Needing a large dose of slow-down last fall, I traveled from California back to the Great Northwest—land of the big trees and water—where I first learned to fly. I had family in the Seattle area and visited frequently, but never felt recharged after those big-city visits. I needed rest.
The San Juan Islands—“SJI”—is an archipelago consisting of 15 larger islands located in the farthest northwest corner of the continental United States. It seemed like the perfect place for a getaway.
The major islands are Lopez, San Juan, Shaw and Orcas. These islands are served several times a day by ferry boats of the Washington State Ferry System. The smaller islands—Decatur, Blakely, Stuart, Waldron, and Henry—are not.
San Juan Island, the liveliest of the islands, only has 8,000 year round residents; Orcas Island is home to 4,900 residents. Lopez, a mostly flat island ideal for biking adventures, has 2,500 year-round residents. Shaw Island, the smallest of the islands, has no public accommodations save for the 11 campsites at the county park on Island Cove. Shaw has fewer than 200 residents.
Seventy miles to the southwest of this forested archipelago, the rainfall totals at the Hoh and Quinault rainforests in the Olympic National Park average a soggy 150 inches a year. In one of the best examples of orographic lifting and precipitation in the United States, the mountains of the Olympic Range wring most of the moisture out of the clouds before they move northeastward to the San Juan Islands. This creates what’s known as a “rain shadow” over the SJI. Friday Harbor, the largest town in the SJI, averages only 29 inches a year.
Plenty of airports
The two public airports on San Juan Island are Friday Harbor (KFHR), and seven nm to the north is Roche Harbor Airport (WA09). Eleven nm to the north of the Friday Harbor airport on Orcas Island is Orcas Island airport (KORS) in Eastsound, Wash.
Take off from KFHR, turn to a 108 degree heading and before you can level out you’ll be over the Lopez Island airport (S31) on Lopez Island. Roche Harbor is a private airport of the Roche Harbor Resort, but it’s open to public use.
Other SJI locations have private airports. A 2,000-foot by 30-foot turf runway is on Shaw Island (6WA5); there are also runways on Blakely (38WA) and Decatur (WA18) islands. Permission to use these airports must be obtained prior to use.
The Eastsound and Lopez airport runways are 2,900 feet long; Friday Harbor is 3,400 feet, and the runway at Roche Harbor stretches out to 3,600 feet—but it’s only 30 feet wide. The other three runways are at least 60 feet wide.
For visiting pilots
According to Stuart Hansen, the airport manager at Friday Harbor, visiting pilots need to be aware that left-hand traffic patterns are used at Roche Harbor, Runway 34 at Lopez and Runway 16 at Eastsound. Right traffic is used at Friday Harbor, Runway 16 at Lopez and Runway 34 at Eastsound; except that left-hand traffic is part of the circle-to-land instrument procedure on to Runway 16 at Friday Harbor.
Hansen also warns pilots to be careful not to taxi on soft ground in unimproved parts of his airport. It’s not only required, it’s smart to do your homework before flying to any one of these airports.
The Orcas Island/Eastsound airport fly-in and open house is always scheduled for the second week of August. This summer, the dates are August 7–9, 2015. The Friday Harbor airport also hosts a fly-in; in 2014 it took place in late July.
Darryl Swenson, a member of the San Juan Pilots Association (SJPA) posted the following information on the association’s blog. His piece, titled “Helpful hints for San Juan Island-bound fliers,” is below:
Stay under 2,000 feet MSL in the area of Stuart Island, Henry Island and Roche Harbor. Canadian commercial traffic in these areas will stay above 2,000 feet.
The closer you are to Vancouver and Victoria, the more you might consider talking to Canadian ATC. Interestingly ATC personnel in Victoria’s tower refer to the airspace above the San Juan Islands as “uncontrolled airspace.” However, they are happy to talk to you even if your flight is confined to U.S. airspace. Canadian ATC can see you on their radar if your transponder is on. So be sure you have your Mode C transponder on and your altimeter set accurately.
Watch for commercial seaplane traffic (Otters) between Victoria and Vancouver harbors. They typically fly between 1,000 feet and 1,500 feet or lower. They stay west of San Juan Island, and they make their turn at the Stuart Island lighthouse.
The approach, departure and tower frequencies for the Vancouver, B.C. (CYVR) airport are available at liveATC.net.
A Washington State Department of Transportation site is the go-to site for recent airport weather and visibility information via ASOS and AWOS feeds as well as airport web cams. There’s at least one camera feed at major airports in the islands. (See Resources at the end of this article for the link. —Ed.)
Exploring Orcas Island
I booked a cabin through vrbo.com for three days near the small village of Olga on Orcas Island. (I chose Orcas over the other islands because I wanted to sail, and found Capt. Ben at Orcas Island Sailing launched out of the Lieber Haven Resort & Marina less than a mile from my rental cabin.) As I rode the ferry from Anacortes, I vowed to fly my airplane to the airports of the San Juan Islands.
After unpacking I sat down on the small porch. I was content to listen to nothing but the songs of birds, look at boats and watch the waters of Puget Sound.
The following morning after a bit of porch time with my coffee, I started exploring. A few miles north I peeled off Olga Road, the main north-south road on the eastern lobe of the upside-down U-shaped island—maximum speed limit 40 mph—to the road that climbed to the observation tower atop Mount Constitution. The stone tower was built in 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and it’s the highest point in the islands. Snow-capped volcanic Mount Baker is easily visible in the east.
I drove along the two-lane roads from one end of the island to the other. I’m at home near water, trees and mountains, and Orcas Island has all that—plus high viewpoints, lakes, wood-strewn Northwest-style beaches, eagles, pastoral meadows and the biggest state park in the SJI.
The road passes through the 5,500 acres of Moran State Park. There you’ll find over 150 campsites, five freshwater lakes, 11 miles of bike trails and over 38 miles of hiking trails.
Local features and recommendations
Rod Magner, owner of Magic Air at the Eastsound airport, told me that the best hike on the island is inside the park around Mountain Lake. It’s good to check with the locals. Magner spends his summers hustling scenic rides (complete with entertaining historical and recent commentary on island goings-on) in his 1929 New Standard biplane during summer months.
Magner also advised me to stop at the Olga Café for blueberry pie. Alas, the café was undergoing refurbishment, so I couldn’t try the pie. I’ve put Olga Café’s blueberry pie on my Orcas Island fly-in bucket list.
After visiting the park I turned off to take a look at the Rosario Resort and Moran Museum. Originally built as a family residence over 100 years ago by Seattle shipbuilder Robert Moran and constructed with an eye toward style and craft, the main building is on the National Historic Register and is now home to a museum.
Visitors are invited to enjoy a self-guided tour of the main building. Although resort guests are no longer lodged in the main building, accommodations abound. Moran also donated 2,700 acres to begin formation of the nearby state park. During summer months organ concerts take place each day.
Eventually I took the left turn onto Crescent Beach Road and arrived in the village of Eastsound, the center of commerce for the island. I’d been out three hours and hadn’t yet put nine miles on the odometer. The village is located at the inner curve of the upside-down U.
The Village Green and the Orcas Island Historical Museum anchor the village. The green is the site of the village farmer’s market every Saturday during summer months.
Eastsound Village is only a 15-minute walk from the airport. It’s very easy to fly in and spend the day on the island before flying home. The island is a beehive of activity during summer months. These activities include walking the village, shopping, hitting a day spa, kayaking, spending time aboard a fishing and/or whale watching boat, or learning how to handle a sailboat.
Lodging and transportation
A variety of lodging for visitors to Orcas Island ranges from the historic Outlook Inn (1898) in Eastsound and the Orcas Hotel (1904) in Orcas Village to more modern accommodations. In addition, there is listing after listing of reasonably priced bed-and-breakfast inns on the island.
A local pilot told me he likes to get a freshly-made sandwich at the deli inside the Island Market and take it to the waterfront park on the west edge of the village. He also said the best hamburger is from the Lower Tavern.
Flyers that need ground transportation can use the airport loaner if it’s available, or rent a car, bicycle or moped-type scooter. The Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce publishes a comprehensive Visitor Guide and Business Directory every year that is a helpful planning tool.
Exploring in the off-season
The San Juan Islands draw me like metal to a magnet. Daylight hours in the islands during midsummer months stretch from 5:00 a.m. until after 9:00 p.m.—ideal for island visitors who want to pack new adventures and experiences into each day. As you might expect, the bigger islands bustle with visitors during the long days of summer.
I urge first-time visitors to look into booking an off-season visit. I’m a big fan of the off-season because the pace slows (I’m visiting to reboot and relax) and because of off-season rates. I’m already looking forward to making plans for my future fly-in visits to the San Juan Islands.
Steve Ells has been an A&P/IA for 43 years and is a commercial pilot with instrument and multi-engine ratings. Ells also loves utility and bush-style airplanes and operations. He’s a former tech rep and editor for Cessna Pilots Association and served as associate editor for AOPA Pilot until 2008. Ells is the owner of Ells Aviation (EllsAviation.com) and the proud owner of a 1960 Piper Comanche. He lives in Paso Robles, Calif. with his wife Audrey. Send questions and comments to .
Airport information and flight planning
Friday Harbor Airport (KFHR)
Lopez Island Airport (S31)
Orcas Island Airport (KORS)
Roche Harbor Airport (WA09)
—prior permission required
Blakely Island Airport (38WA)
Decatur (Jones) Airport
on Decatur Island (WA18)
Wilding Farm Airport
on Shaw Island (6WA5)
Other pilot resources
Island Web Cams
Magic Air Tours, Inc.
Vancouver, B.C. (CYVR)
and tower frequencies
Department of Transportation
Orcas Island Sailing
Orcas Island Visitor Guide
San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce
San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
Roche Harbor Resort
Rosario Resort & Spa,
Vacation Rentals by Owner