Reached by a 5-minute ferry ride from Anacortes, Guemes feels like a miniature Lopez, with friendly folks and easy riding.
GUEMES ISLAND, Skagit County — Sometimes, on a Pacific Northwest day in autumn, you get lucky: The sun shines and the rain abates. On those magical days, you really need to get out and explore, preferably on two legs or two wheels.
Since I’m not a fan of biking among traffic, the perfect day-trip destination would be close but not congested. Sleepy Guemes Island, just north of Anacortes, was the perfect spot on a recent sunny day.
There’s just something about a rural island, even if it’s just a 5-minute ferry ride away. Life is automatically more relaxing when a beach is around every bend. A person could spend a lifetime trying to visit all the islands dotting Puget Sound, but Guemes — pronounced with two syllables, sort of as “GWEM-es,” though even the locals don’t seem to agree on the exact vowel sound — is one of the easiest to reach.
a Mini Lopez?
If you go
Guemes Island ferry
The off-peak, round-trip ferry fare for a vehicle and driver is $10, plus an additional $3 each additional passenger. The fare for an adult and a bicycle is $4. The ferry runs about once an hour or more on weekends; check schedule online:
Guemes Island General Store (closed Mondays and Tuesdays): guemesislandstore.com
Guemes Island Resort: guemesislandresort.com
What’s in a name?
Guemes Island was named by the Spanish explorer José María Narváez as Isla de Güemes during the 1791 expedition of Francisco de Eliza, in honor of the Viceroy of Mexico, Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.
Guemes is sometimes billed as a “gateway to the San Juan Islands,” though there isn’t a ferry from it to them. This triangle of land does feel like a miniature San Juan Island, or maybe more like a mini Lopez, given its friendly residents and lack of traffic. The terrain is similar, too, with broad pastures and fields between copses of trees, and few hills of any size.
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It’s faster and cheaper to get to Guemes than to the San Juans: a five-minute ride from Anacortes on an open-top ferry, operated by Skagit County, and you’re there. Paying and boarding at the small but tidy Guemes terminal is more casual than at the Washington State Ferries terminal to the west. If you have cash, pay as you pull up to the ferry; to pay by credit card, stop in at the little booth in the terminal, which also has bathrooms.
The relaxed Guemes vibe starts before you even arrive: Neighbors greet each other and chat as they wait in the ferry line, and nobody seems too concerned about making a particular departure. The ferry itself includes a cute little passenger cabin for walk-ons, but otherwise, it’s essentially just a floating extension of a road that ends here and picks up again on the other side.
Fall has its advantages: Nonpeak ferry fares (October through mid-May) are a bit lower than in summer. Cyclists can park cars near the terminal and ride on to save a few dollars and some time in the car line. (To reach the county-owned parking lot, turn right on K Street, a block east of the terminal.)
While those seeking an extra-large dose of peace might want to stay overnight at the sprawling but homey Guemes Island Resort on the island’s north side, a day trip is easily enough time to see the whole island. Circumnavigating it via its main roads could involve as few as 10 miles, but add more for a quick jaunt on one of the two straight roads that cross in the island’s center.
Plan to have lunch at the General Store on the island’s south side. The cozy store and cafe is also a good place to grab coffee and a cookie or pastry before you start your circumnavigation. The food is more inventive than you might expect. As well as a juicy “Local Burger” on a Breadfarm bun, they serve salads and comfort food such as mac and cheese and crabcakes. Local beers are on tap, and on Friday evenings a band might be playing.
Riding the roads
We rode counterclockwise past widely spaced, attractive houses, one with a “Slow please for bees” sign out front. The main road runs along the beach on the island’s south side, then ticks inland until it reaches the north end.
The Guemes Mountain Conservation Area lies to the east, and the road passes the trailhead for the 2.2-mile (round trip) Guemes Mountain Trail, which climbs through woods and wildflowers to the top of the optimistically named 552-foot-high vista. Bicycles aren’t allowed on the trail, but there’s a place to park and lock your bike at the trailhead.
For every hill we had to climb, we cruised down a corresponding slope. It would be difficult to get lost here. Roads are narrow, but cars are rare, and none are in a hurry; there’s no reason for them to be. Nothing is more than a 15-minute drive away.
The dozen or so cars we saw on the roads gave us a wide berth, and we even got a couple of steering-wheel finger waves. The biggest possible worry was an occasional wandering dog, but even those paid us little attention.
We stopped at the Guemes Island Resort, a collection of beachy accommodations in the form of yurts and cabins scattered near the shore. Here, too, rates are lower during the offseason. A small gift shop sells drinks, snacks and ice cream. Fishing and crabbing are popular draws, but be sure to get a license in Anacortes, since they’re not sold on the island.
We paused to wander the beach next door at Young’s Park, then headed down the island’s west side, passing Indian Village, which is more a collection of houses than an actual village.
Once we’d seen the whole island, we were glad to sit on the sunny porch at the General Store and watch the world go by — a very small part of it, at least — before jumping on the homeward-bound ferry.