Sucia Island, San Juan Islands, WA 11–12 June 2022


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

Hey, it's my 500th post! Long live WCP!

At last, our schedules aligned with the weather, and we were able to take our first kayak-camping trip as a complete family: Rachel and me, and Maya and Leon.

With its gentle beaches, protected waters, and wide open spaces, Sucia Island was the perfect spot to take a five-year-old and a two-year-old. The last two times Maya and I camped here, rising winds forced us to take the water taxi back to the launch beach on Orcas. This time, the weather held, and we were able to paddle both ways.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map

For this trip, we borrowed my dad’s Long Haul folding kayak and also brought my Feathercraft folding kayak. The “Feathercraft” is so poorly named it might constitute false advertising. The boat weighs about eighty pounds (36 kg), a vicious load to lug down to the water. But even the Feathercraft is nothing compared to dad’s customized Long Haul. With its double-thick hull and deck, the Long Haul weighs 110 pounds (50 kg). It’s so heavy I can’t hoist it onto the roof of the car by myself. Carrying either of these miserable monsters any distance farther than a couple of feet does, indeed, qualify as a “Long Haul.” I call them the Great Satan and the Lesser Satan.

A boat cart helped us grind the Great Satan over the pebbles at Orcas Island’s North Beach. We were off, headed for Sucia Island. Leon dozed most of the way across, as he usually does, but Maya wanted to hear a “never-ending dog story” from Rachel during the crossing.

The best campsite on Sucia is Fossil Bay. From the launch beach on Orcas, it’s only three miles each way, with beautiful views in every direction. The entrance to Fossil Bay is obscured against the cliffs, such that boats entering the bay seem to just “vanish” midway along the island.

01 Leon drives onto Anacortes ferry.JPG

01 Leon driving onto the ferry. We have a family tradition of sitting the kids in our laps when we drive onto the ferry, and Washington State Ferries has a family tradition of yelling at us to stop doing that.

02 Leon and Maya on ferry.JPG

02 Maya and Leon on the ferry. The ferry ride to the San Juans is one of the chief attractions of kayaking here.

03 Maya and Rachel kayaking to Sucia Island.JPG

03 Maya and Rachel kayaking to Sucia Island. In the background are Waldron and Skipjack Islands, and beyond are the Gulf Islands.

05 Maya in the kayak.JPG

04 Maya in the Long Haul. We enjoyed Pacific Northwest June weather at its finest.

06 Entering Fossil Bay.JPG

05 Kayaking in Fossil Bay. Most of the fossils are actually along the outside of the bay.

07 Campsite in Fossil Bay.JPG

06 Campsite in Fossil Bay. Fewer than a quarter of the many campsites were occupied this weekend.

The kids turned Sucia Island into their own playground. They roughhoused in the tent. They threw rocks into the bay. They charged around the grassy field at top speed. They hid in the bushes. They sprayed themselves with water from the faucet. From the moment we landed until the moment we departed, it was a raucous party.

08 Maya and Leon playing motorboat.jpg

07 Maya and Leon playing “motorboat.” Driftwood sticks make the perfect kid-sized practice paddles.

09 Leon and Maya roughhousing in tent.jpg

08 Leon and Maya roughhousing in the tent. After a late start this spring, the mosquitos have finally hatched, so we had to close up the tent after a while.

10 Maya romping on Sucia Island.JPG

10 Maya romping on Sucia Island. Sucia Island is as popular with yachties as it is with kayakers.

11 Rachel on Sucia Island.JPG

11 Rachel on Sucia Island. This was Rachel’s first camping trip since Leon was born two years ago.

12 Leon finds a rock to throw.JPG

12 Leon finds a rock to throw. We brought four changes of shoes for Leon, and that was barely enough!

13 Alex cooking dinner.JPG

13 Alex cooking dinner. No raccoons troubled our campsite at night.

14 Fox Cove Mushroom Rock sunset.JPG

14 Mushroom Rock sunset, Fox Cove. There’s a different beautiful sight in every direction on Sucia Island.

Around five o’clock in the morning, I was awoken by the patter of raindrops. We had been sleeping without a rainfly, the better to enjoy the clouds and stars, so now water was dripping in. I bolted outside to set up the rainfly over the tent and hang a giant tarp above the rest of the camp. No one else was up and moving this early, so I went on a hike to visit the sandstone caves of Sucia Island.

Unlike most of the San Juans, Sucia Island boasts many miles of trails. This trip marked my seventh time camping here, and I still haven’t visited every odd little corner of the island.

Much of the forest on Sucia consists of vine maple and bigleaf maple. The overhead canopy was so dense no raindrops struck my head, even though the rain was beating a continuous patter on the leaves.

All over the island, newly arrived migratory birds were singing and foraging. I encountered a field full of purple finches, a pair of black-headed grosbeaks, and hundreds of orange-crowned warblers. No less spectacular than the birds were the flowers. Just by the trailside, I found a dozen or more species, each more colorful than the last.

In the northern part of Shallow Bay are the caves. Weathering has produced pockmarks in the sandstones. Most are small, but some are large enough to accommodate an adult. I scrambled up the cliffs to hide in this natural fortress.

15 Purple finch Sucia Island.JPG

15 Purple finch. Sucia Island is the most reliable spot I know in western Washington for this species.

16 White-crowned sparrow Sucia Island.JPG

16 White-crowned sparrow. This individual was so unafraid of humans it hopped around the picnic table in our campsite.

17 Nootka rose Sucia Island.JPG

17 Nootka rose at Shallow Bay. This species ought to be the official flower of the Pacific Northwest.

18 Oregon stonecrop Sucia Island.JPG

18 Oregon stonecrop. This species prefers rocky ledges, which are all over the place on Sucia Island.

19 American vetch Sucia Island.JPG

19 American vetch. Without its gorgeous purple flowers, it would be easy to overlook this lowly vine.

20 Native honeysuckle Sucia Island.JPG

20 Our native honeysuckle. This species is particularly popular with the bees.

21 Bluffs of Sucia Island.JPG

21 Bluffs of Sucia Island. The smaller pockmarks form a sort of ladder leading to the caves above.

22 Climbing the caves at Sucia Island.JPG

22 Climbing the caves at Sucia Island. The caves are too small and too high above ground to be much good as an overnight shelter.

Back at camp, the end of breakfast meant it was time to resume the games. More romping, more roughhouse, more, more, more, until it was finally time to leave.

The falling tide had exposed length mudflats in Fossil Bay in front of our camp and in Fox Cove behind it. Rather than deal with the sucking mud, we borrowed wheelbarrows from the yacht dock and rolled our boats and gear over to an ancient, abandoned concrete ramp that led directly to the water.

23 Leon wearing dads hat.JPG

23 Leon wearing Alex’s hat. It is a source of endless delight for Leon to steal his dad’s things.

24 Maya dashing down path.JPG

24 Maya dashing down the path. Maya is old enough to explore on her own, but she has more fun if one of the grown-ups or Leon comes with her.

25 Rachel carries Leon uptop.JPG

25 Rachel carrying Leon “up-top.” From his perch atop a parent’s shoulders, Leon announces one destination after another.

26 Alex wheeling kids around.JPG

26 Alex wheeling the kids. The kids were so intrigued by the wheelbarrow we had to fetch a second one just for them.

27 Sucia Island fossil.JPG

27 Sucia Island fossil. Fossil-collecting is prohibited, but someone had already removed this one from the cliff.

Once again, we were blessed with perfect conditions. The water was even calmer this time, occasionally even glassy. In such benign conditions, we could hear even the faintest sounds, including the distant puff-puff-puff of porpoise breaths. A moment later, a small school of harbor porpoises surfaced on either side of us, foraging like crazy in the summer seas.

The kids liked the animals, but soon the gentle, rocking conditions overcame them, and their heads began to droop. Maya managed to stay awake thanks to another dog story, but Leon slept all the way back to Orcas Island.

28 Leon departing Sucia Island by kayak.JPG

28 Leon in kayak, departing Sucia Island. Leon loved all the buoys and boats in Fossil Bay, a good reminder to me that an island doesn’t have to be a wilderness to be beautiful.

29 Rachel and Maya departing Sucia Island.JPG

29 Rachel and Maya departing Sucia Island. No better place, no better company.

30 Harbor Porpoises off Parker Reef.JPG

30 Harbor porpoises off Parker Reef. Even the animals seem friendlier in such gentle waters.

31 Leon asleep in kayak off Orcas Island.JPG

31 Leon asleep in kayak off Orcas Island. There’s plenty of room in a folding kayak to sprawl out for a nap.

Sucia Island made a lovely setting for my greatest adventure if all: being a husband and father. There’s no richer happiness than spending time with Rachel and the kids in a place like this.


[Cross-posted on]
Last edited:


Jan 30, 2006
Wonderful. Your story and photos remind me of kayak camping with my kids in the Gulf Islands — nothing could be more memorable for kids than having free reign of a wooded island in June. It’s like something straight out of Wordsworth.



Sep 17, 2012
Alex, Thank you for the reminder that there is summer in some parts of the NW. I have a question about leaving your car during your expeditions but I'll post the question in the General Tread.