Any first-time visitor to the Pacific Northwest might be surprised to see just how many islands, inlets and waterways there are in Washington state. In fact, the northwest corner of the Evergreen State features an impressive archipelago of more than 400 islands — known as the San Juan Islands — visited by tourists in search of sea kayaking or whale watching, as well as thousands of residents who call the islands home. So how do travelers get to and from the mainland every day? The largest ferry system in the United States.
According to the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), Washington State Ferries proudly boasts a roster of 21 vessels that traverse the Puget Sound waters and greater Salish Sea carrying around 24 million daily commuters and wide-eyed tourists every year. Running daily routes to 20 different ports of call, from downtown Seattle all the way to British Columbia and back, the ferry system is smooth and efficient — and it’s sort of like taking a micro-cruise vacation. Locals agree: One of the most scenic views of the Puget Sound region can only be seen from the open-air view of a saltwater sprinkled ferry.
A quick Google search on how to prepare for a ferry trip will reveal a common topic: Bring a camera. While many routes are busiest in the mornings and late afternoons, a daytime trip avoids hurried commuters and provides a better opportunity for optimal spectating from the deck. On rural routes, lots of riders report seeing marine wildlife on their trip, like migrating orca whales, curious seals and groups of floating otters. But if you prefer skylines over sea life, book a trip around sunset from downtown Seattle for a postcard view that puts the Kerry Park scene to shame.
Pike Place Market and The Seattle Great Wheel have their perks, but there’s hardly a view that competes with the downtown Seattle skyline as seen from a departing ferry. Stroll over to Pier 52 to experience the busiest ferry terminal in the state. According to www.BainbridgeIsland.com, an estimated 4.6 million people take the Seattle to Bainbridge ferry every year, from daily commuters to tourists seeking a superb skyline view.
Drive about 30-minutes from Seattle to reach the newest terminal in the Washington State Ferries system: Mukilteo to Clinton. The small terminal features an up-close ferry view that’s gorgeous enough, but a tempting bonus to this little spot can be seen just a few steps away at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park. Watch the ferries drift in from nearby Whidbey Island beside the small, Victorian-style lighthouse, or snap a photo of the historic beacon from the deck of a departing ferry.
Remotely situated between Tacoma and West Seattle, Vashon Island is considered the “Heart of the Sound” and offers 43-miles of shoreline, lush, rural landscapes and a surprising abundance of agriculture. Completely surrounded by water, accessing Vashon Island requires a ferry — and it’s a must-add to any Washington trip bucket list. On a sunny day, Mount Rainier can be seen from the ferry deck adding an extra special highlight to the relatively quick trip.
History + Booking
Boat traffic has long been a part of Washington’s fabled history, from the sturdy cedar canoes of Pacific Northwest indigenous people to coal-burning steamboats of American settlers. Passenger and freight demands took hold in the early 1900s with a collection of private steamboats offering services on Seattle’s trafficked waterways. According to www.HistoryLink.com, Washington State took over water taxi and ferry operations in 1951 and maintains the service today. For a slice of history, visit the last remaining steam vessel from Seattle’s early days, the Virginia V, now docked at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
The ferries of today feature improved safety, wider car deck lanes and reduced environmental impact with better fuel efficiency. In fact, many have received much-needed beautification renovations. One of the oldest operational vessels in the WSDOT fleet, Sealth (pronounced See-alth), was built in 1982 and named after Chief Seattle, a 19th-century Duwamish tribal leader. In 2006, Sealth received a well-earned makeover from decades of daily commuter foot traffic. She received a distinctive evergreen and deep water blue color palette, which set a coordinated tone for the rest of the Washington State Ferries fleet.
Book a one-of-a-kind, Washington ferry trip online or snag a spot from an in-person ticket booth. Visit WSDOT for important information on COVID-19 safety, fares, ferry schedules and available routes.