Puget Sound has a whole slew of scenic islands perfect for two-wheeled exploration.
With their weathered and wonderful shorelines, their bucolic prairies and forests, local islands offer something for every interest in the family. And most offer wonderful amenities, eateries, art studios and interesting historical sites.
Why an island?
Island time is slow. Cycling feels more relaxed on an island and far less chaotic than city riding. On most islands, cyclists enjoy long runs without the constant intersection stops encountered in urban areas. Such distance cycling allows the whole family to get substantial exercise and get away from phones, computers and other digital “time sucks.”
Not to mention island hospitality. The driver of the old truck coming toward you on the road is likely to look each of you in the eye and wave. And he wouldn’t be secretly wishing you off the road with that wave – he’d actually, genuinely be saying hello.
And most islands take pride in their self-sufficiency. You’ll find art studios and artisans tucked away in towns and along the road, creativity oozing from every corner. Restaurants and shops will often offer local products. Most have family-friendly hikes and other activities kids will enjoy. In other words, an island ride offers something for everyone and every age.
Unlike urban riding where getting from point A to point B is the goal, riding around an island is a lazy day-long exercise in discovery best made with lots of stopping, looking, seeing, tasting.
Matching an island to your child
Which island is best for your family? That depends on your child’s age, confidence on a bike, knowledge of road rules and bike safety rules, how heavily trafficked a destination is and other factors. Islands with designated bike lanes or wide shoulders where bikes can roll easily and safely away from the occasional cars passing by are best for family groups.
It is important to note that many islands have narrow two-way roads with little or no shoulder or places where wider roads narrow. Bikers should tread carefully, especially around bends in the road and consider walking when the road feels too narrow. Traffic is highest — and ferry lines are the worst — on islands during the good weather seasons.
Here are a few well-ridden destinations:
Lopez Island (beginning riders)
A flat or flat-ish island is best if you want young riders to pedal their own weight – or if you are dragging them behind you in a trailer. Lopez Island in the San Juans fits this bill perfectly with its long straightaways and undulations roads. Yes, there are hills on Lopez. My kids screamed up them, leaving me huffing in their wake. They can be avoided or easily walked. Make a quick pit stop off the ferry at Odlin Park, then toodle around the island off the more heavily trafficked main road. Set your goal on a picnic lunch at tiny Agate Beach County Park at the island’s south end. But leave rocks on the beach in keeping with the National Parks Service’s “Leave no trace” principles. Finally, as on other islands, Lopez residents warn riders to be on the lookout for blackberry, hemlock and other plants reaching out to snag them as they pass. Click here to find a Lopez Island biking map.
Lummi Island (seasoned riders)
Nearby Lummi Island is accessible and oh, so tranquil with its meandering 7- mile road and bike loop. This idyllic ride offersgives wonderful views of Orcas Island as well as Mount Baker and the Cascades and invites many stops with its rocky beaches and lush forests. The roads here are not as wide asless wide than those on Lopez and have narrow shoulders where shoulders exist at all, so consider Lummi for kids who are seasoned riders. A rearview mirror on each bike is a useful safety precaution. For a spendy but delicious and largely locally sourced lunch, reserve ahead for a stop at The Willows Inn. Click here for a Lummi Island road map.
San Juan (older seasoned riders)
For a more challenging family ride but one filled with great history, a bike trip to San Juan Island is well worth it. Due to the length of the ride and busier roads, consider this trip for older, confident and well-established riders. Bike to the old American Camp and English Camp military forts camps at either end of the island to learn both sides of the famous “Pig War” story. Check the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park, off the road between the camps. Watch for the Orca pod that frequents the water way around the island, look for the legion of rabbits that own the University of Washington Biological Preserve. The island’s main town, Friday Harbor, offers all kinds of dining and treat options to fuel up before and after the ride. Click here to find a San Juan Island biking map.
Guemes Island (all levels)
If your family includes fledgling riders and experienced pedalers or you simply don’t want to mingle with much traffic, head to Anacortes ferries and take the boat to Guemes Island. It’s small, it’s quiet and traffic is minimal. You may want to pack snacks and meals for this ride – there is only one store on the island, the Guemes Island General Store. The island loop runs about 10 miles. A 1-one mile hiking trail at its east end ends with some incredible views, making it a perfect picnic spot. Click here for a Guemes Island bike map.
Vashon Island (elementary and above after the hill)
Warning! There’s a big steep hill (up to 18 percent gradient and almost 1 mile long) as you ride off the ferry onto Vashon Island. Consider walking your bikes up the hill or racking bikes, driving to the top and launching from there. Shoulders are wide and the island has a lot of fun stops to keep kids pedaling simply out of curiosity. Vashon’s 32-mile full loop is a bit much for younger kids, but biking Vashon Highway from the the top of Vashon Ferry Hill at the island’s north end, through the town of Vashon, and down to Burton Acres Park, the 64 -acre wooded conservancy park located at the south end of the island, makes a great day. Click here for a Vashon island bike map.
Tips for biking around an island
- Check that road widths, bike lanes and/or shoulder widths seem appropriate to your kids’ ages and biking know-how before you go.
- Stay to the far right on any road if it does not have a designated bike lane. IMPORTANT: Some island roads are narrow (either one or two-way) and extra caution should be taken when going around bends in the road.
- Always wear helmets. Check out the American Academy of Pediatric’s new helmet guidelines released in August 2022.
- Check your child seat for appropriate fit. Be sure your child is not larger than child seat manufacturer recommendations.
- Wear brightly colored and/or reflective clothing and be sure your bikes can be seen (red flags are a fun kid bike addition).
- Map out interesting stops before you go and dangle them in front of your kids.
- Carry ample water.
- Carry a first aid kit.
- Bring snacks — high- energy, high- protein are best. Some islands have limited food amenities.
- Charge phones fully before setting out and bring an extra battery if possible. Note that reception on some islands may be limited or non-existent depending on your carrier.
- Stop regularly to stretch and to look around at the scenery – you’re on an island!
- Be kind and courteous to island residents.
- Be patient. Island life offers city families a look at a slower pace life. Know before you go that some islands have very limited restrooms, restaurants and other amenities.
- Abide by National Parks Service’s “Leave no trace” principles.
- Keep the noise down. Sound carries across the island waters and land here due to the lack of human-made ambient noise.
- Review the ferry schedules, as travel times vary by season. IMPORTANT NOTE: Washington State Ferries are chronically understaffed and boats break down or go out of service often, so cancelation is a possibility. If you bring a car, ferry waits expect long of waiting coming and going — especially in the summer months. Consider biking onto ferries rather than driving. Keep in mind that amenities at some ferry terminals are minimal (think portable outhouses), so bring plenty of water and have food in hand for the wait.