Families will always see more detail of the area they’re traveling by car rather than by plane, and even more by bicycle than by car. In the San Juan Islands, there’s no better way to explore this vast network of islands than by kayak.
On our previous trips to the San Juan Islands, we arrived by ferry, then visited two islands: Orcas and San Juan. This time, we decided we were ready for the bigger adventure of a multi-day kayak trip in the San Juan Islands, camping on remoter islands en route. We embarked with Crystal Seas Kayak, setting out on a perfectly sunny June morning. For two nights and three days, nothing stood between us and the tides, islands, sea, and sky.
What to expect on a Crystal Seas Kayak trip:
After booking our Crystal Seas trip, we were emailed a detailed packing list and FAQs, so we’d know what to bring. In a nutshell, we needed personal items such as clothing, sleeping bags, headlamps, sun protection, and toiletries. Crystal Seas provided everything else, including all food (and meal preparation), tents, sleeping pads, kayaks, and of course, guidance in the form of two guides.
We met our guides, Brett and Corey, at a designated pick-up location on San Juan Island. This location is usually the ferry dock at Friday Harbor, but Crystal Seas will work with you if a different pick-up location is more convenient. Both Brett and Corey are local to the islands; having grown up in the San Juans, they knew all the ins and outs of the many islands, currents, and tide flows. We were happy to spend three days with both of them.
We shuttled by van to our put-in spot, the San Juan County Park campground and kayak launch on the east side of the island. We transferred our gear to dry bags, and learned how to load our sea kayaks (they’re like clown cars…it’s amazing how much gear fits!). We headed off by mid-morning, paddling to adjacent Henry Island for our first lunch. We then continued across a few miles of open water to reach Stuart Island, our home for the next two nights.
We paddled approximately 14 miles from our launch site on San Juan Island, but we took most of the day to do it, stopping to look at interesting sites in our kayaks and taking occasional land breaks. As an occasional kayaker (not a total newbie), I didn’t find the distance too strenuous, but we did find it satisfyingly challenging.
Our kids, ages 16, 13, and 10, fared just as well, if not better, than me and my mom, who joined us for this multi-generational trip. The paddling was less challenging for the teens of course, but it was crucial that they listen to instructions by our guides, because while the water looks calm in this part of the Salish Sea most of the time, the currents and tides are to be respected. Without our guides, we absolutely would have made big mistakes, even though we could see land of some sort at all times.
The ‘marine trail’ campsites at Stuart Island’s Reid Harbor are dedicated for human-powered watercraft only, which means kayaks, not motorboats, sailboats, or yachts. The latter can anchor in the bay, and we enjoyed seeing all the watercraft there, but appreciated that the campsites were more isolated, tucked away in the trees just past the beach.
We set up camp before dinner, each group of two finding a spot for their tent and setting it up. We explored the beach and dock, the kids taking a swim (brrr!) and spotting seals, sea stars, and seabirds of all sorts. After appetizers (yes, really!), we sat down to a dinner of salmon, freshly mashed potatoes, and salad with local greens and homemade dressing. Dessert was a pecan pie brought from a local bakery in San Juan (more on food later).
We settled in for the night by 10 pm (when it starts getting dark at this time of year), and while I woke at first light, the kids all slept in. We planned to remain camped in cozy Reid Harbor, taking a day paddle to explore nearby islands and hike. We enjoyed this more leisurely day, but Brett and Corey also offered an alternative itinerary, which would have included packing up and camping at another island, Jones. While Crystal Seas has a general itinerary set for each trip, we found there was a lot of flexibility when possible.
Our Day 2 included a beautiful paddle around Johns Island, where we floated past a colony of seals and looked for orcas in the strait (no luck this time!). We picnicked lunch on a tiny island (I’m sure it has a name, but I don’t know it, and my map shows it only as a speck!), then paddled ‘home’ to Reid Harbor, where we rested (and they kids played on the beach) before our hike up the nearest ridge to view the islands from 800 feet above sea level. This may have been one of my favorite moments on the trip: the view looked like the most perfect 3D map of the islands I could have asked for. In the sunlight under a blue sky, we could see all the way to the Olympics in one direction and Mt. Baker in the other. We spotted all the islands we’d paddled by, and Brett and Corey pointed out Roche Harbor, on the east side of San Juan. It looked surprisingly close, which is a lesson we learned kayaking in this area: distances are very hard to gauge on the water.
We enjoyed another amazing meal, then rewarded the kids with a full buffet of s’mores ingredients. Our teens loved making campfires each night, and having the freedom to explore the campsites and nearby trails.
One of the things that makes backcountry trips, of any sort, so special for our family is the together-time. Without electronics, friends, or schedules in the way, the kids play together like they used to when they had less responsibilities and less social life. This trip was no different. Our youngest got his brothers back, and the teens got their childhood back.
They made swords out of sticks, skipped pebbles, spotted schools of fish, jumped off the dock, and wrestled on fallen logs. In other words, they had untethered ‘boy’ time.
Our last day, we packed up camp early, in order to paddle back to San Juan with the current in our favor. Thank goodness for Brett and Corey, who know these things! We paddled hard the distance back, with few breaks, necessary in this direction, but again, it felt satisfying to accomplish a hard day’s paddle in just a morning! We picnicked lunch back at the put-in spot, then shuttled back to our car. Looking out over the view of the Salish Sea while we ate our last meal together, we weren’t quite ready to leave!
Food on Crystal Seas trips:
In a word, the food is fantastic. We’ve been on several multi-day rafting and kayaking trips, and the food is always good, but Crystal Seas takes it a step further, serving as many local foods as possible. I’d estimate 70% of the foods served were locally sourced or grown. In addition to our salmon meal, we had a wonderful meal of beef and veggie tacos, plus lunches of caprice sandwiches and salmon wraps and breakfasts of bagel sandwiches and yogurt parfaits. There was always fresh fruit, fresh veggies, and snacks like organic chips, top quality trail mix and bars, and spread and dips.
Note: no alternatives to the meal served were offered to children, so if you have a pick eater, let them know ahead of time. They absolutely accommodate all dietary needs, so I’m sure they could accommodate a child who needs a simpler meal. Our teens ate everything in sight, and our 10-year-old like 90% of the meals, but would have been happy with a plain PB&J a few times.
Helpful planning tips:
- If you have a car, but you’ve checked out of your accommodations, park at the courthouse parking lot in Friday Harbor. We parked here on recommendation of Crystal Seas, and our car was secure without a parking fee. They picked us up here, too.
- Organize your gear the night before. While you won’t have your dry bags until you’re at the put-in spot, you don’t want to be organizing your gear from your suitcase or duffle full of clothes at the dock. We set aside all the clothing and personal items we’d need for each person, and packed them in one large packing cube per person. They we only had to transfer the packing cube to the dry bag.
- You’ll get a separate dry bag for your sleeping bag. The best type to bring is a lightweight down or down alternative bag, which packs down smaller than a camping bag.
- Don’t forget any medications you might need. We all needed allergy medication during the trip, and luckily we had it with us. The guides will have a medical kit, so we probably could have left ours in the car.
- Be prepared to get dirty! The campsites are rustic, and there are no showers (though there is a composting toilet at the campground). We brought Wilderness Wipes with us to freshen up a few times.
- Be prepared for all weather. We lucked out with three perfect days, but we all had rain jackets and down sweaters with us, as well as gloves and beanie knit hats for everyone. On the flip side, we also had sunglasses (a must on the water!) and sun hats.
- You’ll have a ‘skirt’ on in the kayak, keeping your lower half dry, so don’t worry about being wet and cold while paddling. Arms will get a bit wet from the paddles, but if it makes you cold, wear a rain jacket under your life vest.
- Don’t forget to tip your guides. Our worked so hard…they definitely deserved it!
Disclosure: we experienced Crystal Seas on a media rate, for the purpose of review. As always, all opinions are our own.