I'm here to tell you that, at least for bicyclists, it ain't necessarily so.
My son and I recently took a 30-mile loop around Lopez Island as part of a two-day benefit bike ride. At the end of the previous day's 30 miles around San Juan Island, quite a few people said the Lopez Island trip would be much flatter.
Our legs told us a different tale at the end of the day. When I ran the bike ride course through MapMyRide (see below), the elevations figures agreed; 4,564 feet of elevation gain over a 32-mile ride on Lopez Island, compared to 4,200 feet over 30 miles on San Juan Island.
[April 18, 2011 update: I can't explain this, but the elevation listed on the MapMyRide chart now says 1,125 feet of elevation gain. Either I seriously misread it originally, or else the website changed the way it calculates elevation gain. In any case, there are some hills on Lopez Island, but they're not as difficult at San Juan. But anyone used to bicycling shouldn't have any problems on either island.]
I'm not complaining. I don't mind hills. And, if you want, you can do plenty of cycling on the island with relative flatness; the central part of the island is flatter, although you'll find biking the circumference about the same. Most of the elevation gain on Lopez Island comes from heading back to the center of the island after visiting the waterfront.
Overall, the cycling on Lopez is every bit as scenic as San Juan. The roads are in as good condition, the traffic is generally lighter, and the motorists are even friendlier; be prepared to wave back at oncoming traffic. (See “Bicycling San Juan Island.”)
Leaving the ferry
Our 32-mile loop — clockwise — around the island started once again with an uphill slog from the ferry landing at the very northern tip of the island. We headed south on roads that had pastures on one side and water on the other.
In fact, I was struck over the weekend at seeing farms that would not be out of place in rural Virginia, except they backed up to bluffs leading down to Puget Sound with views of the snow-covered Olympic Mountain ranges.
Our first stop was Spencer Spit State Park, named for a spit that encloses a lagoon. The isolated beach here is covered with driftwood, enough to build a house or two. Although the area sticks out from the island, nearby islands of Decatur, Frost and Blakely across the narrow channel give this area a feeling of enclosure.
The state park, within five miles of the ferry, accommodates camping. The Odlin County Park, about a mile from the ferry, also allows individual and group camping.
Away from the park, we climbed to more pastureland in the center of the island and headed south. Picking up Mud Bay Road took us to the southern area of the island, passing in particular the very scenic MacKaye Harbor. Except for Lopez Island Village, which we hadn't been to yet, a convenience store here offered the first food we'd come across.
The route brought us back down to sea level at MacKaye Harbor, where a small “Spandex Free Zone” sign was displayed as we swooped downhill. It was a warm, sunny day, but a finger of fog floated into the harbor. There are bed & breakfast inns here, as there are scattered all over the island.
We climbed out of this area past more farms on the western side of the island and rode past Shark Reef Park.
Unfortunately we were pressed for time, and couldn't stop at Shark Reef Point, which I later learned is a wildlife sanctuary for seals and sea birds. There are views across the water to San Juan Island, and of course the omnipresent Olympic Mountains across the Strait de Juan Del Fuca on clear days.
All the other amenities are in Lopez Village, sitting next to Fisherman Bay which is full of all types of boats. You'll find restaurants and the famous Holly B's Bakery here, although we were racing to catch the ferry and unfortunately had to hurry past. This is where you'll find Lopez Bicycle Works, for repairs, supply or bike rental.
There's a great bike ride in April on the island called the Tour de Lopez, featuring 10, 17, and 31-mile routes around the island. It sold out this spring (2007)