Best Island Hopping
Sea kayak through the San Juans’ emerald water, camp on wild beaches, and call orcas by name.
Don’t judge the San Juan Islands by the lines of traffic waiting to board the ferry at Anacortes. Those other folks are there for the islands’ quaint towns, busy lodges, and ubiquitous smoked salmon. As a paddler, you can find serenity (and salmon, too) while striking out into one of the planet’s premier sea kayaking destinations. A rain shadow cast by the Olympic Mountains creates surprisingly clear weather for the Northwest, with sweet sunsets and good visibility for the life-list sights: orcas and other whales, Dall’s porpoises, bald eagles perched in 200-foot Douglas firs, and scores of secluded islands on which to wash up for the night.
For a low-mileage weekend trip, head to Stuart Island, a 5-mile paddle from Roche Harbor on San Juan’s north end (add 5 miles if you start at Friday Harbor, where the ferry docks). The current in the mile-wide channel crossing can be strong and fast, so check tide charts (aim to start toward the end of a flood tide; www.saltwatertides.com). Camp at Prevost Harbor for beachfront sites, and be sure to hike the 3-mile dirt road to an abandoned clifftop lighthouse with sensational views across the Haro Strait to the Canadian Gulf Islands. Keep a lookout for the San Juans’ famed orcas–more than 80 named individuals inhabit the strait from May to October. Got more time? Make your way to the remote islands north of Orcas Island–Clark, Matia, Sucia, and Patos. Arrange kayak rentals through the folks at Discovery Sea Kayaks (www.discoveryseakayak.com); they can set you up with a local guide to come along and help with route-planning, navigation, and paddling, while you bring your own food and gear.
Get there Board the ferry at Anacortes (70 miles north of Seattle via I-5). Kayak rentals, groceries, and other services are available at Friday Harbor. Ferry info: (800) 843-3779; www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries
Season May through September; avoid the busiest midsummer weekends
Difficulty Moderate. Basic sea kayaking skills are required, but wind and current can create challenging conditions. Beginners should not attempt open-water crossings without a guide.
Contact Washington State Parks, (360) 902-8844; www.sanjuanislandsdirectory.com