Shaw Island is one of the four San Juan Islands in the Salish Sea that have ferry service (by Washington State Ferries). The service is from Anacortes, a port city about 90 minutes north of Seattle. From there, you can also board ferries to Victoria, British Columbia, located on Vancouver Island. The other San Juan Islands with ferry service are Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan Island. The ferry dock and the little General Store located there provide just about the only things to do on Shaw Island San Juans that do not involve the island's pristine natural resources and the great outdoors. The island is largely known for its two parks: Indian Cove County Park and Shaw Island County Park.
Shaw Island is the smallest of the six United States San Juan Islands, with a population hovering between 200 and 300 residents. It is part of a larger archipelago that includes the Gulf Islands, located just over the border with Canada. There are a total of more than 450 islands in this archipelago group.
Until 2004, one of the most popular things to do on Shaw Island San Juans involved watching the handful of elderly Franciscan nuns who operated the store and the hydraulic machinery for the ferries in their long brown habits and fluorescent orange safety vests. The elderly women had done this since 1976. They were joined by no new sisters and the last four of them finally left the island in 2004, retiring to their convent in Bridal Veil, Oregon. There are still nuns on the island. Another small group of Benedictine nuns live at the Our Lady of the Rock Monastery, founded in 1977. These women (clad in black and white) operate a nearly self-sufficient farm, raising Cotswold sheep, highland cattle, llamas and alpacas, as well as pigs, poultry, and Jersey dairy cows.
In keeping with St. Bededict's rule that "a monastery is never without guests," this monastery provides the only Shaw Island accommodation—comfortable, basic lodging in their retreat house. These accommodations don't really count as vacation rentals, as there is no charge other than the donation you choose to leave. You can choose a one-day retreat, which can be done as a day-trip if you are staying in one of the bed and breakfasts or hotels on one of the other islands. There are also weekend and week retreats. Be prepared for a contemplative experience, as well as work on the farm, including feeding animals, cutting hay, repairing fences, and similar tasks.
Although many people enjoy the outdoor things to do on Shaw Island San Juans on a day trip from one of the other islands, an in-depth visit requires a camping vacation, which is available in the 65-acre Shaw Island County Park. The campsites are primitive, with no services other than drinking water (not available in the winter). There are a limited number of campsites. Some are located on the waterfront and only one can accommodate a vehicle—a camper van only, which can be brought on the ferry. The park is only two miles from the ferry landing, so backpackers can easily reach it on foot. If you are hiking or just enjoying the views, do respect the "no trespassing" signs indicating private property. The park is open throughout the year, with reservations highly recommended during the best summer weather.
Image: jarrodlombardo (flickr)