Kayaking the San Juans' Marine Trail

June 2, 2016

By Amy Whitley

Photo at right: Kayaks await passengers on the San Juan Islands Marine Trail. Photo by Amy Whitley


The San Juan Islands’ Marine Trail, operated by the Washington Water Trails Association, connects islands and points of interest from Olympia to Canada, crossing from San Juan Island adjacent to Haro Strait to wrap around tiny islands, some too small to bear a name.

Accessible only by wind or human-powered boat or kayak, this ocean “trail” links campsites at Henry Island, Jones Island and beyond, providing isolation even while granting accessibility.

From the highest vantage point on remote Stuart Island, Washington, it’s possible to see as far as the Olympic Mountain Range in one direction and Mt. Baker in the other. To the southwest, civilization in the form of bustling Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, looks deceptively close on clear days; in fact, it’s nearly 14 miles away…by sea kayak.

I have previously explored this corner of the Northwest by ferry and even sea plane, but until I toured the islands by the power of my own paddle, I had no idea what I’d been missing.

With the right outfitter, a multi-day paddle along the marine trail offers camping where few others can reach, the opportunity to glimpse amazing marine life, and a workout on par with an excursion on any hiking trail.

Our two-night, three-day kayak expedition with Crystal Seas Kayaking proved to be the perfect introduction to the fun of the marine trail for everyone in our party, from active grandparents to school-aged children.

After learning how to pack 72 hours of food, clothing, and camping gear into the storage hulls of four kayaks we set off from San Juan County Park, on the northeast side of San Juan Island. For the first several miles, we hugged the shore of nearby Henry Island while we got our sea legs (or rather, sea arms), then crossed the open seas with the assistance of our two guides.

It took us most the day to reach our marine trail campsite on scenic Stuart Island, but we hardly noticed. Along the way we stopped for a gourmet picnic on a pebbly beach, scanned the ocean for orcas, and spotted eagles perched in the tree tops of waterfront evergreens.

Entering the calm waters at Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, we marveled at the sailboats that had dropped anchor offshore, and our kids eyed the beach, eager to get out of the kayaks to explore what felt like their very own island.

During our midweek, early summer trip, we had our pick of campsites and pitched our tents in protected groves just inland from the harbor. While our guides prepared our evening meal of salmon and organic local greens, we hiked the island, climbed trees and even swam.

Our stomachs full, we wondered down to the water as the sun set, just in time to witness feeding time for a family of seals.

We spent the next day paddling around the adjacent tiny islands, discovering more wildlife, learning how to navigate currents and tides, and playing on rocky, driftwood-strewn beaches.

By the time we climbed 800 feet above sea level to take in the view above our campsite, we felt like we’d been detached from the buzz of San Juan’s pleasant, yet touristy, towns for weeks instead of days.

The next morning, we slowly broke camp, reluctant to release our claim on this “hidden” side of the San Juan Islands. The kids took one last swim before donning life vests and grabbing their paddles, and we reached the shore of San Juan Island (and our car) by mid-afternoon.

We spent several more vacation days on the island before we ferried back to the mainland, but in one way, we felt as though we’d already seen it all.

If You Go:

  • Book your tour with one of San Juan Island’s expert guided services. While it seems simple to kayak without a guide, ocean currents should only be navigated by experienced kayakers.
  • Before your trip, ask your outfitter specific questions about meals, in case of allergies or food preferences. Once on the marine trail, there are no grocery stores.
  • Pack light, but make your wardrobe work hard for you: pack layers, including beanie hats, light gloves and rain gear.
  • Bring any necessary medications, but leave the first-aid kit to the guides.
  • Multi-day tours start at $399 per person with Crystal Seas Kayaking.


Washington Water Trails Association: wwta.org

San Juan Marine Trail: wwta.org/water-trails/cascadia-marine-trail

Crystal Seas Kayaking: crystalseas.com

Amy Whitley is an outdoor travel writer and family travel blogger at Pit Stops for Kids. She makes her home in Southern Oregon, where she rafts the Rogue, kayaks and backpacks with her husband and three boys.