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Cypress Head, San Juan Islands, WA 2–4 Sept 2023


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

Over the three-day Labor Day weekend, I took my kids, Leon and Maya, and my father, Grandpa John, kayaking to Cypress Head. Cypress Head is the easternmost promontory of Cypress Island, the last major island in Washington’s San Juan Islands that remains in a mostly undeveloped state.

Maya had camped here with me and our friends, James and Chelsea, the previous year, and Grandpa John had camped here with me a couple times back in the days before I started writing trip reports. Leon had never before camped here.

Cypress Head offered something for everybody: Maya had been petitioning to return ever since our trip the previous year; it would be a new place to show Leon; and Grandpa John could wander the steep trails through the island’s interior.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. The overnight parking fee at Washington Park has increased to 12 dollars per night, cash only, notwithstanding the Parks Department’s website, which says, in various places, 9 dollars or 10 dollars.

The early September currents were perfect for kayaking to and from Cypress Island. In the early afternoons, currents were flooding northward up Bellingham Channel and eastward up Guemes Channel, ideal for reaching Cypress Head on the east side of the island. In the late mornings, currents were ebbing southward and westward, ideal for returning to the launch beach on the mainland.

Of all the passages in the San Juan Islands, I would say the run from Washington Park to Cypress Head is the easiest in terms of taking advantage of currents. With just a little planning, the currents are never anything other than perfectly favorable. Tide races can appear near the headlands throughout this route, so we were careful to travel during times of weak to moderate flow, not maximum flow. We didn’t want the helpful currents to be too helpful!

01 View of Cypress Island.JPG

01 View of Cypress Island from Guemes Channel. The island consists of 480 acres (190 ha) of private property and no less than 5,100 acres (2,060 ha) of state-owned natural habitat managed with the primary aim “to preserve, restore, and enhance ecological systems, scenic landscapes, and habitat for sensitive, threatened, and endangered species.”

02 Alex and kids in kayak.JPG

02 Alex, Maya, and Leon kayaking in Guemes Channel. Two readers of the website very kindly recognized us on the launch beach—thank you, Mike and Jane!

03 Grandpa John kayaking Guemes Channel.JPG

03 Grandpa John kayaking in Guemes Channel. Somewhat overestimating his own paddling speed, Grandpa John wondered whether we need to stop to let the ferry pass in front of us. It crossed our bows at over half a mile’s (800 m) distance.

Early autumn in the San Juans is always a peak time for wildlife. The two best birds we saw this trip were a black-throated gray warbler on Cypress Head and a parasitic jaeger in Bellingham Channel. On the marine mammal front, we saw a dozen harbor seals, a single river otter, an enormous Steller sea lion who expelled a deep, powerful breath, and somewhere on the order of two hundred harbor porpoises in Bellingham Channel.

Cypress Island is the most reliable place in the San Juans for harbor porpoises. In all my years kayaking these waters, I have never once failed to see them here, neither on the Rosario Strait side nor the Bellingham Channel side. Still, to see two hundred was remarkable. They were traveling southbound down the channel in loose pods of five to twenty animals, but the pods just kept coming and coming all afternoon. Grandpa John and I were lucky enough to witness a double breach, in which two harbor porpoises leaped in tandem entirely out of the water.

Grandpa John woke up at dawn the next morning and sat out on the bluff to watch the porpoise parade. He was rewarded for his diligence not only by more harbor porpoises but also by a trio of Dall’s porpoises, a much less common species in these waters.

04 Marbled murrelet Bellingham Channel.JPG

04 Marbled murrelet, Bellingham Channel. Cypress Island’s forests are still recovering from the extensive logging of the 1920s, but the trees are now growing large enough to host the nests of this threatened alcid.

05 Belted kingfisher Cypress Head.JPG

05 Belted kingfisher perched on Pacific madrone, Cypress Head. The male of the species, shown here, has only a single blue breastband, whereas as the more colorful female has two bands, one blue and the other red—an unusual example of”reverse” sexual dimorphism.

06 Harbor porpoises Bellingham Channel.JPG

06 Harbor porpoises, Bellingham Channel. The total population of this species in the inland waters of Washington State is estimated to be over 11,000, making it by far our most abundant cetacean.

07 Harbor seal Cypress Head.JPG

07 Harbor seal, Cypress Head. The seals in the San Juan Islands have become habituated to human proximity.

08 Underwater harbor seal.JPG

08 Harbor seal swimming underwater. This individual kept inverting onto its back and plunging beneath the surface, for what purpose I cannot say.

Grandpa John wanted to sleep out, as he almost always does on these trips and as I myself often do during my solo trips. He was fine the first night, but a light rain blew in the next evening and drove him under cover. I had packed a pup tent for his emergent use, sparing him any need to move into the large tent with me and the kids.

On Sunday, our non-paddling day, Grandpa John hied him to the hills on the main body of Cypress Island while I stayed with the kids on Cypress Head. We played on the beach and told stories in the tent. We even went on our own mini-hike to the south end of Cypress Head, with Maya in the lead on the way down and Leon leading us back to camp.

During the passage home, we overestimated how far seaward the ebb in Guemes Channel would pull us. We ended up having to splash our way through a small tide race off Shannon Point. Thanks to our early departure, the ebb had not yet reached maximum strength, so the tide race posed no threat of capsize.

09 Grandpa John camping on Cypress Head.JPG

09 Grandpa John sleeping out on Cypress Head. There is not much shelter from a north wind on Cypress Head, but fortunately for us, the wind speed never rose above ten knots, and even that only briefly.

10 Leon outside tent.JPG

10 Leon outside the large tent. Only about three-quarters of the campsites were occupied at any one time over the whole Labor Day weekend.

11 Maya and Leon playing in tent.JPG

11 Maya and Leon playing in the large tent. This giant tent, marketed as a six-person tent, barely fit onto one of the tent pads at Cypress Head.

12 Maya hiking in forest.JPG

12 Maya hiking in forest, Cypress Head. One of Maya’s favorite activities was peeling the layers of colorful bark from the Pacific madrones.

13 Leon hikling in forest.JPG

13 Leon hiking in forest, Cypress Head. Cypress Head is only a quarter mile (400 m) end-to-end.

14 Maya sitting under tree.JPG

14 Maya sitting under tree, Cypress Head. From this natural throne, Maya could survey the lands and waters of her realm.

15 Sunset at Cypress Island.JPG

15 Sunset at Cypress Head, looking north up Bellingham Channel. From left to right: unnamed points on Cypress Island, Lawrence Point on Orcas Island, the Cone Islands, and Sinclair Island.

16 Kayaking westbound down Guemes Channel.JPG

16 At the confluence of Bellingham and Guemes Channels, looking west down Guemes Channel. The water was smooth as glass, with a one-knot favorable current to boot.

The San Juan Islands are my kayaking backyard. I always feel at home here, especially whenever I get to bring my family. Cypress Head is one of the homiest corners in the San Juans, and now it’s home to both of the kids, too.


[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
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Alex, thank you for that write-up. Those sites at the Head seem much better than the more "popular" Pelican Beach.

Note to those who haven't done it, "... With just a little planning, the currents are never anything other than perfectly favorable. ..." That "little planning" includes being aware of the wind direction with respect to the currents. Been there. Not done that. As my DuoLingo Spanish lesson would say, it can become muy interesante.
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Your kids are getting big — a measure of time for us oldsters.

I love the three-generation trip. The next time I do one, I’ll likely be the grandpa.

Hi Jane! I only just now made the connection! Nice to meet you in person! I hope you write us a trip report about your visit to Burrows Island!

Thanks for the kind words, Paul and Andrew. For sure, things can get rough around Cypress Island. On a big ebb, the currents reach well over five knots, on both the Rosario and Bellingham Channel sides of the island.

John, thanks for pointing out that this was Labor Day weekend, not Memorial Day weekend!

Great narrative and photos as always @alexsidles (I loved your Terrible Tilly report too.) What kind of camera do you use? Really stellar images and you must either have a powerful zoom or a really long lens?
Thanks, Scott, I’m glad you liked the trip reports. Lately, I’ve been using a Sony RX10 superzoom. The “Mark IV” version has an extremely fast auto-focus, just what I need for wildlife shots. Still gotta get pretty close to the animals, though, because it’s only a so-called “one-inch” sensor...actually 13.2 x 8.8 mm.

Ahh okay @alexsidles —I've read good reviews of that Sony. I have a similar camera, a Panasonic Lumix FZ2500. I originally bought it for its video capabilities (it has several "pro" features like a built-in neutral density filter, a silky-smooth manual focus/iris, etc.) and for its superzoom lens (28-600mm equivalent). But it's several years old now, and despite its 1" sensor, I don't think its photos are as sharp as your Sony.

I admit for the past few years, I've all but abandoned using any of my "dedicated" cameras and just use my iPhone. But seeing your photos has inspired me to start using my cameras again. iPhones are great for wide shots in good light...but anything else and the quality degrades fast!

I'll also add that boats with a day hatch ahead of the cockpit are great for cameras—I wish I had one! I've always thought the day hatch behind the cockpit was a pain to access, LOL