San Juan Islands Kayaking Travel Article
San Juan Island to Stuart Island

This report describes a sea kayaking paddle to Stuart Island, the western most island of the San Juan Islands group in Washington State.

My wife and I went with a local San Juan Island outfitter for this trip. We are very experienced inland paddlers but we are more than willing to pay for local knowledge when venturing out onto the ocean. Our guides provided navigation, local knowledge of the history of the area and its wildlife - and they cooked for us!

Photos seen here show sea kayaking scenes starting at San Juan Island paddling the west coast and crossing to Stuart Island in Washington State.

We had a fairly large "pod" of kayakers,14 in all, included five tandems for the other 10 guests, my wife and I brought our singles and our two guides also paddled singles. Departing from San Juan County Park (aka Smallpox Bay) we headed north along San Juan Island.

Smallpox Bay is a busy sea kayak launching point with adjoining campground and a limited amount of multi-day parking. I would suggest you carpool or if going with an outfitter arrange to meet your guides at a different location. We met and parked at Friday Harbor. Most of the guests in our party left their cars in Anacortes and walked onto the ferry with their gear to meet the guides at Friday Harbor.

Our trip, taking three days at the beginning of August, happened to be blessed with sunny skies, calm waters and limited boat traffic. Our plan was to paddle to Stuart Island (6.5 miles north of Roche Harbor), spend two nights on Stuart at a campground, spending one day circumnavigating Stuart then on the third day return to Roche Harbor where the outfitting company would pick us up and our gear (and boats). In total this was roughly a 30 mile paddle.

Heading north along the west side of San Juan island our group kept its eyes out for whale, harbor seals and river otters. Three pods of individually identified Orca whales roam up and down the west side of San Juan Island and into Canadian waters feeding on migrating schools of salmon. Between May and October you have a fairly high chance of spotting surfacing whales. We spotted seals and river otters but no whale on this trip.

Our pod paddled north from San Juan County Park and crossed to the west side of Henry Island. Taking a lunch stop on Henry Island we enjoyed the curious antics of a harbor seal spying on our group, then diving, then surfacing and spying once again.

Rather than cross direction to Stuart from the top of Henry Island, our group crossed Spieden Channel on a path toward the west edge of Spieden Island and then when near Spieden Island we changed direction and completed the crossing to Stuart.

At first we thought they were kidding when our guides told us that Spieden Island used to have on it an African game farm. Turns out this north west corner of the San Juan Islands is in the Vancouver Island rain shadow. The climate is dry enough to have hosted an African game farm on Spieden and to have two islands, the Cactus Islands (named for the dry climate) located just north of Spieden.

Several of the smaller islands in the area are designated as wildlife sanctuaries. Other islands are privately owned. Check ahead of time regarding paddler access, since landing on these islands is prohibited.

Stuart has two well-protected coves, Prevost and Reid harbors, separated by a narrow finger of land, which includes the Stuart Island State Park. Prevost Harbor lies to the north of this finger of land and Reid Harbor to the south. Both harbors offer mooring floats and buoys provided by the state. Reid also has two floating docks (kind of dock islands) which when we paddled by were being used by several very large boats. Our guide told us these dock "islands" were established in an effort to protect the eelgrass on the harbor floor. Medium and smaller sized boats were anchored in singles and pairs within the harbor.

The u-shaped Reid harbor is roughly three-quarters of a mile long. It seems longer after you've paddled into it and out of it several times. Wildlife includes river otters, eagles, seals, cormorants, nighthawks, pigeon guillemots, deer, and the ever-present sea gulls.

At the end of the harbor is a pebbly shoreline offering two designated campgrounds and a boat ramp. As you approach the shore, the boat ramp is at the right (south) edge, one campground is next to the boat ramp and the other campground is at the north end of the cove. In total there are 22 primitive campsites, including 4 reserved for only non-motorized boats.

Our group camped in the south campground. The campground has four designated campsites, each large enough to accommodate more than one tent, and sporting a picnic table and fire pit. There is running water and an outhouse at this campground.

Stuart offers a couple different hikes: one, to Turn Point light on the west tip of the island. A second hike will take you to the island school and the museum. Our group paddled clockwise around the island, appreciating the interesting shoreline carved out by time and tides. We paddled to the shear cliffs (Lover's Leap) near Turn Point which house a cormorant rookery and appreciated the silent grandeur of the Turn Point light from the comfort of our kayaks. Paddling along the north shoreline of Stuart you feel like a very small blip in a large and open stretch of water. North of you is a view of Boundary Pass, the Canadian North and South Pender Islands and as you paddle a bit further West you gain a view of the Straight of Georgia.

Returning to Reid Harbor for the evening we once again appreciate the million dollar views of the harbor from our campground. This is a wonderful spot!

Unfortunately, the next morning called for our return to San Juan Island and "civilization." Our guides timed crossings and lunch or rest breaks so we avoided paddling in strong currents or windy conditions. Keep in mind that winds can kick up unexpectedly and be sure to check the chart for local tides and currents. It can make all the difference between a pleasant paddle and a real work out.

Our group took a short break on Posey Island, located north of Pearl Island, just outside of the north entrance to Roche Harbor. The heaviest boat traffic we encountered was at that spot just north of the entrance to Roche Harbor. I know that motor and sailboats are supposed to let kayakers pass but we ended up playing stop and go for nearly 30 minutes before having safe entry to the shoreline of Pearl Island, then over to Posey, and then into Roche Harbor.

Finally our pod silently paddled into the harbor dwarfed by the pleasure craft we paddled by on the way to a sandy boat ramp and take out. What a terrific trip (all told roughly 30 miles in distance). Again, consider going with an outfitter at least for the first time.

For more information:

Washington Water Trails Association:

The Cascadia Marine Trail is a salt water trail that stretches over 140 miles, from the Canadian border on the north to southernmost Puget Sound near Olympia.

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