Get your feet wet on the Cascadia Marine Trail

7.17 watercraft blog Posey Island kayakers

The San Juan Islands are home to several marine state parks with campsites available only to those arriving by human and wind-powered watercraft.

July 17, 2019

Put your paddle in the water, and go the distance!

Paddlers with long-distance goals, The Cascadia Marine Trail (CMT) may be for you!

This famed water trail follows the contours of the coves and inlets of Puget Sound and fans out to the northwestern reaches of U.S. waters in the San Juan Islands.

The water trail lets you play connect-the-dots between Washington’s marine state parks and other parks reached only by human and wind-powered watercraft. You can take the trail as a whole or in sections and camp at special campsites for non-motorized watercraft. You can also make short day trips.

Where to start?

The Cascadia Marine Trail covers four primary areas — San Juan Islands, Puget Sound, South Puget Sound and Hood Canal. Your first task is to pick a starting point — and a destination.

San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands, located northwest of Seattle, are part of an archipelago accessible only by boat. Public ferries run between four major islands, but to get to the outliers, you’ll need your own vessel. Many marine state parks in the island chain have special campsites just for paddlers and sailors.

  • Posey Island Marine State Park - A tiny island in sight of Pearl Island and Roche Harbor with two CMT campsites.
    Experience level: intermediate.
  • Blind Island Marine State Park — A tall, rocky island with 100-year-old fruit trees with four CMT campsites.
    Experience level: Expert from Orcas Island (due to busy ferry traffic). Intermediate/advanced from Shaw Island.
  • Stuart Island Marine State Park — This large island offers forested camping, meadows and a hike to Turn Point Lighthouse. The park offers 18 campsites, including four on the CMT.  
    Experience level: Advanced.

Expert stand up paddlers can access several state parks along the CMT.

Puget Sound

Depending on stamina, equipment, weather and expertise, you can paddle most of Puget Sound. Currents and weather, plus ferry, container and cruise ship traffic create hazards. These routes are not for newbies.

  • Kinney Point State Park – Beach your craft at the southern tip of Marrowstone Island at low tide and be sure to hang it on the rack provided — the beach disappears at high tide. The park has three campsites.
    Experience level: advanced.
  • Blake Island Marine State Park – Land at the northwest end of this island, which lies between West Seattle and Kitsap Peninsula, and snag one of three campsites.  
    Experience level: expert, due to ferry traffic.
CMT Turn Island kayaking group

A kayaking group prepares to camp at Turn Island Marine State Park near San Juan Island.

South Puget Sound

The Cascadia Marine Trail starts in Olympia and stretches north, around islands and into the inlets of South Puget Sound. From there, you can paddle slightly northeast to reach Puget Sound.

  • Hope Island Marine State Park — Pull in at this forested island near Olympia, with eight campsites.
    Experience level: intermediate, due to tidal currents.
  • Jarrell Cove State Park — Paddle through emerald waters to this park with one CMT campsite. (The park also is accessible by car and offers standard campsites and two partial-hookup sites.)
    Experience level: intermediate, due to tides and currents.

Hood Canal

The long, scenic Hood Canal fjord can be paddled in sections as day outings or as one multi-day trip. Parks along the canal are accessible by car, boat or paddlecraft.

  • Twanoh State Park — The park has the warmest water in Puget Sound and offers one CMT campsite. Twanoh is accessible by car and also has standard and partial-hookup sites.
    Experience level: beginner.
  • Belfair State Park – An 8-mile paddle from Twanoh in the same inlet, Belfair has one CMT campsite. Accessible by car, the park also has standard and full-hookup sites.
    Experience level: beginner.

Whet your trip-planning appetite with more itineraries by studying the Cascadia Marine Trail map.

CMT experienced kayakers

Expert kayakers brave a fierce current near Deception Pass State Park.

Skill levels explained:

Beginner: anywhere from a complete novice with experience in calm waters to someone with training in personal safety and paddling in hazardous waters.

Intermediate: skills paddling in wind and waves, and in self-rescue, plus knowledge of marine traffic and communications.

Advanced: skills, experience and comfort in dangerous coastal waters.

Expert: near-professional skills, experience and comfort in dangerous coastal waters, in all weather and traffic conditions.

CMT kayak class

A novice kayaking group gets instruction before setting out into Puget Sound.

When in doubt, stay on land:

John Dunlap, sea kayaking chair for the Mountaineers’ Olympia chapter, urges paddlers to study tides, currents, waves, wind, swells and fog – and how to get through them. Dramatic, asymmetrical tides are unique to Puget Sound. Newbies could get stuck on a mudflat at low tide — or worse.

Safe paddling is fun paddling

The Washington State Parks Boating Program is hosting Paddle Safe Week July 21 – 27 to increase safety awareness among those who use kayaks, canoes, stand up paddle boards and other human-powered vessels. 

Learn more about safe paddling.