Kayak The San Juan Islands: A Detailed Guide & Itinerary
Everything you need to know to kayak the San Juan Islands included the best time to visit, what to pack and a sample itinerary!
Washington’s San Juan Islands are home to quaint towns, beautiful landscapes, and a multitude of outdoorsy activities. However, I’m not going to lie, the number one reason I planned a trip to the San Juan Islands is because I’m obsessed with whales.
That’s right, the San Juan Islands offer great whale watching opportunities, and what better way to see whales than on a multi-day kayaking trip?!
Kayaking in the San Juan Islands
How To Get To The San Juan Islands
There are a few different ways of getting to the San Juan Islands, and each has its own benefits.
For a great way to see the islands from the water, either walk or drive aboard the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes. This ferry will take you straight into Friday Harbor after stopping at Lopez Island, Shaw Island, and Orcas Island.
Additionally, there is a boat called the San Juan Clipper that will take you straight from downtown Seattle to Friday Harbor in just three and a half hours.
If you’re bringing a car to the island, we recommend making a reservation in advance — especially if you’re traveling between the months of May and September. Walk-ons don’t need a reservation.
For a unique opportunity to see the islands from above, there are several regional flight options into the San Juan Islands that fly out of Boeing Field in Seattle, Lake Union, or Lake Washington.
What to Expect On A Multi-Day Kayaking Trip in the San Juan Islands
On my trip with Discovery Sea Kayaks, we kayaked about six miles per day over two days, although the distance varies trip-to-trip depending on each group’s ability (you don’t have to be an expert kayaker by any means!).
While taking the two-day trip was a great adventure, looking back I absolutely wish I had given myself more time. After all, the more days spent on the water, the greater chance there is of seeing whales!
Discovery Sea Kayaks provides all the camping gear you’ll need on your trip, but know that you will be responsible for the set up and take down of this equipment at camp.
Additionally, all meals on your trip will be provided and I found them to be delicious, healthy, and locally sourced from organic gardens and local farms. If you have any dietary restrictions, let the team know ahead of time and they’ll be more than happy to accommodate your needs.
Read more: Kayaking With Whales in Johnstone Strait
My Kayaking Trip Itinerary in the San Juan Islands
Note that this is a rough guide as itineraries tend to change based on the needs of the group, weather, tides, and other unforeseen reasons.
To begin our adventure, my group departed from Jackson Beach near Friday Harbor and we made our way out of Griffin Bay and into the San Juan Channel. From there, we kayaked until we reached Jones Island State Park near Orcas Island, where we camped for the night.
After leaving Jones Island State Park, we crossed San Juan Channel to Spieden Channel along the north shore of San Juan Island. From there, we took a break at the gorgeous Posey Island State Park before turning tail and heading back to Jackson Beach.
Although I was crunched for time, had I gone on to take the three-day tour I would have visited both Smallpox Bay and San Juan County Park on the west side of San Juan Island. Also, if you opt for a longer trip, your group can choose to spend a day of rest on one of the islands; hiking and taking short trips in your kayaks.
The Best Time to Visit the San Juan Islands
While the weather in the San Juan Islands tends to stay fairly mild year round, if you visit between June and September you’ll find the warmest weather, least amount of rain, and best opportunities for whale watching.
Additionally, the summer months are also the best time to find bioluminescence in the water. The bioluminescence is due to a microorganism in the water called Noctiluca that, when disturbed, emits a sparking green light. To witness this awesome natural spectacle, tours can be arranged through Discovery Sea Kayaks.
Read more: Best Weekend Getaways In Washington State
How Long to Stay in the San Juan Islands
To fully grasp the island vibe and experience the best of what the San Juan Islands have to offer, I would recommend staying at least three, preferably four, days. Remember, the longer your trip, the better your chances of seeing whales.
Read more: The Ultimate Packing Checklist for Campers
San Juan Islands Kayaking Trip Packing Essentials
Waterproof Gear: To keep yourself and your personal items dry, I recommend bringing along a 20L dry bag for clothing, a 10L dry bag for camera gear, a pair of waterproof pants, a rain jacket, a pair of water shoes, paddling gloves, and a LifeProof case for your phone.
Layers: Packing clothing for a variety of outdoor conditions is key, and layering (non-cotton) clothing plays a big role in this. Be sure to pack base layer top and bottoms, a pair of fleece-lined leggings, a quick-dry hoodie, moisture wicking underwear, a long-sleeved fleece, and moisture-wicking socks.
Toiletries: Being exposed to the elements, you’re going to want to bring along both bug spray and sunscreen.
Whale Watching Gear: To capture your whale experiences, be sure to bring along a pair of binoculars, a waterproof casing for your camera or a GoPro, and a telephoto lens for either your phone or camera.
sounds like a great adventure! I came across your article as I am planning a trip to San Juan Islands soon. I would love to see whales and kayaking sounds like the perfect opportunity to get close, if lucky… So I was wondering: Did you see whales while kayaking? Would you recommend to to a whale watching trip by boat (as well)? Are there options to see whales from the shore or is that rather rare?
Many thanks for your advice!
I did not see whales while kayaking, but we did hear them. We had a very foggy day so it wasn’t safe for us to cross the strait to get to them. I did see them by boat — I highly recommend booking both! I think it’s probably rare to see them from shore but that doesn’t stop me from trying. 🙂 Enjoy your trip!!
I like your post and just looking at the pictures it seems amazing place to visit. Thanks for sharing it.
The bioluminescence is due to a microorganism in the water called Noctiluca that, when disturbed, emits a sparking green light.