The winds were whipping, splashing the cold salt water over our tandem kayaks as we crossed the longest open-sea stretch of our multi-day San Juan Islands kayaking trip. Looking like ducks in the open ocean, we paddled in unison, hoping to hit the waves straight on versus having them rock us from the side.
Just 20 minutes earlier, we were cruising in the glassy water next to our first night’s island. Seeing how quickly the environment can change gives you an incredible perspective on the dangers of open sea kayaking.
There was no imminent danger, though, as we had a skilled San Juan Kayak Expeditions guide who knew the route and how to handle the rough waters between islands. However, to a newbie like myself, I admit I had some slight anxiety, but that subsided as we pushed on.
In its entirety, the open sea crossing was about three and a half miles, putting my shoulders and upper body to the test.
While that stretch was memorable, it was hardly the only fun we had on the trip. From eating crab on our first night to watching a blazing sunset from a lighthouse, I hope this recap inspires you to take a San Juan Island kayaking trip.
So let’s dive into the kayaking San Juan Islands trip.
Embarking on a 3-day San Juan Islands kayaking trip
While most people make day trips, a multi-day San Juan Island kayaking trip allows you to leave the tourist destinations and find real solitude among the island chains. This was the alluring part of the trip for me; getting a chance to immerse myself in nature at the slow pace of a kayak.
Preparing for your San Juan Islands Kayaking Adventure
Is it safe to kayak in the San Juan Islands?
Yes, it is. While most people would think that sea life or weather would be the most dangerous thing, I’d argue boats and planes present the biggest threat to kayakers. Even so, you’ll be safe with your guide and have little to no issues completing your day or multi-day trip!
What is the best time of year to kayak the San Juan Islands?
Spring through fall is your best time to spend time kayaking in the San Juan Islands. That said, summer will have the least amount of rain and will be the best time. The photos throughout this article were taken on a mid-August trip.
What do you wear for your San Juan Islands Kayaking trip?
Don’t pack too much! I wore a sun hoodie, shorts/bathing suit, a hat, and sunglasses. It’s best to keep the sun off of you when you’re out there for so long.
I would love this, but I’m worried about not being in shape. How hard is it?
A San Juan Islands kayaking trip is not easy. But it is doable for most people.
I was in decent shape (not kayaking shape), and my shoulders were very sore during and afterward. However, if you do it with the correct motion, you can save your shoulders. I sometimes did too much pulling and not enough pushing.
Your guide will show you all you need to excel during your kayaking San Juan Island adventure.
What time of year do you see orcas (or whales) in San Juan Islands?
You can see orcas year-round, but the best time is, again, summer. We didn’t see anything on our trip.
Can you swim in the water at the San Juan Islands?
Heck yes! The water was a tiny bit chilly but felt really nice after a day of kayaking around the San Juans.
What you need to know about kayaking the San Juan Islands
For the uninitiated, a multi-day San Juan Islands kayaking trip is challenging. You can work out as much as possible, but imitating kayaking for hours is nearly impossible for most. I found myself sore within the first half day of the trip, and we still had 24 miles to go!
I recommend asking your guide the best way to stroke to avoid all the burden falling onto your shoulders. However, if you’re sore or struggling, tell your team and see how they can help. You’re not alone out there.
A Day by Day Account of Our Kayaking San Juan Island Trip
Day 1: Friday Harbor to Jones Island – 9 miles
Our first day was a nine-mile paddle taking just under three hours. The crew, only four strong, including our guide, were all around the level, so we paddled well together. After a quick warm-up to ensure we knew what we were doing, we enjoyed lunch before setting off for the main push to Jones Island.
We stopped two miles short of Jones for a quick break. By this time, my arms were already sore, which is not a great sign when you’re on day one. Thankfully, I changed my stroke, which took the pressure off my shoulders.
When we arrived at Jones, we were all ready for dinner. And oh boy, did our guide surprise us. Before we knew what was going on, he was in his wet suit, diving for crabs. Yes, crabs! As we cooked dinner, we enjoyed tasty butter and crab legs. Talk about an introduction to San Juan Island kayaking!
Day 2: Jones Island to Stuart Island – 8.7 miles
The gang enjoyed coffee and bagels topped with smoked salmon while soaking in the cool morning weather. As many campers know, getting the juices flowing and finding the motivation to pack up can be tricky. Today was no different while kayaking San Juan Islands. But it was also a perfect day to kayak, thanks to the glassy water. So once we’d packed our kayaks full – mine weighed an estimated 200 pounds without the bodies – we set off.
Soon after we left the island’s protection, the wind picked up, and our calm waters turned choppy. Instead of riding smoothly atop the sea, we were now bobbing along, focusing our mental energy on staying upright and our physical energy on reaching the other side.
Spider Island grew larger and larger on our left side as we pushed through the rough waters. Finally, after four miles of paddling, we made it to the island’s shore for lunch. It was well earned. Thanks to a rigorous paddle, we all devoured lunch and enjoyed exploring the small rocky island we stopped on.
From here, we had a mere 1.5-mile push through Reid Harbor, dotted with sailboats, yachts, and things bigger than yachts.
Later that evening, after setting up camp and scarfing down tacos, we began our five-mile round trip trek to Turn Point Lighthouse – the northwesternmost point in the San Juan Islands. The walk, mild by most standards, cuts through the islands, providing glimpses of the houses of those who call Stuart Island home.
At the lighthouse, we watched as the sky unfolded into one of the most magical sunsets I’ve ever seen. The entire sky erupted in a color that would make a hardened general smile.
Day 3: Start Island to San Juan Island – 11.5 miles
With coffee and oatmeal in our bellies, we pulled our kayaks down to the water’s edge and pushed off. Moments later, we passed by a curious otter family of at least eight who stared at us as we drifted past. Not a bad way to start the day!
While paddling in Reid Harbor is easy, we again encountered choppier conditions once we left it to cross over to Henry Island. At this point, we could have taken a shortcut and knocked off time and distance.
However, this route was teaming with boats and planes, so the four of us opted to go to the outside of Henry Island. Even with the longer distance, we still had a chance to stop for a snack and a quick soak for those who wanted it. This was a perfect find day for kayaking San Juan Islands.
I opted in and found the water warm enough not to be uncomfortable as I went under. After spending so much time above the water, it was great to dive under.
Then, we cruised another 15 minutes to our unloading zone, and the trip was over. After spending so much time on the water and away from people, coming back to civilization was a tad foreign. I highly recommend a multi-day San Juan Islands kayaking trip for those looking for a nice break from the chaotic world, coupled with a daily workout.
The chance to see the scenery, learn about the history and culture of the islands, and honestly get a break from the world is so worth it. Even if kayaking isn’t your main hobby, you can go at your own pace, and don’t be afraid of the route or water.
Chances are you won’t even get wet on the trip!
Planning the trip – Kayaking San Juan Islands
Getting to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island isn’t hard, but it requires a small amount of prep work. First, you have to take a ferry from Anacortes to Friday Habor. For a round-trip ticket, it’s $15, which I found reasonable. While there are early morning ferries, spending a night at Friday Harbor might be less stressful, so there’s no chance you will miss your San Juan Island kayaking trip.
Seattle to Anacortes: 90 minutes (driving)
Anacortes to Friday Harbor: 75 minutes (ferry)
What to bring on your San Juan Island kayaking trip
You’ll want to pack light and efficiently. I wore my same long-sleeved sun shirt and bathing suit each day and then had a change of clothes for the campsite. Additionally, I had a puffy jacket for the evenings and sweatpants to sleep in and lounge in. I ended up packing a bit too much, but I wasn’t sure how the weather would be.
They provide you with a tent and more food than ever imagined. I was blown away by how much we had to eat – and it wasn’t crappy food. It was DELICIOUS!
Full packing list for Kayaking San Juan Islands:
- Sleeping bag, pad, and small pillow
- Puffy Jacket, sweat pants, two shirts, beanie, socks, underwear
- Hat, shoes for hiking, water shoes, sunblock, sunglasses
- Two reusable water bottles and a couple of snacks
- Camera, tripod, iPhone, and GoPro
Wrapping Up – Kayaking San Juan Islands
- Make sure to sunscreen up and wear a hat.
- Help with the pre/post meal clean up. Please don’t force your guide to do it all.
- Enjoy the scenery and do what you want on the island. You’ll have ample downtime and enjoy it!
- Tip your guide!
- Have an amazing time on your San Juan Islands kayaking excursion!
Until next time adventurers, take care and be safe.
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