Seeking best possible San Juan Islands paddle: weekend of 6/25-27


Jun 22, 2021
Eugene, OR
Hi All:

I'm a strong and highly experienced paddler (who can easily paddle 15-20 miles a day); I'm also a highly experienced backpacker (so know how to pack minimally and camp in wild and undeveloped places).

I've never paddled the San Juan Islands (just moved to the west coast a few years ago) so thinking of heading up there this weekend (June 25-27). I've been doing some reading and research trying to figure out where to go (there are SO many options and paddle routes!).

I'd welcome any suggestions on where to go? I'm thinking two days of paddling with one overnight somewhere.

I'm interested in beautiful scenery, but would like to avoid the power-boating mobs if possible.
  • I'd love the chance to see whales, but would be happy to forego that chance if it means fewer crowds and a more wild experience.
  • As I mentioned, paddling long distances is fine with me (I regularly paddle 5 miles 2x/week, averaging 4.5-5mph on each paddle), though it would be nice to have some time to explore an island or two on foot.

The only possibilities I've considered so far are:
  • Mimic the guided kayak tours—put in on SJI near Lime Kiln Point and paddle north to Stuart Island, camp on Stuart, then paddle back?
  • Put-in on the mainland and paddle out to Cypress Island and camp there?
  • Put-in on Orcas Island and explore Sucia, Patos and Matia Islands?

Finally, if anyone thinks this is a bad time of year to go (because of tourists) and/or the San Juans have become so popular (especially post-pandemic) that the islands will be mobbed and the waterways will be packed with power boaters roaring around...then I might bag the trip altogether. I don't mind a few people, but I'm really seeking some wild and scenic beauty—not "Disneyland-On-The-Sound." :)

Hi Peter-CKM: I'm a lifelong whitewater paddler (and former whitewater slalom racer), so have (possibly) over 10,000 hours' experience in strong currents. So features like eddylines, boils, strong recirculating eddies, standing waves, etc. are very familiar to me.

As for tides, I admit to having very little knowledge of the tides in the Roasrio Straight/SJI area. I'm certainly aware of tides, the importance of knowing when tides ebb and flow and how that affects trip planning/routing, etc. I'm not familiar with where the strongest tides are, but I do plan to spend a few hours doing research before I go, including studying the data on sites like

Even with my years of whitewater experience, I have a very healthy respect for the sea! Whitewater may seem intimidating to many (and may seem even more ferocious than the ocean can be) but I disagree: whitewater is much more static and predictable—and less dynamic and rapidly changing than the ocean. :)

Oh, and for this trip I'm thinking of a single overnight camping trip (so paddling to a camping destination and back the next day).

I'm not looking to abuse myself along a "Hero Route," LOL. I just described my abilities and experience to point out that I'm not a complete beginner who would be exhausted paddling more than a couple miles in dead calm water and no current . :)
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Hi Scott,

I'd start with the ferry schedule. If you don't have a reservation for this weekend, you'll either roll your kayak on with a trolley and put in at Friday Harbor or Orcas Landing...or skip the ferry and put in at Anacortes. This time of year, there is no escaping marine traffic on weekends. Especially with the temps coming this weekend. Everybody will be out.

September for me is prime time. Schools start up, people send their kids off to college and everyone returns to their routines.

To answer your questions;
Want whales, it's a crap shoot. I have kayaked several times in the islands, and have only seen the souther residents up close once; Biggs never. You have the right attitude, go for the experience, and you'll see plenty of wildlife.

You won't be disappointed with any of the trips you laid out above. It's just a matter of logistics of getting to your starting point.

Lastly, regarding currents in Rosario Strait if you do head up to Cypress, be sure to read the current charts (not tides charts). A three mile paddle into a three plus knot current equals a lot of time paddling to get nowhere fast.

Good Luck,
Thanks Chris—appreciate the info! Yes, I kinda figured the boat traffic will be insane with sunshine, temps in the 80's, and calm seas. And I'll definitely look into a ferry reservation now. I have relatives in Port Townsend I can always stay with, so could paddle from there (but not to the San Juans, LOL—I'm not up for that kind of abuse in just a couple days!)

And yes—I just downloaded the tide and current tables from the Canadian government site and will be studying those (and plotting routes in deepzoom). You/re right—I'm a strong paddler but don't want to end up on an aquatic treadmill going nowhere, LOL. I know from much experience that I can comfortably average 4 knots in my boat, but going any faster takes so much more energy it's not worth it!

My kayak is a plastic Wilderness Systems Tsunami 165. (I know—someday I'll get a carbon/glass boat...but the plastic Tsunami has been just fine for years!)

Just an update—I'm better understanding now why logistics can be so difficult (especially in summer) for paddling the San Juans. I'm finding it almost impossible to find anyplace to spend the night (e.g. the nights before/after doing a 2-day trip). And vehicle parking is problematic too (for example, you can't leave your car overnight at San Juan Island County Park...possibly nowhere else either).

So it's seeming more like I'll either have to pay for a couple nights at a campground on San Juan Island (just a few sites left) and do day paddling only...or just plan to paddle from the mainland somewhere to only islands with Washington State Park campgrounds...

With far more advance planning, I'd have reserved a campsite at San Juan Island County Park, but of course they're full now. I should also add that this time of year, any real overnight accommodations (hotel rooms or AirBnB's) are exorbitantly priced ($250/night and up).

Paddling in September is looking better and better!
One more update: how can anyone know—on a summer weekend—whether they'll be able to get a campsite on the more remote islands like Sucia? The WA State Parks website says there are 39 first-come, first-served campsites. Are they typically all full by 5pm on a Friday afternoon? (I know, maybe a rhetorical question—but just another logistical question mark for a San Juans paddling trip, LOL).

I have no clue what the "camper load" is like in the San Juan Islands? Are there huge flotillas of hundreds of kayakers paddling all over the place looking for campsites on various islands? Or would I reach Sucia and find most people sleeping on their power and sailboats and maybe 2-3 other kayakers camping there?
I was at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island the weekend before last and there were no kayak campers in the WA marine trails site at Spencer Spit. Also, I couldn't see any tents on James Island as the ferry went by.

Last year, I camped at Cypress Head on Cypress Island over 4rth of July weekend and there were spots available. (The best ones were taken).

I think you should be able to get a spot. (Especially since it's not as if you can kayak back to your put-in area in the same day - you will have to set your tent up somewhere).

Often, though, the boat mooring buoys are full and sometimes the boat buoy area can be noisy. At least that is my experience with Such in the summer.
You could try Strawberry Island. It’s a former DNR campground, since decommissioned, meaning no more outhouse or picnic table. On DNR land, the rule is camping is allowed unless posted otherwise. Strawberry Island isn’t posted.

Strawberry Island is best reached by launching from the mainland, which solves your ferry problem. And, since the campground is decommissioned and removed from the guidebooks, there are almost never other people present. I’ve probably camped there a dozen times in the last fifteen years and only had other campers once. If other campers have already taken the best campsite when you arrive (you’ll know it when you see it), just continue up the trail into the forest. There’s a second, crappier campsite deeper in the forest at the edge of the cliff.

Trip report here.

My understanding is that the Cascade Marine Trail camp sites will always make room for a kayaker even if the campsite is full.
I've never seen that situation since they often are not full, but for safety it makes sense and should be a comfort to kayak travelers.
Thanks all. Alex, Strawberry Island looks and sounds tempting! Maybe I'm being overcautious (or just downright wrong), but for a first SJI paddle I'm thinking a paddle from the north side of Orcas to Sucia might be easiest—e.g. present a lower chance of messing with more powerful and confusing tidal currents. I fully expect Sucia to be overrun with the powerboat crowd, though...which isn't appealing as they often tend to be just a small step above the Harley-riding, whiskey-drinking, hooping-and-hollering crowds on the mainland. LOL (But maybe they aren't that bad?)

I should add that for a newbie to paddling in that part of the world, the logistics seem absurdly complicated. That's not said critically, but I've already spent hours researching the islands, the ferries, camping options, water sources...and that's before I even got to spending hours more researching tides, currents, tables, more tables, bazillions of figures and math and numbers, etc. LOL

I'm hoping someone posts "Meh, you don't need to know all that stuff—it's all totally doable if you're not a complete invalid on the water." :)
UPDATE: It's increasingly looking like I won't make it out to any of the ferry-accessible islands. Seems all the ferry times that actually allow me to have some paddling time over the weekend are full. I guess this is normal for this time of year? (You need to make ferry reservations weeks or months in advance?) So @Alex, Strawberry Island is looking better, lol.

Any other recommendations for scenic paddles from the mainland that don't require dodging freight-train-like tidal currents?

ANOTHER UPDATE: Yep, the San Juan Islands are a "shut-out"—all ferries booked, all campgrounds (where you can reserve a site) booked, all other accommodations booked. It seems that this area is suffering not only from typical summer crowds...but the same massive INCREASE in summer crowds as a result of the pandemic (people going crazy to get outside).

Throughout the PNW and beyond (both at the coast and in the mountains), public lands are getting hammered by crowds like never before. The pandemic turned legions of people who never did it at all into hikers, kayakers, SUPers and campers—and public lands are buckling under the pressure (litter, noise, etc.)

I'll keep looking for paddling options from the mainland...but at this point, the very concept of a spur-of-the-moment trip is looking hopeless, because even on the mainland, every hotel and campground in the region will be slam-packed. :-(
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I can't speak for the WA State Ferry system, but BC Ferries treats kayakers like cyclists. No reservations required. Put your boat on wheels, pay for your ticket (passenger + bicyle/kayak), and walk your boat onto the main vehicle deck like the cyclists. This mode opens up all kinds of possibilities for trips that normally require a shuttle. More importantly, it also gets around a lot of headaches related to long-weekend ferry volumes (reservation log-jams are only the beginning).

My paddling club (in Vancouver) has held a club camp-out on Newcastle Island in Nanaimo on Labour Day for the past few years exactly because we can take advantage of this. Members get their families to drop them off at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry terminal, they skip the holiday weekend crowds and walk their boats onto the ferry. At Departure Bay terminal on the other side they walk their boats off the ferry, down the road 2 blocks, and put in at a local boat launch. The campground is a 30 minute paddle away.

With respect to your goal of a quieter, wilder experience, I second the notion of spring/fall/winter paddling on this coast. From the Puget Sound, up the Salish Sea, Georgia Strait, the Discoveries, to the Broughtons, there is all kinds of wilderness to be experienced when the cooler weather drives sunshine boaters off the water.
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...but at this point, the very concept of a spur-of-the-moment trip is looking hopeless, because even on the mainland, every hotel and campground in the region will be slam-packed. :-(

Before I forget, welcome Scott to the coast and the WestCoastPaddler community. It sounds like you're very much like the rest of us here - passionate about paddling and sharing that experience with others. All of us were new once, and share in your present frustration in figuring out the where, when, how, and whys of paddling on this coast. Spontaneous trips are possible in the summer, albeit with tempered expectations for solitude. You'll be an old hand before you know it -- ready to help out like @alexsidles, @kayakwriter, etc.
The Cascade Marine Trail system has many options for sea kayak camping from the main land. Check their site.

Although it sounds like Orcas Island is out, realize you can park at the trailhead for the Obstruction Pass State Park and hike the 10 minutes down to the campsites and they are non reservation and less crowded on weekdays.

I haven't paddled this route but I hear the mainland trip from Bellingham / Lummi Island / Clark Island along with the Patos, Sucia, Matia group is nice.
Don’t give up so easily. I recommended Strawberry Island specifically to avoid the problem of overbooked campsites and ferries. It’s a great option any month of the year.

GCW is also correct that Clark, Matia, and Sucia are reachable from the mainland, and you are likely to find at least one free spot at any of those.

Anderson Island in south Puget Sound has one campsite, and it is reservable, and it is available this Saturday due to a cancellation. Go snap it up right now, and you’ll be guaranteed to be the only camper, since you’ll have the only reservation. Reservation link here:

Anderson Island trip report here:

Thanks Alex—I'm not giving up, just giving up the original plan (but there are many possible plans). :) Anderson Island looks nice, but I'll be staying tomorrow evening with relatives in Port Townsend (and it's a hike back south to get to Anderson).

I like the idea of paddling out to Clark/Matia/Sucia from the mainland...just need to figure out safe overnight parking for my car (because I'll have some quasi-valuables left in it).

And I'm a bit intimidated by the tides and currents. I'm a strong paddler (I can maintain 4.5mph for a few hours with no current) and the distance doesn't bother me...but I'll have to get my act together on understanding the tides up there (they seem much more complicated than the rather simple tides down here on the Southern Oregon coast!). But I may be over-thinking it (or over-estimating how much trouble I could get into?)

The other option I looked into is the Island Express water taxi out of Anacortes. Unfortunately they can't take me out to the more distant islands on Saturday; they said they could take me to Cypress Island if I get there at 8am (but nothing later due to a super low tide). But then it seems like I could also just paddle to Cypress from the mainland too...

UPDATE: So my plan now is to paddle to Matia-Sucia-Patos from the mainland. Looks like I should be able to park overnight (I hope this is correct) at Gooseberry Point, just across Hale Passage from Lummi Island. It's about a 7-mile paddle from there to Matia (around Pt. Migley at the north end of Lummi Island). According to Deepzoom if I start paddling at noon-1pm Saturday I'll only face light currents at low tide (1kt or less).

Thanks for the welcome Alpha Echo! I'm living in the wrong state to be paddling (Oregon), LOL. I say that because there are very few places to put in the ocean along the Oregon coast that aren't giant waves and swell thundering onto rocks (or equally giant waves thundering onto an open beach). I've about exhausted most of the bay paddling options (those are nice, but not like Salish Sea nice, LOL).

As I may have said above somewhere, I have thousands of hours of experience paddling big class IV whitewater...and yet, the Pacific scares the sh*t out of me when it's rocking and rolling. :) Rivers can be powerful (even violent)...but they are very "finite"—you can easily see both shores and a quick way to safety.