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San Juan Islands Family Kayaking: PNW Bucket-List Adventure

A local mom shares why this family tour is more accessible than you might think

Published on: June 10, 2024

San Juans kayaking looking ahead at Big J paddle partner
Photo:
Natasha Dillinger

Picture this: You’re swaying in your hammock with a cup of coffee and a book, your kids are running free in the forest nearby and a breakfast feast you didn’t cook awaits your family’s hungry bellies. Oh, did I forget to mention that you paddled 8 miles to a semi-remote San Juan island for this slice of paradise?

On your San Juan Islands family kayaking trip, a hammock provides the perfect place to relax amid the paddling adventures
Relaxing in between paddling adventures. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Next-level camping

In a typical summer, our family camps a few times and takes out a paddleboard or kayak more often. So, while we aren’t quite outdoor novices, a lengthy paddle or hike with kids out to a far-flung campsite has always felt a little daunting — what if we forget a critical piece of gear or stumble into dangerously unfamiliar territory?

Enter San Juan Outfitters. In my quest to find an expert to lead our foray into next-level camping, I came across the tour provider’s multiday kayaking trips specifically designed for families. I jumped at the opportunity to experience this Pacific Northwest summer bucket-list adventure!

San Juan Islands family kayaking trips feature double kayaks so you can paddle with your child
Paddling together. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Read on for everything you need to know about our family kayaking tour and get ready to book your own kayak camping adventure to the stunning San Juan Islands.

Will kayak camping float your boat?

Booking a family kayaking trip has very few restrictions: Your copilot for your double kayak must be at least 6 years old, but otherwise most reasonably active families will find it accessible.

Multiday kayaking tours for families typically head out to Jones Island Marine State Park, a roughly two- to three-hour paddle from your launch point on San Juan Island. The difficulty of reaching Jones Island depends on weather conditions — and how much your chosen copilot agrees to paddle. (Spoiler: My 7-year-old in the front seat of our double kayak preferred fishing for seaweed).

What we loved about our family kayaking trip

An expert guide. We took this trip with a family friend and her son, and both kids are still talking about our guide, Kato. He skillfully shepherded us on channel crossings, gave the kids pro paddling tips, took us to the best spots on the island and made scrambled eggs that I can never hope to replicate.

A San Juan Outfitters guide leading a family kayaking tour teaches young guests how to build a fire
Life lessons for the kids. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Gourmet (yet kid-friendly!) food. Kato says it’s the “outdoors effect,” but our kids ate so well on this adventure. Our favorite meals included barbecue pork sandwiches, fish tacos with guacamole made tableside and the aforementioned scrambled eggs with toasted baguettes and goat cheese. Served family-style so everyone could build their own plates, meals included local and organic ingredients that catered to our friends’ gluten-free needs.

A kayak tour in Washington's San Juan Islands includes gourmet kid-friendly meals prepared by a guide and your kids
Helping prepare lunch. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Quality outdoor gear. We received a pre-trip packing list and 20-liter dry bags for our items, but you can forget about all the heavy things like tents, sleeping bags and the most obvious thing: kayaks. Staff members even packed everything into the kayaks to ensure a snug fit.

How we spent our days

Have you heard the joke about a vacation with kids feeling more like a trip? So. Much. Work. Our tour managed to strike the perfect balance between on-the-go activities and relaxation.

Kayaks docked at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, the departure point for a family kayaking tour
Roche Harbor, the launch point for the kayak tour. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Our family kayaking itinerary included:

Paddling. On our kayaking tour, we paddled roughly two to three hours per day. Our first day, we paddled about 8 miles out to Jones Island, and on our middle day, we paddled about 4 miles on a circuit around a few smaller islands. In the relatively good conditions we experienced, this felt about as tiring as a moderate hike, but without the ease of stopping for off-trail bathroom breaks. Strong winds or currents could make the trip more challenging.

San Juan Islands family kayaking trips feature double kayaks so you can paddle with your child
Fishing for seaweed. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Hiking. My sister-in-law has taught me to call mini hikes a “ramble,” to avoid striking fear into the heart of hike-hating children. So take a ramble around the relatively flat Jones Island Trail and you’ll end up at several rocky outcroppings that are perfect for watching the sunset or sunrise.

San Juan Islands family kayaking trips to Jones Island feature gorgeous summer sunset viewpoints
Ramble to a stunning sunset view. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Watching wildlife. We saw a harbor porpoise, many harbor seals and bald eagles from our kayaks. The San Juans have no large land predators, so deer came and went through our campsite like they were part of the group.

Peeking in tide pools. The rocky substrate around the island provides the perfect habitat for intertidal exploration. You’ll spot sea stars, sea cucumbers, chitons and more.

Looking at tide pools in the San Juan Islands on a family kayaking trip
Peeking into tide pools on the San Juan Islands. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Relaxing. My chronic case of FOMO (fear of missing out) usually means I jam-pack my trips, but even I managed to chill a bit. During our downtime, I read an entire book because the kids played independently — not a screen in sight — and then peppered our guide with their endless chorus of “why” questions. No regrets.

Tips to make your family kayaking trip a success

Your homework for this adventure is essentially zilch, but you’ll want a few tips to make sure your trip exceeds expectations.

Prepare your muscles. You don’t need to go full Beast Mode for this trip, but it pays to add some strengthening exercises to your routine, especially if you’re traveling with young children who might not pull their weight. Don’t forget your core and shoulders!

Arrive early and depart late. Due to staffing shortages, ferries to the San Juan Islands are a bit unpredictable. We booked a vehicle reservation two months in advance and chose to stay in Friday Harbor for one night on either side of the trip.

Tucker House Inn family suite in Friday Harbor provides a jumping off point for kayaking the San Juan Islands
A family suite at Tucker House Inn. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Having extra time to explore the island and prepare for any surprises gave us peace of mind — and made the trip more fun. I won’t lie, it was also nice to sleep in a comfy bed at Tucker House Inn and have access to a hot shower after a few days of almost roughing it.

Kids play games at the Tucker House In on San Juan Island a Friday Harbor jumping off point for family kayaking tour
Relaxing at Tucker House Inn. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Ask for what you need. For our tour, we completed a guest questionnaire beforehand. It pays to be thorough here. San Juan Outfitters will adapt meal plans to accommodate a range of dietary restrictions or provide a shuttle between Friday Harbor (where the ferry docks) and Roche Harbor (where the kayak tour begins) for those without a car. Disclosing medical conditions that might affect your trip is also essential. Our guide told us he once provided emergency first aid to a guest of another company’s tour who hadn’t listed an allergy.

Pack a few activities. Compact hammocks were the MVP “extra” item on our trip. For the kids, we also had collapsible buckets, water blasters, some coloring supplies and games (although we never used the games). With the unexpected downtime, we adults appreciated our having our books to read and binoculars to scout wildlife.

More things to do on San Juan Island

Ready to spend more time on San Juan Island? Here are a few ideas to keep you busy:

Explore a lighthouse. Lime Kiln Point State Park offers a small visitor center and some of the best opportunities to spot whales from land. On summer Saturdays, from 7 p.m. until dusk, you can climb to the top of the lighthouse for sunset views.

When visiting Washington's San Juan Islands, join the annual Orca Sing for a better chance to see whales
The annual Orca Sing brought a whale sighting. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

We celebrated Orca Action Month by attending the annual Orca Sing. Held on the third Saturday in June for more than 20 years, attendees gather to honor the island’s most beloved residents with songs and Tlingit blessings. A humpback whale even graced us with its presence during the choir’s opening song!

The lighthouse at Cattle Point on San Juan Island is a pretty stop among San Juans Islands family activities including kayaking san juan islands
The lighthouse at Cattle Point. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Access to Lime Kiln requires a Discover Pass, but check out Cattle Point Lighthouse for a free option. We explored tide pools and took a short beach ramble with our kayaking guide while we waited for the right tides for departure.

Check out kid-friendly art. We enjoyed the San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, located near Roche Harbor. The 20-acre park hosts 150 creations in a welcoming outdoor environment. Entry is free (donations accepted) and you’ll find several interactive elements to keep kids engaged. While the park is open from dawn to dusk year-round, you can participate in collaborative art-making on summer Saturdays, 2–4 p.m.

Family activities on the San Juan Islands including visiting the interactive San Juans Sculpture Park
A stop at the San Juans Sculpture Park. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

Learn about whales. To learn more about marine mammals that live in the San Juans, take a short walk from the ferry and visit the Whale Museum. Listen to orca calls, sit underneath their skeletons and check out the most recent whale sightings around the island.

Learn about whales at the San Juans’ whale museum in Friday Harbor
Visit the Whale Museum. Photo: Natasha Dillinger

If you have your heart set on seeing whales in the wild, book a boat tour for the best chance. There are several options for reputable tour companies with a history of adhering to respectful observation practices. We went out with San Juan Safaris (the tour arm of San Juan Outfitters) on its Adventure Tour. While we didn’t see any orcas, we did spot a humpback whale, a swimming eagle, and lots of porpoises and seals.

Explore a farm. Pop into Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm to see the fluffy and cute animals whose wool packs a warm punch for our chilly winters.

The nitty-gritty details

I bet by now your finger is hovering over the “reserve” button, so here are a few last details you’ll need.

Tour options and cost: San Juan Outfitters offers a two- or three-day family kayaking trip ($679/person or $879/person, respectively, plus gratuity for your guides). If you’re not quite ready to take the plunge on a multiday excursion, check out the three-hour family kayaking tours (starting at $125/person). The minimum age for family tours is 6 years old, while standard tour guests must be at least 13.

Season: The San Juan Islands are spectacular year-round and you’ll find lodging deals and fewer crowds in the off-season. Most kayaking tours operate from roughly April or May through to late September.

Where to eat: Enjoy waterfront views, seafood-forward dishes and a fantastic kids’ menu at Downriggers in Friday Harbor or Madrona Bar & Grill in Roche Harbor. We picked up a pre-whale-watching coffee from Salty Fox, ice cream from Yo! Friday Harbor and snuck in a quick glass of wine on the patio at Everelse before our return ferry. Friday Harbor Marketplace offered picnic provisions for our sunset lighthouse dinner and lunch aboard the whale-watching cruise.

Lodging: We stayed a short walk from the ferry at Tucker House Inn & Harrison Suites in the Lopez Suite. Family suites ($330–$500 per night in peak season) sleep 4–10 people on comfy mattresses, with a full kitchen and refreshing shower. Innkeepers deliver breakfast to your door between 8 and 10 a.m., or you can request a protein-packed grab-and-go option featuring a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit, a hard-boiled egg and cheese.

More island fun: If you want to island-hop or are looking for more things to do in the San Juans, don’t miss our guide to the islands or these camping recommendations.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2023 and has been updated and fact-checked by associate editor Kari Hanson for your 2024 adventure. 

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