Kayaking the San Juan Islands: Lopez to Jones Island

A few years ago I did a day tour kayaking San Juan island from Roche Harbour with orcas and I was hooked! There is no better way to see these majestic creatures than from a kayak on the water with them.

When researching multi day kayak expeditions to spend more time exploring the local waters, I was put off by the high cost so in the summer of 2016, 9 friends and I decided to plan our own epic paddle trip in this area in search of orcas, other wildlife, and fun times.

Trip Length: 3 days
1 night at Odlin campground on Lopez Island
1 night on Jones Island
1 more night at Odlin campground on Lopez Island

The most challenging part of planning a trip like this was finding a kayak rental. Unfortunately, the kayak rental places on San Juan Island all require level 4 kayak certification and although most people in our group were experienced paddlers, nobody had this formal certification. We took this as a cautionary note and opted to avoid that specific area and opted for the more protected route from Lopez Island to Jones Island. This was not actually a published route we found anywhere however through communication with Lopez kayaks and checking out a few maps online, it seemed feasible.

*Note* This was an unguided tour that comes with significant risks for the inexperienced paddler. Ensure you understand tides/currents/kayak rescues before attempting this.

Advance Planning:

  • Ferry reservation – Washington state ferries doesn’t charge for reservations and their ferry fees were a breath of fresh air compared to our expensive BC Ferries. If travelling on a long weekend or on a tight timeline, you may want to book your reservation in advance here.
  • Kayak reservation – The kind folks at Lopez Kayaks were incredible and provided us with quality gear at decent prices. Book your kayaks here.
  • Book accommodations before/after your trip. We stayed on Lopez island at Odlin Park which was perfect. They had a great group fire pit with privacy of our own campsites. There is a little beach right at the campsite which was great for hanging out. Note: This campsite does not have showers but we were able to find a public shower in Lopez village and otherwise this site was perfect. 
Kayaking at sunrise from Jones Island back to Lopez Island

The Journey

We started with the 1.5 hour drive from Vancouver to Anacortes (add: border wait for long weekend traffic making it more like 2.5 hours, or get a Nexus card)

If coming from Vancouver like us, you may want to stop in Bellingham at Fred Meyer and/or Trader Joes to grab all your cheap booze and food for the trip as the Lopez Island grocery options are more expensive and a bit limited.

Detour: If you have more time, you may want to visit other spots in the San Juan Islands, or on the mainland, Deception Pass State Park or Larrabee State Park.

We arrived a day early to enjoy Lopez Island, checking out shark reef sanctuary (there aren’t actually any sharks here!) and the local businesses.

Beach at Odlin Park on Lopez Island

The next day we went to Lopez Kayaks to launch in line with the currents. We gave ourselves plenty of time to pack our gear into the kayaks and confirm our route with the rental place.

Although we had a printed map with us, we relied on Google maps on our phones. This is not a good idea and there were several queries as to exactly where Jones Island was. Bring a proper compass, paper map, and some basic marine navigation knowledge. Thankfully this route is quite straightforward, primarily hugging the west side of Shaw Island. The only slightly scary part was the open water crossing intersecting the ferry route. Just as we started the crossing we saw a ferry coming and knew we would have to paddle hard and fast. We made the crossing but you may want to note ferry times to avoid this drama. We paddled on a clear, calm day but I imagine this crossing wouldn’t be much fun if there were strong winds or you were paddling against the current.

There were plenty of little beach landing stops along Shaw Island, allowing us to break up the paddle with a lunch stop. Our total time from leaving Lopez Kayaks to arriving at Jones Island was approximately 6 hours at a leisurely pace, including stops and breaks.

We arrived at Jones Island with plenty of time to set up our campsite and explore the island, meet the local deer,  and watch a breathtaking sunset from the west side of the island. You do not require advance reservations to camp at Jones Island and payment is based on the honour system for their super affordable overnight camping rates. They have fresh drinking water but no shower facilities.

Sunset on Jones Island, facing San Juan Island

The next morning we had to wake up at 4 am to catch the ideal current back to Lopez Island. We woke up to some fierce winds and opted to monitor it until it was safe to paddle out. Thankfully the winds died down within an hour or two and we were able to launch and paddle out while the sun was finishing rising. As we paddled in the calm, morning water, a pod of dolphins joined us for a short time.

Dolphins just after sunrise near Shaw Island

The paddle back was short and sweet, approximately 4 hours leaving us the rest of the day

There are many safety considerations for ocean kayaking. One does not just jump in a kayak and paddle along their merry way. Despite our lack of formal training in this, we were able to plan a route that was both safe, and efficient, going with the currents with only a small amount of research.

We wanted to make sure we had a minimum of 6 people (3 double kayaks) to allow for a rescue while calling for help if necessary. We ended up  with 10 people (5 double kayaks) which was even better and thankfully, unneeded.

The primary resource for kayaking this area is the current Atlas for the Juan de Fuca Strait and then you can access the updated tables online here. You can find a copy of the Atlas at your local library as finding one to purchase can be difficult. At first I was super overwhelmed by these tables but they’re actually quite easy to understand. The folks at Lopez Kayaks did an amazing job helping us understand them and plan what time we’d have to return the second day.

Packing list:

  • Cotton is rotten – pack quick dry, non cotton clothing you can layer, including thin long sleeves to shelter you from the sun.
  • Dry bags – or large zip lock bags to keep your stuff in. Break your stuff into smaller bags to allow it to fit into the kayak hatches.
  • Pack the most compact/small camping gear you can find. This is not the time for that massive queen size blow up mattress, or the blow up beer cooler (they do not tow behind a kayak well)
  • Matches and a lighter – you can have campfires on Jones Island!
  • Sour kids, Slim Jims and other easy to access snacks for quick energy while paddling.
  • Water! Although there is drinkable water on Jones Island, you will be paddling in the sun for several hours. Pack enough water for the journey.
  • An Ironman athlete to do the paddling for you. Even though kayaking in double kayaks is easier, this is ocean paddling and you want to ensure your fitness is up to the trip, or that you are sharing a kayak with someone athletic enough to paddle for the both of you.
  • The kayak rental company will provide you with your PFD, spray skirt, whistle, and all the other essential paddle gear with the exception of a VHF radio. You may want to rent one of these for safety (or for listening to whale watching channels to hear where the whales are)

Other Useful Links:

https://www.outdoorproject.com/adventures/washington/paddling/jones-island-sea-kayaking

https://www.visitsanjuans.com/what-to-do