Fourth of July weekend on Lopez Island, WA: A relaxing getaway in the San Juan Islands without the tourist crowds, and some of the best fireworks in the state.
Growing up on San Juan Island, I always thought Lopez Island was boring. There is barely a town, and it’s mostly flat. This trip as an adult made me appreciate Lopez Island for exactly that–quiet, peaceful, not much going on. A friend of mine from San Juan Island inherited her grandparents’ property on Lopez Island and has been spending Fourth of July there with friends every year, while renting it out to tourists the rest of the summer. We had no Fourth of July weekend plans this year, and when she invited us to join her and her husband and friends, we figured why not?
Prior to the new ferry reservation system for the San Juan Islands that began this year, we would never have considered going up to visit the San Juans over Fourth of July weekend. Fourth of July weekend (especially for Friday Harbor/San Juan Island) is kind of like Black Friday is for shopping malls. It is insanely busy. I’ve heard stories of past ferry lines stretching miles away from the ferry terminal all the way into Anacortes town. Having grown up in Friday Harbor and worked many Fourth of July weekends in various tourist industry jobs, it is hell week for Friday Harborites, but also the weekend the tourist industry people make the most money.
But now we can make reservations. There is much controversy over this new policy with the locals, and I think they still have a few things to iron out. For us however, we made our reservation a couple months in advance, arrived an hour before the 12:35 boat to Lopez Island, and sailed right on with no problem. You can make reservation here up to three months before you head up to the islands. They release 1/3 of the reservations three months ahead, 1/3 a couple weeks ahead, and the remaining 1/3 two days ahead. If you can’t get your reservation, keep checking back.
Our friend Brooke joined Paddy and I for the weekend on Lopez. We had a smooth sail on the ferry with much fewer crowds than the Friday Harbor sailing. We watched a never-ending line of walk-on tourists board the ramp for the Friday Harbor ferry before the Lopez/Orcas ferry departed. We were on the brand new ferry boat, which had a nice sun deck up top for viewing.
There is no town at the Lopez Island ferry terminal, not much of anything there at all. We drove off the ferry with little traffic, and headed towards Lopez Village.
Our friends’ house is a short ways past Lopez Village, with a gorgeous view of Fisherman Bay. We spent the afternoon relaxing on the deck and making food for dinner. I made a cherry cobbler with some cherries I’d picked from another friend’s cherry tree and it turned out great.
**Note: You can rent this house June through August through VRBO.com (except Fourth of July weekend, that weekend is always reserved for the owners).
Relaxing and watching the sunset
We went into the Lopez Village Market to pick up some ice cream to go with the cobbler. Lopez Island Creamery makes some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had. Be sure to try some while visiting Lopez. You can also buy it by the cone at the market or in town at the Just Heavenly Fudge Factory in Lopez Village. I highly recommend the raspberry lemon if you can find it.
**Note: This isn’t the mainland. The Lopez Village Market is the only game in town for groceries, wine, beer, and booze and it closes at 7:00 PM every day. Make sure you get all your beer and supplies before then. There is a store on the south end of Lopez as well called the South End General Store, which is open until 7:30 and also serves food.
The rest of the evening we hung out and had drinks on the deck, BBQ’ed, and played some cards. The sunset was phenomenal.
The next morning was the Fourth of July. Every year, the Lopez Library has an annual book sale to raise money for the library. We ate breakfast and headed into the village early to get there before it got too picked over. We were handed a red sack at the front door which we could fill up as full as we wanted to for $20.00. Five of us filled it to the brim with lots of interesting books. You can also buy books individually.
Saturdays in the summer (mid May through mid September) are also the day for the Lopez Farmers Market from 10:00 to 2:00. It’s a great place to get locally grown veggies, but there are also many other booths selling local crafts, baked goods, tacos and tamales, jewelry, and other items.
One thing I love about Lopez Island is how accepting everyone is. There are a lot of hippies, artists, and free spirits on Lopez and they welcome diversity. I was wearing some funky sunglasses and a vintage-style sundress showing off my tattoos and got lots of random compliments from strangers– as opposed to judgemental “you folks ain’t from around here” looks common in many small towns across America. People from foreign countries and gay and lesbian travelers will feel welcome on Lopez Island as well.
After the Farmer’s Market, it was almost time for the Fourth of July Parade. We drove back towards the house on Fisherman Bay Road and were able to pull over and park near the start of the parade. We easily found a spot on the front of someone’s lawn on the side of the road.
The parade wasn’t much to write home about, but it was full of heart. It seems all anyone really needs to be a part of it is an interesting car or a funky outfit. My favorite part was the lack of crowds and low-key, low-stress vibe. That, and the random giant paper-mache Oscar Meyer Weiner float.
The parade wasn’t very long, and afterwards Paddy and I explored some of the south end of Lopez Island. We drove to Watmough Bay, but took a wrong turn along the way and ended up on a private road (I think to Paul Allen’s property). We turned around and found our way to the parking area for Watmough at the end of Watmough Head Rd.
Watmough Bay is touted by locals to be the best beach on the island. It is often very busy on summer weekends. I think we lucked out because everyone was at the Fourth of July BBQ in the village–there was a parking space and only a few people at the beach.
The bay reminded me a little of Maya Bay in the Phi Phi Islands in Thailand. No white sand–a little rocky and lots of seaweed in the water but still beautiful and very Northwest.
I found a beached lion’s mane jellyfish on the sand. If you see one of these, don’t touch it or step on it. The bell of the jellyfish is harmless but the tentacles will give a painful sting even when it is dead.
We hung out at Watmough for a few and then decided to move on. Next we went to Shark Reef Sanctuary, which is accessed by a short trail through the woods to the rocky coast of the southwest part of the island. You can often see seals basking on the rocks here. We didn’t see any seals, but the views are still stunning. You can see Cape San Juan on San Juan Island across the channel, and kelp forests in the water below. There were a few kayakers out enjoying the coast.
We were starting to get hungry, so we ventured back into the village. Our friend Brooke joined us and we decided on Bucky’s Lopez Island Grill, which has a nice deck out back. Paddy and I both had the cajun ahi tuna taco special, which was great. Brooke and I each tried a glass of the Madeline Angevine from Lopez Island Vineyards.
There isn’t a lot to Lopez Island Village, but there are a few shops to explore. After lunch we walked over to the Lopez Island Vineyards tasting room to taste their wines.
You could taste three wines for $5 or six for $10–we each opted for three. We all tasted the Siegerebbe (pronounced zee-ger-eh-beh) which is a very fruity and refreshing white wine grown on Lopez Island. The white grapes for the Madeline Angevine are also grown on island. The other grapes are imported from other drier, sunnier parts of Washington in the Yakima Valley, but all the wine is made on Lopez Island.
Paddy and I also tried the Sangiovese and the Malbec which he loved. I liked them (I like most wine, really) but the Malbec was a little tart for me (I’m more of a Syrah and Cabernet person). Brooke tried the Dry Rose and the Raspberry dessert wine. She said the Raspberry wine was very sweet and tasted just like raspberry juice. She bought a bottle of the rose so I tried a little later that evening. I didn’t think it was that dry, it was kind of sweet. Not super sweet though. We bought a bottle of the Siegerebbe to take home for later this summer. Most wines are $25 a bottle.
The vineyard itself is located on the way to the ferry from the village, you can see the grapes growing from the side of the road. There were signs in the tasting room for a summer Shakespeare play in the vineyard in the evening–it looked like fun.
We checked out a few of the other little shops in the village. There is a cute little consignment shop (mostly women’s clothing) next to the coffee shop that is worth a peek. Brooke found an awesome lime green vintage 60’s go-go dress.
Lopez Village doesn’t have a lot of restaurants, but there are a few options. I’ve only eaten at a couple of them other than Bucky’s, and that was 10 or more years ago, but I remember them being pretty good. Bucky’s and The Galley have burgers and salads and are a couple of the more inexpensive places to eat in town. The Bay Cafe is probably the nicest dinner restaurant. For breakfast I highly recommend Holly B’s Bakery–their bread and pastries are outstanding. Isabel’s Espresso is the local coffee joint, featuring organic coffee and organic milk. You can find a list and short description of all the restaurants on Lopez Island on the Lopez Island Chamber of Commerce website.
We spent the rest of the afternoon making food for dinner and relaxing. Near sunset people began setting up on the side of Fisherman Bay for the fireworks show, and more and more boats showed up to anchor out in the bay. I took a walk down the road to catch some views of the sunset, which was amazing.
Lopez Island is renowned for it’s Fourth of July fireworks display. They have always had the best fireworks in the San Juan Islands, and I’d go so far to say that they may be the best in the whole state of Washington. Our friends told us that this year they raised $80,000 for the show, which was twice Friday Harbor’s budget. It’s pretty impressive for such a small island. Lopezians take a lot of pride in their fireworks and always have.
Once the sun was set, Friday Harbor began their fireworks at dusk and you could see them across the sound in the distance. Lopez patiently waited until their show was done.
Once Friday Harbor wrapped it up, Lopez gave a 10 minute firework warning, and then a 5 minute warning. Then the show began. It was hands down the best fireworks display I’ve seen. It wasn’t only the volume of fireworks, but the types they had. Some of them I hadn’t even seen before. The show lasted about 30 minutes. I took some photos, but they really don’t do it justice.
Lopez voted no last year to the ferry reservations, so you can make a reservation going to Lopez but not to leave Lopez Island. The day after Fourth of July can be very crazy with long lines for the ferries, and because it was also a Sunday, we figured we were best off getting up early and trying to make the 7:15 AM boat. We got in line at 6:30 or so, and the line was already backed up down the road. Fortunately, the boat was large and only loading cars from Lopez to Anacortes, and we made it on. We were tired, but also beat the holiday weekend traffic and made it back to Seattle by 9:45 AM. It was well worth it.
Paddy and I fell in love with Lopez island a little this trip. After growing up with the insanity of the tourist season in Friday Harbor, it was so nice to be able to have an island summer getaway that was laid back and crowd-free. We will be back for sure. There is more of Lopez we’d like to explore–other hiking trails, etc. If you are in the mood for a lazy, low-key San Juan Islands vacation– Lopez Island is perfect.