James Island stays quiet when the San Juans are busy

We didn’t plan to stop by the very first Washington state marine park we saw after crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. But when you come across an empty mooring in the San Juan Islands less than a week before the Fourth of July, you don’t hesitate to slow the boat down and pick up a mooring ball.

That’s how we ended up making James Island our first stop in the San Juan’s this summer. At first, we were lured by the lack of crowds here, but now I’d say James Island is worth a stop, no matter how many boats are in the moorage park.

Remote by design

The lush forest on James Island makes for a cool retreat on warm sunny days.

James Island is tiny by comparison to its neighbor to the west, Decatur Island, but it packs in plenty to see, explore and do: multiple coves for kayaking, rocky areas along the shoreline for tidepooling and a hiking trail that takes you through thick forest to the wind-beaten cliffs on the south side.

The island sits in Rosario Strait and overlooks Thatcher Pass. It is accessible only by boat; no ferries stop here like they do at other islands in the San Juan archipelago. The whole island is a Washington state marine park, and is deliberately primitive.

The island has a 1.5-mile trail, 13 campsites and a few vault toilets. There is a moorage park with four mooring balls on the east side, and a small dock on the west side. You’ll have no luck finding a dumpster to offload your trash here.

The dock on James Island’s West Cove.

During our two nights there, we saw several kayakers paddle up to shore to grab a campsite for the night. There were three boats tied up to the west side dock and two other boats joined ours in the moorage park the second day we were there.

Explore on land or by sea

We enjoyed kayaking along the shoreline looking for critters. There are multiple coves that stay relatively protected from wind and several beaches with gentle entries to make it easy to land a kayak.

The rocky areas along the shoreline make for great tidepooling. We saw tons of limpets, crabs, sea snails and anemones. Our son, who is really into marine invertebrates right now, was in heaven.

The 1.5-mile hiking trail has entry points from both sides of the island. Walking the entirety of the trail takes you through contrasting landscapes, the mossy green, lush forest you typically associate with the Pacific Northwest to the arid, wind-beaten cliffs dotted with wildflowers on the south side.

In places, the trees lean to the side, wearing the scars of the strong southerly gales that come through here. With gnarled trunks and pitted with wormholes, these trees look more like a subversive piece of art than something nature grew.

The view from the cliffside is magnificent and is a great way to appreciate the clear water of the San Juans and the great kelp forests growing below the surface. Visitors with young kids will want to tred carefully or avoid the parts of the trail along the cliff. The trail narrows quite a bit here with a steep drop-off to one side.

Staying there

S/V Polaris in the moorage park near James Island.

While ferries don’t stop here, the moorage park does get ferry wakes. Between that and the fast-moving current, we were rocked around quite a bit at times. Boaters looking for a very calm and still anchorage may want to look elsewhere or tie up at the dock on the west side.

Have you been to James Island Marine State Park? If so, let us know what you think of it! 


  1. Absolutely enjoy James Island. Beautiful & interesting hike. We were surprised to find only 3 mooring buoys instead of four. Two are very close together. (?)


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