Washington Summer Weekend: Kayak camping in the San Juan Islands

It is a fall of firsts, starting with a weekend in August that featured my first yoga retreat, first time sea kayaking, first time camping from a boat, first time to Friday Harbor, and the list goes on. The weekend involved 11 remarkable women, 6 kayaks, 20+ miles on the water, a hump back whale, lots of laughter, seals, bald eagles, mouthwatering local produce and delicious meals, a quaint BNB, a rainy night in a tent, being wet and cold, delighting in the sun, four Orcas, with a few sessions of yoga thrown in for good measure and a delightful massage to recover from it all. My only regret, the fact this was my first time to the San Juans since high school!

Having not done yoga in six months, and never having had a regular practice, I pictured my uncoordinated flailing amid graceful hard-core yogis and was slightly anxious about how this trip was going to go down. But I needed some more nature (and Gena B. time) this summer and the mixture of time on the water with someone else dealing with all of the logistics of food and gear prep made saying yes to the trip a no-brainer. That, and the fact I immediately put down the deposit so I couldn’t chicken out.

With the official start at 7:45 am Saturday morning, we decided to head up mid-day Friday and stay the night. After some Ticketmaster style tandem coordination to get a better ferry time when additional reservations became available Wednesday morning, we were able to move to a more reasonable mid-afternoon ferry from Anacortes to San Juan (one of many of the San Juan Islands). I.e., ferry reservations are a must, see details below.

First stop on the island was the local wine bar’s back sunny patio. After two weeks of smoke choking us in Seattle, enjoying a clear summer Washington day was even better than usual. We checked into the bed and breakfast we’d be returning to Sunday, and walked around the tiny town.

Early the next day, we met up with our group – nine women in the tour, badass tour guide Kelly, and trip planner and yoga leader Emily. After packing our ill-equipped packed clothes into dry bags and grabbing rain gear, we drove a few minutes and hopped in. The first day involved a nearly full day of paddling from Friday Harbor to Jones Island with two stops. At the first stop, we hopped out and were treated to restrooms and local plums – heavenly. We also met our first raccoon of the trip – a common theme on the smaller islands. Our second stop was even lovelier, including some stretching on the beach, a gourmet lunch featuring local delicacies (Kelly brought her A game in cooking for us, all featuring local product and goodies), and Gena even conjured up a humpback whale to swim past our beach. Unreal.

We stayed at Jones Island, a state park only accessible by boat. We camped on the south end with other kayakers. After hauling up all the gear, we spent the night enjoying our boxed wine while laughing around the camp tables and wondering at the deer that strolled through out campsite (how did they get to this small island??). The persistent and nasty raccoons hissed at every turn trying to get their way with our food. They only got the best of our tea bags. After packing everything back in the kayaks after dinner (the raccoons), we fell asleep to the patter of the incoming rain.

The next morning, we were awoken to already made gourmet coffee and breakfast. Which was greatly appreciated, given the pain radiating through my arms and shoulders. Thank you to whoever packed the extra ibuprofen, which along with the coffee did the trick and allowed me to get back in a boat.

We packed up and headed out for a much rougher paddle. We covered the same distance but with more wind and fewer stops. There were points in Roche Harbor it appeared we may have been moving backwards. After passing the Avanti and pulling our jaws back up, we got some respite, but it was a difficult go. Safely home at San Juan County Park, we devoured the veggies provided for lunch, and headed back to the BnB to take a delightful shower and do some more of the stretchy kind of yoga (the Yogis called it Yin). It did the trick as I woke up not nearly as sore the next day as I had that morning.

Gena and I headed out for the night on our own to the recommended Duck Soup. We were pleasantly surprised by the locavore menu, charming space, and sophisticated cocktail menu. If you go to San Juan island, this is a must visit. Pics & details below.

On our last morning  we were waffling on what to do. We had a mid day ferry, but had both taken the day off and wanted to check out more of the island. We tried to book a tour to see the Orcas the night before and failed, and failed to get in at the high end spa across the island. But everything came together when we got in for massages and then got a call that the whale boat we had wanted to try was now going to go out that day. We moved our ferry reservation and headed out for an action packed day. After relaxing to the max at Earthbox Spa (highly recommended), we boarded a small boat (Spirit of Orca) with only two other guests (Ken takes a maximum of 6), and headed to see the Orcas. Ken was a wonderful and knowledgeable guide, and having only four of us led to a personal experience not matched by the large and packed guided tours we passed. It felt like a friend was showing you the island. Quickly we found the pod and spent more than an hour watching the four orcas glide through the water. Along the way we saw lots of other wildlife and had perfectly calm seas. Ken documents the trip, and puts together a blog post for each visit. You can see his much better photos and summary here at his blog.

All and all, an action packed, active, fun, loving, grateful weekend. It is satisfying to look how far we went on the online map Discovery took for us. I headed back with a full heart, oddly sunburned hands, and renewed commitment to spend more time outside.

Cheers from our group!

Know if you go:

Stay: I’m not typically a BnB person, but had a lovely time staying with Emily’s parents at the Kirk House. If you go, stay in the large Veranda room, adjacent to the wrap around patio. Meals were all excellent (and way too large) and her parents were delightful. Easily walkable to town. Other resort options in the San Juan’s include wedding central Rosario Resort on Orcas,  Earthbox in Friday Harbor with a lovely spa, or alongside the mega yachts at the Roche Harbor Resort in tony Roche Harbor.

Eat (in Friday Harbor):

  • Duck Soup Inn – This is a must! Excellent food in an setting that transforms you to a true resort town. A meal that would have been good even in a major city. Cocktails to match (take a cab there!). We tried one of the other high end places, and Duck Soup won, hands down, no question. GO!
  • For more casual fare, we heard good things about San Juan Island Brewing Company, but didn’t have a chance to try.
  • Worth a drink and appetizer, check out Mike’s Cafe and Wine Bar. Extensive list of glass pours, make sure to get out to the large and hidden back patio. Vegetarian friendly.


Whale Watching:

  • Join Ken on his boat. Reservations needed, boats limited to 6. Spirit of Orca.


  • If staying in Friday Harbor on San Juan, leave the car behind. If you’d like the flexibility of a car, make sure to make reservations in advance (especially on summer weekends) here.


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