The Washington state ferry system, with 21 distinctive green and white vessels, is the second largest in the world after the 87-boat system in Istanbul. But there are six other auto-ferry routes in Washington, three to Puget Sound islands and three across the Columbia River. These are no-frills ferries, with no food service or reservations. Five are barge-like boats that hold no more than 23 cars on runs of 5 to 12 minutes.
For day-trippers and vacationers, these small ferries provide a fun ride to a temporary getaway in a picturesque setting. But residents depend on them to get everywhere from work and school to shopping and the movies. To them, the cost and inconvenience are worth the tradeoff for the slow pace, solitude and natural beauty of the destinations.
6 small ferry ride experiences
Cathlamet to Westport, Oregon
Our first ferry ride is over the main channel of the Columbia River from Cathlamet, Washington to Westport, Oregon. Before hopping on the ferry, be sure to check out the 1895 Pioneer Church and the 1867 Julia Butler Hansen Heritage Center in Cathlamet and grab a bite at the Spar Restaurant where the clam chowder was especially good.
Then, it’s on to the ferry landing and the Oscar B for the 1.5-mile ride across the Columbia. Built in 2015 and operated by Wahkiakum County, the open-deck, 23-car Oscar B honors the late Oscar Bergseng, who owned and/or managed the ferry service from 1948 to 1985.
When the 4-mile-long Astoria-Megler Bridge opened in 1966, ending ferry service there, it left this as the only ferry on the Lower Columbia River. Piloting the ferry several times a day poses challenges for the captain: ocean-going freighters, tidal fluctuations, a strong river current and the sharp turn into Westport Slough.
The ride is scenic and fun for its passengers, however. We heard of one local man who tries to ride the Oscar B once a month after dark to shoot photos of moonlight on the river.
Steilacoom to Anderson Island
Thanks to concerns about long-distance travel in the COVID-19 era, Anderson Island has been gaining popularity as a day-trip and vacation destination via a roughly 20-minute, 3.5-mile ferry ride from historic Steilacoom (still-uh-come) between Tacoma and Olympia.
The peaceful island is 7 miles long and 5 miles wide and includes eight parks, a nine-hole par 29 golf course, the historic Johnson Family Farm, a general store/cafe/post office and the Riviera Lakeside Restaurant.
Operated by Pierce County, each of the two sleek sister ferries serving Anderson and Ketron islands can carry 54 cars and has a comfortable lounge. Most of the week only one boat operates at a time, so the wait can be an hour or longer, depending on time of day and season. Motorists are advised to arrive at least 20 minutes before departure.
Three times a day the ferry stops at nearby Ketron Island, which is a privately owned island with no stores. Ketron gained brief, unwanted attention in 2018 as the crash site of a hijacked Horizons Air plane operated for Alaska Airlines.
Anderson Island oddity: A derelict, rusting ferry built circa 1923 sits in the mud on Oro Bay at the island’s south end. It was brought from Virginia in the mid-1980s by an island resident whose big dreams didn’t materialize.
Anacortes to Guemes Island
The Washington ferry system’s terminal 4 miles west of downtown Anacortes is the jumping-off point to the San Juan Islands. But there is another Anacortes ferry dock, this one on Sixth Street just seven blocks west of downtown. From there, Skagit County’s open-deck ferry M/V Guemes chugs three-quarters of a mile in five minutes.
But an occasional sustained, strong wind in narrow Guemes Channel can send waves crashing onto the deck, prompting a temporary halt in service such as the six-hour, 40-minute shutdown on Nov. 15, 2021.
The 8-square-mile island is a quiet, no-hurry place with occasional roadside fruit and vegetable stands, a general store/cafe at the landing, and the low-key Guemes Island Resort. The 600-plus residents include retirees, commuters, artists and small-farm operators raising beef and produce.
Bike riders can circumnavigate the island in a day on roads with few cars. There are two good hikes. On the east end of the island is Guemes Mountain, which is 2.6 miles roundtrip with a 600-foot elevation gain to views of the San Juan Islands and the North Cascades. The other is Kelly’s Point Conservation Area on the island’s southwest corner with 3,000 feet of beach.
Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island
Our next ferry ride takes us to Lummi Island across Hale Passage and near Bellingham Bay aboard the M/V Whatcom Chief, oldest of the state’s “other” ferries.
Retired Bellingham attorney Phil Sharpe says arriving at Lummi Island “is like going back to the 1950s. It’s a quiet, understated island … with incredible views of Mount Baker, the North Cascades and the San Juan Islands.”
Paulette Freeman, also of Bellingham, calls Lummi (rhymes with yummy) Island “a friendly place, where motorists slow down, wave and give a wide berth to bikers, walkers and runners.” Freeman recommends a 7-mile bike loop around the flat north end of the island that includes Sunset Beach.
Farm stands and artists’ studios dot the island. A rigorous 1.6-mile one-way hike up Lummi Peak gains 1,060 feet to a sweeping view of Rosario Strait and other islands. The hilly south end of the island has water views but no public beaches.
Jackie Granger, who operates Lummi Island Concierge, estimates only half the homes on the island are occupied by their owners at any time, with short-term renters and vacation-home owners boosting the summer population from about 900 to more than 2,000.
The only public restroom on the island is near the landing, as is a general store. The popular Beach Store Cafe closed in 2021, leaving the award-winning, super-high-end Willows Inn as the island’s only restaurant.
The M/V Whatcom Chief, which launched in 1962 and is operated by Whatcom County, sometimes shuts down to wait out storms. The Gooseberry Point landing on the Lummi Indian Reservation is reached from Interstate 5 Exit 260 north of Bellingham.
The two most out-of-the-way of the state’s small-ferry routes cross the Upper Columbia River in Eastern Washington. Getting to them is a scenic adventure.
Because the ferries are links in public highways, there’s no charge. Rarely is either vessel at capacity or the wait longer than 15 minutes. In a roughly 5-hour, 153-mile loop trip from U.S. Highway 2 at either Wilbur or Davenport, you can ride the Keller and Gifford-Inchelium ferries and traverse the scenic, rocky Kettle Range. On the way down from the Kettle Range I spotted an adult black bear scrambling up the bank in the woods.
The Columbian Princess on the Gifford-Inchelium route 56 miles north of Davenport, is operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Colville. The M/V Sanpoil, operated by the state — but not part of the state ferry system — is known as the Keller Ferry. It crosses the Columbia 14 miles north of Wilbur, connecting state Route 21 between Lincoln and Ferry counties.
Ryan Overton, a public information officer for the Washington State Department of Transportation, especially likes the drive from Wilbur to the Keller Ferry, which WSDOT operates.
“The route starts out flat with hills in the distance,” Overton says. “Then you come over a crest to a spectacular view of the Columbia and the highway does switchbacks down to the river, with rock walls along the way. There’s nothing quite like it in the state.”
–Written by Gregg Herrington, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is of the Columbia Princess by Gregg Herrington.
–This story appeared in the spring 2022 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.
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