Discovering James Island, San Juans

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Person in kayak on the water

I’ll just get this out of the way before we discuss logistics- James Island was a highlight of our San Juans trip!

I’m sure part of the anticipation and joy was due to several days of rough weather and strategic boating to reach this point, but it still felt magical to reach an island completely of our own.

Don’t mind the beautiful steel dock, restroom facilities, trail around the island… it felt like we discovered this island!

For many boaters heading to the San Juan Islands from Anacortes or Deception Pass, James Island is an easy passage and obvious first stop.

On this October day in 2023, we cruised from Cornet Bay County Park (just east of Deception Pass) to James Island at 6-8 knots in about 1.5 hours. Along the way, we stopped in at the Skyline Marina for fuel and a grocery refresh.

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Boat at dock as viewed through the woods
Our 36′ Grand Banks Pallin’ Around (along with a few kayaks) nestled on the end of the 256-foot dock on the West Bay of James Island (October 2023).
Man standing on deck of boat at dock
Pallin’ Around finally made it to the San Juans!

Accessing James Island, San Juans

James Island is only accessible by boat and has no potable water, trash service or residents. The entire 581-acre island has been a Washington State Park since 1974.

Three separate campgrounds around the island offer three vault toilets and 13 campsites for boaters/kayakers along with multiple mooring buoys. The southern side of the island has a 1.5 mile trail that meanders through forests and ventures out along bluffs. Dogs are welcome as long as they are on a leash (please pick up after yourself).

Kayaking James Island

It took us about 1.5 hours to leisurely paddle around James Island. We departed from the state park dock on the west side of the island, headed north and around the eastern side of the island hugging the shoreline.

Person in kayak on the water
Paddling between the kelp beds (to the left) and the rocky shore minimizes the impact of waves- as long as you are paying attention!
Kayak behind a boat at dock
Departing from the dock in a tandem kayak.
Woman kayaking on the water
James Island has a captivating coastline- including many seals and birds enjoying a beautiful day!

Scuba/Snorkeling at James Island

As an avid diver, I was itching to get beneath the water at James Island! I could not find any dive reports online or among local divers for this site. Not be dissuaded, I jumped into the water with shore support and explored the south-western cove to a depth of 40′.

I discovered a steadily sloping rock wall lined with sparse kelp, many crabs, nudibranchs, and fish. The visibility was more limited than I had hoped for (10-15′). However, as is very important with ANY San Juan Islands dive, I noted that we had a slack current before my dive. Currents in this area are notoriously strong and dangerous!

Campfires at James Island

One reason we were thrilled to moor at James Island after several nights of “city” moorings was the ability to have a campfire! Apparently, we were exhausted this evening and energy for the fire was low as our beds were calling our names…

Best Seasons to Visit James Island, San Juans

It’s hard to imagine a poor time to visit this island, but it receives much more traffic in the summer than the shoulder seasons. Living locally, we are fortunate to be able to plan a long weekend trip in the tricky October season!

Come to James Island in the shoulder season for outdoor adventures!
James Island is full of surprises- like a full forest!