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Kayaking San Juan Islands

Nicola Burridge
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Embark on one of the most exhilarating adventures by kayaking San Juan Islands’ enchanting waters. 

Discover pristine landscapes, diverse wildlife, and hidden coves as you navigate the archipelago’s intricate waterways. 

Whether you’re a novice or an experienced paddler, discover the fun of this Pacific Northwest gem.

Why Kayak The San Juan Islands?

The San Juan Islands are home to some of the best kayaking opportunities in the world. There’s spectacular scenery, an abundance of wildlife, and a sense of wilderness with the many uninhabited islands to explore. 

With the Cascadia Marine Trail, there is access to 160 day-use sites and 66 campsites for paddlers. This means you can kayak through the wild landscape of the San Juan Islands with a safe place to stop roughly every three hours. 

The San Juan Islands can be explored on a day trip or over several days or weeks.

Located off the coast of mainland Washington, there are 172 named islands or reefs that make up the San Juan Islands, surrounded by the Salish Sea and its various channels and straits.

> Kayaking Washington state

The San Juan Islands are also incredibly close to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. 

What To Pack For Kayaking San Juan Islands

Sea kayaking around the San Juan Islands is best done in the summer. Kayaking season is generally from April to September but outside of the peak summer months, you will need to dress for cold weather.

Find out more about what to wear when kayaking.

  • PFD (Personal Flotation Device)
  • Sun protection for the summer sun
  • VHF radio (there’s almost no cell signal on the islands)
  • Layers of clothing (and potentially a dry suit on top)
  • Enough food for your entire trip – there are no stores on uninhabited islands
  • Drinking water – this is usually unavailable on the uninhabited San Juan Islands)
  • Wetsuit
  • Sunglasses (the water can be blinding in bright sunlight)

Discover how to dress for cold weather kayaking.

Kayaking With Orcas In The San Juan Islands: Is It Guaranteed?

Kayaking with orcas can be a bucket-list activity for many people. Kayaking around the San Juan Islands offers excellent opportunities to kayak with these magnificent mammals.

But the orcas that live in the waters around the San Juan Islands are wild animals. This means they’re not confined to a specific place and you may not always be able to locate them.

What this means is you may not see any orcas during your kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands. If you’re heading out on a multi-day kayaking adventure, you will likely have more of a chance of spotting an orca than you would if you were to only kayak on a day trip. 

Your best chance of seeing an orca in the wild is from a whale-watching tour.

Find out more about the best places to kayak with orcas.

10 Best Places To Kayak In San Juan Islands

1: San Juan Island

San Juan Island is one of only four that are served by state ferry transportation from the mainland, making it one of the easiest islands to get to (the other three islands served by state ferry are Lopez, Orcas, and Shaw).

With the Haro Strait on the west side of San Juan Island, this can be one of the best places in the Salish Sea to see orcas in their natural habitat. The Southern Resident orca pods call this area home.

San Juan Island is also one of the best places to spot bald eagles. They tend to be most common around the north and northwest coasts of San Juan Island but they can be found soaring over all of the San Juan Islands. 

Launching at Roche Harbor, you can access Henry Island Preserve and Posey Island Marine State Park. 

Posey Island Marine State Park has primitive campsites for kayakers and can be a great place to stop for a picnic lunch. However, this can often be busy with other kayakers during the summer.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, sheltered coastal bays with access to open-water ocean conditions

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Roche Harbor Boat Ramp, Reuben Memorial Drive, San Juan, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

2: Orcas Island

Orcas Island can be ideal if you’re a beginner looking to kayak the San Juan Islands, as the waters of the West Sound and the East Sound tend to be a lot calmer than some of the waters around the more exposed coasts of other islands.

Launching onto the East Sound can be a great introduction to sea kayaking. If you’re a more experienced sea kayaker, however, it can be an ideal starting point for a multi-day adventure exploring the rest of the San Juan Islands on the Cascadia Marine Trail, for example.  

Launching from the public beach in Eastsound, you can kayak around the tiny Ohio Island before making your way south toward Obstruction Island at the mouth of the East Sound.

Kayak camping areas can be found at Obstruction Pass State Park on Orcas Island, with views across to Obstruction Island.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, sheltered, calm waters with access to more challenging coastal waters

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Haven Road, Eastsound, WA 98245. The beach is located next to the public dock.

3: Lopez Island

Image: Lopez Island Paddle Boarding Dog

Lopez Island can be easily reached by ferry from the mainland. This is an excellent place to kayak, with lots of small and uninhabited islands within easy paddling distance, even for beginners.

Lopez Island can also be an ideal spot for viewing marine life, particularly resting seals and nesting birds. However, many of the smaller islands are protected wildlife refuges and people are not allowed. It’s important not to approach or disturb wildlife. 

You can visit and kayak around Fortress Island, Crab Island, and Skull Island if you launch at Hunter Bay at the southern end of Lopez Sound.

From Lopez Sound, you can kayak around the coast of Decatur Island on your way to James Island Marine State Park. Kayak camping can be found at James Island, with kayaking access from the western cove.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, sheltered flat waters in the bay with access to open-water coastal conditions

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Hunter Bay County Dock, 24 Crab Island Road, Lopez Island, WA 98261. There’s a sandy beach next to the dock for launching kayaks.

4: Stuart Island

Stuart Island is the northwesternmost of the San Juan Islands. It can be reached most easily by paddling from Roche Harbor on San Juan Island. However, this is not an easy paddle, and will take a full day to get there. 

You will also have to cross the Spieden Channel which is subject to very strong currents. This is most safely crossed at slack tide but I don’t recommend paddling this route if you’re a beginner, unless you’re with an experienced guide.

En route to Stuart Island, you’ll pass Spieden Island where you’re likely to see the herds of deer and sheep on the island’s shores. Spieden Island was once used as a hunting ground for exotic game.

Stuart Island also offers excellent places to camp as well as sheltered coves to explore.

You can also get great views of Washington’s Olympic Mountains and Canada’s Vancouver Island.   

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class II/III – moderate to difficult, strong currents with often difficult coastal conditions

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Reuben Memorial Drive, Roche Harbor, San Juan, WA 98250. Launch from San Juan Island and paddle north past Spieden Island to reach Stuart Island.

5: Jones Island

Jones Island is a scenic spot in the San Juans, with breathtaking sunsets and glistening views across the sea. The entire island is a marine state park and it’s only accessible by private boat or kayak. 

There are plenty of beaches and coves, with beautiful hiking trails across the island if you want to explore on foot. 

There are lots of campsites, including some cliffside spots with great views and opportunities for viewing sea life from the shores. 

Because of the location of Jones Island on the channel, it can be windy, with both northerly and southerly winds possible depending on the atmospheric conditions. This can affect landing and launching at the coves on both the north and south sides of Jones Island. 

To reach Jones Island, you can launch from Deer Harbor on Orcas Island.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – moderate coastal conditions with tidal currents and wind.

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Deer Harbor Preserve, Deer Harbor Road, Deer Harbor, WA 98243

6: Lummi Island

Lummi Island is one of the closest of the San Juan Islands to the mainland and can be reached by the Lummi Island Ferry, a local ferry from Bellingham.

Once you reach the island you can kayak south along the coast where you’ll find forested shorelines, sandy coves, and a kayak camping area on the southeast shore. 

Continuing around the southern coast of Lummi and up the western coast offers some spectacular views toward the rest of the San Juan Islands. 

From Lummi, you can also visit Clark Island Marine State Park where you can camp and relax with magnificent scenery and fantastic views across the water. 

Accessing Clark Island requires paddling across the Rosario Strait. The currents can be very strong in this stretch and it can be a challenging paddle, even with prior experience of sea kayaking. 

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, generally sheltered waters with access to open-water coastal conditions and tidal currents.

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Lummi Island Beach, 2198 N. Nugent Road, Lummi Island, WA 98262

7: Sucia Island

Kayaker navigates the clear waters around Sucia Island.Pin

Sucia Island is considered the jewel in the crown of the San Juan Islands. 

It’s home to remarkable sandstone rock formations as well as turquoise waters, sheltered coves, and beautiful beaches. There are also several outer islands, including the Cluster Islands and Finger Islands. 

You can camp in one of the many campsites. However, during the summer, this park can fill up fast as it’s a popular place to visit for kayak tours and other boaters. I recommend arriving early in the morning if you want to score a good spot to camp. 

This can be a great place to view sea life, including sea lions and seals that can often be seen relaxing on the rocks and beaches of Sucia.

To reach Sucia, you will have to cross a channel with significant currents. This can be difficult, especially if you try to kayak the shortest distance between the islands of Orcas and Sucia. 

It’s recommended that you paddle north along the west coast of Orcas and begin the crossing to Sucia from Point Doughty to Fox Cove to avoid the most dangerous currents off the north side of Orcas.  

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class II/III – moderate to difficult, currents and ocean conditions for the main crossing.

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Kimple Beach, Waterfront Way, Eastsound, WA 98245.

8: Lime Kiln Point State Park

Lime Kiln Point State Park is one of the best places in the San Juan Islands to spot whales from the shore and they can often be seen during the summer months. 

This park is considered one of the best places in the world for whale watching because of its position overlooking the Haro Strait. 

The Haro Strait is home to a large number of marine mammals. It’s also a migratory route for other animals and birds.

Located on the western shore of San Juan Island, Lime Kiln Point can be an excellent place for kayaking alongside various marine mammals, including orcas, gray whales, and porpoises. However, remember not to approach them. 

In the state park, you’ll find restrooms, a visitor center, and a snack bar

There are beaches and coves but there are also rocky areas of shoreline with deep water that can be difficult for beginners. The currents can also be strong off this coast. Beginners and paddle boarders should stay close to the shore and around Deadman Bay. 

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate with a combination of sheltered bays and open coastal conditions.

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

West Side Road, Friday Harbor, WA 98250

9: Shaw Island

Shaw Island is accessible by ferry from the mainland, making it an easy journey with a vehicle. There are not many locations to put in or take out on Shaw Island but it can be a good gateway to exploring the rest of the San Juan Islands.

Shaw’s south shores are a little more accessible to kayakers and there are picturesque coves and bays to explore along this coast. 

You can also cross the channel from Shaw Island to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. This channel is a protected area that forms the San Juan Islands Marine Preserve, so there’s a chance you could be paddling alongside seals and other marine animals.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, with calm bays close to shore. 

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

Shaw County Park, 218 Shaw Park Road, Shaw Island, WA 98286

10: Larrabee State Park

Larrabee State Park can give you access to the San Juan Islands from the Washington mainland. This can be an ideal location if you want to avoid traveling by ferry, as you can launch straight into the waters of the Salish Sea to explore the islands at your own pace.

The waters around the state park are suitable for all skill levels when the weather is calm. The sheltered waters around the beaches are also ideal for paddleboarding. 

However, if you want to take on the San Juan Islands, I recommend having some prior sea kayaking experience to attempt crossing some of the channels. 

The currents can be strong once you’re out of the sheltered bay around Bellingham and Samish Island.  

There’s a campground at Larrabee State Park with electric hookups and showers.

Class of Rapids Rating:

Class I/II – easy to moderate, sheltered bays and ocean conditions

Where to Launch & How to Get There:

245 Chuckanut Drive, Bellingham, WA 98229

Kayak Rentals And Tours Around San Juan Islands

Outdoor Odysseys

Outdoor Odysseys offers guided kayak tours ranging from one-day to four-day trips around the San Juan Islands, including the Haro Strait around San Juan Island and Stuart Island kayaking and camping trips. 

Outdoor Odysseys also has options for a beer and wine-tasting trip combined with a three-day kayaking trip.

Discovery Sea Kayaks

Discovery Sea Kayaks is a sea kayak tour company located on San Juan Island. The company offers guided tours around San Juan Island. 

There are half and full-day kayaking trips and three-day camping and kayaking trips around the San Juans. You can also arrange a guided tour at sunset or another to witness bioluminescence in the San Juan Islands.

Crystal Seas Kayaking

Crystal Seas Kayaking is located on San Juan Island. Tours include inn-to-inn kayaking trips around the San Juan Islands, camp-to-camp kayaking trips, and full-day kayaking adventures. These trips are suitable for family groups.

San Juan Kayak Expeditions

San Juan Kayak Expeditions is based in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island. You can book a kayaking trip almost anywhere around the San Juan Islands, with day trips, multi-day kayaking trips, and custom kayaking tours available. 

Final Words

The San Juan Islands offer thousands of miles of shoreline to explore by kayak, with pristine islands providing the perfect backdrop for your adventures in nature. 

Remember to always wear your PFD and keep a safe distance from any wild animals. Have an amazing time on your San Juan Islands kayaking trip and let us know how it goes.

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