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Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

Queenstown, New...
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Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

Hello fellow travellers

I will be heading to the US west coast in May 2014 and I plan to visit some islands while here. I have heard that there are two separate sets of islands along the Pacific Northwest and I would like some information before I book my trip.

Which would be a better place to visit for a family of 4 (kids aged 4 and 11), the San Juan islands or the British Columbia gulf islands?

This will be our first vacation to North America and we are excited to see some whales, beaches, eagles, bears, and old growth forests.

Thanks in advance,

Kendall Twigden Lawrence

Vancouver...
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1. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

Well, since the San Juans are in the States, and Washington State in particular, I would say the San Juans. The BC Islands, are, of course, in Canada. The San Juans are smaller in area, but so much nicer than Canada. The ferry trip it self is just fun, although the trip to Victoria, and Victoria are both nice. It's just sort of up to you. You really need a car regardless, and how much time do you have? I guess, bottom line is, neither one is better. Chuck.

Edited: 25 October 2013, 21:56
seattle
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2. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

they are the same 'islands' just the boundary divides them. You could visit the San Juans then continue onto Vancouver Island, the largest one then continue onto Vancouver and back to Seattle. All very scenic ferry crossings.

Port Angeles, WA
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3. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

I actually read your post. You want to see, "whales, beaches, eagles, bears, and old growth forests." You will not find these in the San Juan Islands. You want Vancouver Island, a huge island that includes both charming towns and deep wilderness, or you want a cruise along the Gulf Islands and the west coast of British Columbia. Google "spirit bears" for the sort of thing you are looking for. I know you did not specify spirit bears, but the places that have them have everything else you mentioned.

You might also consider Olympic National Park in the US. There you will find incredible rain forests, bears (although not spirit bears), cougars, elk, golden marmots, eagles, wild beaches, and glorious mountains. May can be a great time to visit.

Seattle, Wa
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4. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

Or, you could visit the San Juan or Canadian Gulf Island to see whales, eagles and (pebbly) beaches, and visit another part of the PNW to see bears and old growth forests.

Poulsbo, Washington
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5. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

Forget about Spirit Bears unless you want to spend a lot of money and have the time to get to the area in which they reside. I have looked into it myself. Unless you spend a lot of time in the backcountry seeing bears in the NW require a bit of luck and being in the right place at the right time. I will say this; Spring is a good time as they are feeding more in the open after the long winter and as is berry season in late Summer. Just by coincidense my last sighting of two was last May.

Vancouver, Canada
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6. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

There are all the animals you ask for along with the beaches and the old growth forests in Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island, with the bookend towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. These would be black bears and they will have come out of hibernation some time in April.

It would take you about 5 hours by land/ferry to get from Seattle to Victoria, then another 5 hours to drive to Tofino. Route map:

http://goo.gl/maps/pFxA7

If you drove up to Telegraph Cove at the north end of Vancouver Island, you could take an all day grizzly bear tour from mid May as they boat you over to Bute Inlet, a fjord, on the BC mainland. There are many similarities between our coastal fjords and Milford Sound. Victoria to TC is a 6-7 hour drive. Vancouver Island is ~32K sq km big.

You could fly from Seattle to Victoria non stop on Alaska Air, or with 1 stop on Air Canada. You could also fly to Comox (mid Island) on Alaska with a connection in Vancouver. You could also choose Air Canada with a touch down in Vancouver. Then rent a car from there.

BC's Gulf Islands will not give you what you are looking for although the possibility of seeing ocean wildlife from the shore would be there. But would you be there at the same time? The six southern Gulf Islands are fairly populated with summer cottages that are now mostly permanent residences. Each island has its own personality. The 2 northern Gulf Islands (Denman and Hornby) are populated as well, just less so and with more forests, but no old growth. There is a renowned patch of old growth at Cathedral Grove just west of Parksville about 30 min along Hwy 4.

vancouverisland.travel/regions/gulf-islands/

hellobc.com/vancouver-island/popular-areas/g… (use the search field top right to enter each island name for more info)

tripadvisor.ca/Attraction_Review-g154944-d15…

Edited: 26 October 2013, 01:54
Friday Harbor...
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7. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

The San Juan islands and the Canadian Gulf islands are indeed part of the same chain of islands with a pretty arbitrary border passing between them in a jagged line following the Haro Straits. That boundary was drawn up by Kaiser Wilhelm by international arbitration back in 1872 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pig_War ) Although the islands do not have any bears or other large predators on land we do get many months of frequent visits from large beautiful orca whales in our waters as well as being the home of many bald eagles and other wildlife.

Each of the 3 major ferry serviced islands (San Juan, Orcas and Lopez) in the San Juans have numerous sights of interest to people interested in the outdoors and activities such as hiking, kayaking, taking whale watch boat tours and biking. You can find out a lot more about the islands at the San Juan Visitor Bureau web site: http://www.visitsanjuans.com/ San Juan island was named #1 island tourist destination for 2013 in the USA by on Tripadvisor and #4 in the whole world. The WA state ferry ride out to the San Juan’s is beautiful and you pass right by many rural, heavily wooded islands on the way.

IMO the island of San Juan might be best for families with extended ages and interests. Because the ferry comes right to the town of Friday Harbor it's easier for folks to get around as you don't have to drive for 20 minutes from the ferry landing to get to the town. Also with the shape of the island there is less driving to get around to various sites of interest than Orcas island which, because of its unique horseshoe shape, means more driving to get to various locations. Here on San Juan island is the largest town in the County, Friday Harbor (population 2,178). There are far more families living on SJI than on Orcas so more in town that might appeal to young kids. There is a nice marina that you can walk through right in town which is busy in the summer and holds many large yachts and sailing boats, and some commercial fishing boats...it's really pleasant walking around there for those who enjoy looking at the boats (and you may well see a heron or two at night). Often you can see a seal hanging around the floating fresh fish market on the docks. The museum most tourists visit in town is The Whale Museum. Info on that is at whalemuseum.org/museum/details/gallery.html This is a nice little museum for learning about whales and orcas in particular. The museum has full-size skeletons of a whale and a variety of other exhibits and interactive displays. You can find more suggestions for things to do in town at: visitsanjuans.com/the-islands/friday-harbor

With your car or the shuttle van in the warmer months you could also take some drives on our scenic roads and look for wildlife such as deer, rabbits, eagles, foxes, trumpeter swans, and raccoons. Some of the local ranches raise more than 'regular' cattle and have llamas, Scottish Highland cattle (the type with the large horns), and alpacas. Something unique for the Northwest is the island camel who lives in a field on Roche Harbor Road and often hangs around the fence there near a big barn. If you want to slow down or stop and look though please be cautious as there is no turn-out on the road and this road is the busiest on the island outside of town. You could see views of much of the island stopping for awhile at Roche Harbor which has a nice marina (with more large yachts in the summer than Friday Harbor marina gets) as well as a few restaurants. In the summer it additionally has a small outdoor grouping of artist booths selling locally made art. Very nearby Roche Harbor resort is the outdoor Sculpture Garden at Westcott Bay where one can leisurely stroll around and view the many sculptures or just sit and look at the birds on the pond there. For more info on that see wta.org/go-hiking/hikes/westcott-bay-nature-…

From land orca whale (aka "killer" whales) can sometimes be seen from a few parks on SJ island, Limekiln and American Camp, but then it’s really a matter of luck and timing. With a car or by shuttle van during their season you could go out to Lime Kiln Point State Park (also known as Whale Watch Park) and nearby the parking lot you could see the attractive lighthouse perhaps having a picnic at the nearby tables. This is a very scenic spot where orca whales can sometimes be seen along the coastline. There are also bald eagles, seals, porpoises, and the occasional minke or grey whale which can at times be seen as well from this park. However a motorized whale watch boat that can cover many dozens of miles in a short time span and has radio communication with all the other whale watch boats gives the best chance of one seeing orcas on a vacation visit. Information on Limekiln Park is at www.parks.wa.gov/parks/…

Insofar as the ferry between islands here in the San Juans, the interisland ferry is free for passengers or bikes. The only charge is for the car and that is only when you go in the direction from Orcas or Lopez to SJ. If you take a car from SJ to Orcas then you have to buy a ticket for the car (1 ticket which you would buy on Orcas or Lopez as all car tickets are RT when heading east).

Vancouver, Canada
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8. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

<< have heard that there are two separate sets of islands>>

No, far more than that. I have no idea how many islands there are up the Pacific Coast, but if you go up into Alaska, its multiple thousands, I'm sure. The San Juans and the Southern Gulf Islands are the most visited because they are the closest to the major urban centres. They are popular locations for weekend homes.

I don't know the San Juans, but people have told me that they are very similar to the SGI - quiet, mostly residential, lots of private property, although very scenic and pastoral.

As you head north up Vancouver Island into the area that forms the western shore of Johnstone Straight and Queen Charlotte Sound, the islands become less developed and more wild. There are also the Broken Islands in Port Alberni Inlet and many islands in the waters off Tofino. Islands, islands everywhere!

<<Which would be a better place to visit for a family of 4>>

No clue. Don't know your family and what you enjoy. Personally, I wouldn't take my family to either the San Juans nor the SGI, except maybe on a cycle tour or a multi-day kayaking trip. Its just not all that kid-friendly, IMO. Too much sitting around and relaxing, wandering through craft markets and artists studios. My kids would be bored.

I'd head for Tofino, or we did a trip to Bamfield when my kids were little. These are on Vancouver Island, which is an island the way New Zealand is two islands - big enough that you can't approach it like an island - but the beaches and the forests and the inland waterways make it more interesting to explore.

My $0.02, and certainly not the only opinion out there.

Port Angeles, WA
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9. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

I agree with the choice of Tofino, a magical place. You will be near real wilderness there, which seems to be what you want. The San Juans are much loved and very pretty, but if your post is to be believed, they are nothing like your mental model. Do some research about the coast of British Columbia, Vancouver Island, and Olympic National Park. What you want is out there.

10. Re: Heading to West Coast.. which is better?

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