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Chasing the Moon to Cypress Island

A Weekend Kayak Trip in Washington
By Dennis Stuhaug - October 8th, 2001

For the past hour dawn has been laying silver patches on the dark waters of Bellingham Channel in Washington's San Juan Islands. Our kayaks ride on the great thrust of the moon-driven tides, and we can hear the tiny "plops" as droplets fall from our paddle blades into the saltwater. Earlier my companion and I passed seals, and as we enter the spirit of this weekend trip to Cypress Island, a bald eagle cries -- a sound like a finger rubbing across a crystal goblet.

Rugged, mountain-humped Cypress Island is the least developed of the San Juans, and justifiably one of the most popular sea-kayaking destinations in all this vast and protected inland sea. Tiny island deer trot along the beaches, and fox and river otter flash in and out of sight so quickly you're never certain if you've actually seen them. Kingfishers, stilt-legged herons, legions of ducks, and the incredible majesty of the bald eagles fill the air.

This is not a trip for the novice kayaker, even as close to civilization as it is. Strong tidal flows, mile-wide crossings and Washington's weather demand good boat-handling skills, the ability to hold a course in waves and wind, and an understanding of wind and tidal patterns. Tidal currents can be up to two knots, almost as fast as we can paddle for any distance.

Launching with the Tide

Like the First Canoe People here, we paddle at the convenience of the tides. With the pull of the moon under us, we can glide anywhere in this maze of channels. Heading to Cypress, we launch my kayak at the Guemes Island Ferry Terminal with about an hour left to run on the ebbing tide. We'll quarter north across the half-mile-wide channel, letting the tide sweep us west toward the bluffs at the southwest tip of Guemes Island. It's nice to hit there just as the tide turns, so that we can ride the flood tide up Bellingham Channel to the campsites on Cypress's east shore. Be cautious, there is a lot of recreation boat, fishing boat, and barge and ship traffic in this crossing.

Midway up Bellingham Channel is Cypress Head, a Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recreation site with primitive campsites, pit toilets but no water. You can land on gravel beaches on the north and south sides of the head, while pleasure boaters are attracted to the buoys and float at the north beach. Beautiful as this is, be wary. The tidal flow breaks around the head with strong eddies and rips up to 100 meters offshore. Best to hug the shoreline, inside the kelp, when the tide is running. Less than an hour's paddling to the north is Pelican Beach, another DNR site, and a popular haul-out for kayakers on the gravel beach. Four primitive group campsites, pit toilets and again, no water. While a campfire is always nice, we bring a stove to minimize impact on the well-used site.

Best Sunsets

Set up camp and amble up the mile-and-a-quarter trail to the top of Eagle Cliff, a 900-foot promontory with the best seat in the house for a sunset and a spectacular view of the eastern San Juans. Open meadows (caution: with unexpected drop-offs) invite exploration of this wildlife reserve. The trail is easy, except for the last few hundred yards. Return on an ebb tide, allowing enough time to poke around the handful of Cone Islands halfway between Pelican and Cypress Head. Steep, rocky shores of this undeveloped state park discourage landing, but I've seen eagles perched in the twisted trees clinging to the rock.

Remember the tidal disturbances at Cypress Head -- they can be strong enough to capsize a stable double kayak! Either hug the shoreline (or land and enjoy the view) or cross well above to the Guemes shore. Plan your route so that you arrive at the southwest tip of Guemes just at low tide. You can then ride the flood up Guemes Channel to your takeout.


Want to add a day of paddling? It's 15 miles around Cypress Island, but you'll venture into the strong currents and exposed waters of Rosario Strait on the island's west side. Strawberry Island, halfway down the west side, is managed by the DNR. This trip requires a high skill level. If you can only launch at a full flood, and you're well skilled, consider launching from Washington Park, an Anacortes city park just west of the San Juan Ferry Terminal. You'll face a two-mile-wide exposed crossing to Cypress, with the additional hazard of a strong north wind that could push you south into exposed Rosario Strait. Parking fee is $5 per day.

Cypress Island Trip Planner

Season: late spring through early fall.
Distance: 6 1/2 nautical miles one way, with optional side trips
Difficulty: strong intermediate paddlers with some saltwater paddling experience. Tide rips and marine traffic.
Charts: NOAA Charts 18423SC or 18421 (both at 1:80,000) or 18430 (at 1:25,000); Rosario Strait current tables or the Canadian Current Atlas.
Best Launch: Guemes Island Ferry Terminal. Take signed route to San Juan Ferries from downtown Anacortes for one-quarter mile, turn north on I Street to Guemes Island Ferry Terminal. Parking is limited.
Fees: no fees, no reservations. Both Cypress Head and Pelican Beach Washington Department of Natural Resources Management Areas are small, with primitive camps, pit toilets and no water. DNR phone number is 1-800-527-3305.
Caution: Strong tidal rips and eddies around Cypress Head, especially on ebb tide.
Additional Reading: Kayaking Puget Sound, the San Juans and Gulf Islands by Randal Washburne (published by The Mountaineers Books).


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