There’s nothing like a gentle swell, sunlight glinting off the water, and the cry of eagles as you take your first paddle strokes in a long, sleek kayak. The sea kayak was designed to hop from island to island and navigate rough water. As your skills develop, they’re also suitable for playing in the rougher stuff when the waves create a chance to surf or you round a point to find a giant sea arch. Sea kayaking blends a mix of journeying in the wilderness, navigating the many moods of the sea, seeing things people stuck on land will never see.

Here’s a set of great sea kayak trips around our continent.

San Juan

The San Juan Islands, WA

The San Juans sit in the middle of the Salish Sea, a vast inland sea that stretches from Olympia, WA to halfway up Vancouver Island. The islands are famous for interspersed campgrounds, sea life, and the “superpod” of Orca that form off the west coast of San Juan Island. The islands have a Mediterranean climate, and each of the major populated islands has its own culture, and between them lie hundreds of smaller ones.
How Long: At least 4 days
Skill Level: Intermediate
Be Aware: Strong complex currents, wind, shipping traffic, cold water.
Wilderness Factor: Islands are inhabited, and campsites have shelters and running water. Expect crowds in midsummer.

Johnstone Strait

Johnstone Strait, British Columbia

Johnstone Strait is famous for the pods of Orca that feed on salmon in the currents of Blackney Passage and rubbing beaches of Robson Bight. Paddling with Orca—especially when they come to investigate you, instead of the other way around—is an unforgettable experience. Most paddlers stick to the area a few miles from Telegraph Cove, but paddling further into the endless fjords of the Broughton Archipelago is well worth the effort.
How Long: At least 5 days, up to 2 weeks
Skill Level: Intermediate
Be Aware: Wind and currents, cold water, and complex navigation.
Wilderness Factor: Wild once you leave Telegraph Cove. Campsites are small. Keep your food away from bears.

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park, Maine

Maine boast’s the East Coast’s most rugged shoreline and intricate set of offshore islands and sea cliffs, and Mount Desert Island boast a ton of features in a small area. Experiencing this populous park from a sea kayak gives you a view few ever get. Hop between islands, and navigate sea cliffs, with care.
How Long: 4 days to a week. Acadia is just one section of the vast Maine Island Trail.
Skill Level: Intermediate to Advanced
Be Aware: The Maine coast is notoriously foggy with strong currents. The water is cold.
Wilderness Factor: Moderate. Scattered towns and rugged islands.

Clayoquot Sound

Clayoquot Sound, British Columbia

A string of mountainous islands, beaches exposed to the Pacific surf, summering Gray Whales, and hot springs, Clayoquot Sound packs a kaleidoscope of paddling experiences into a rugged rainforest on Vancouver Island’s West Coast. Beginning paddlers can stick to the inside of the fjords; more skilled kayakers can venture to the outer coast to play among rock formations, camp on surf beaches, and cavort with sea otters and whales.
How Long: 1-2 weeks
Skill Level: Beginner to Advanced
Be Aware: Swell, fog, and wind can make for a formidable outer coast when Poseidon’s feeling feisty.
Wilderness Factor: Wild. Wolves and bears abound.

Baja, Mexico

Baja, Mexico

Jacques Cousteau described the Sea of Cortez as “the world’s largest aquarium.” The marine life in the Sea of Cortez and the warmth of the desert in winter make Baja a draw for many looking to shed winter. Islands like Espiritu Santu and Bay of Loreto National Park are teeming with life. Be prepared: Baja is a rugged desert with no freshwater and potentially fearsome winds. Chart, current and weather information is minimal. Bring sunscreen and a snorkel.
How Long: 1-2 weeks
Skill Level: Intermediate
Be Aware: When El Norte blows, best to be off the water.
Wilderness Factor: Wild. Local knowledge is essential.

Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay, AK

One of the world’s densest gathering of tidewater glaciers, Glacier Bay’s fjords slice deep into the Fairweather Range, where glaciers tumble from 14,000 mountains into the sea. Seals pup on the icebergs, grizzlies roam the shorelines, and whales ply the bay. One of Alaska’s iconic locations, it’s also logistically complex. Glacier Bay isn’t reachable by road, and paddling Glacier Bay involves either a boat drop-off or several days paddling up-bay. But you’ll always remember paddling amongst the ice and a landscape of jaw-dropping scale.
How Long: 1-2 weeks
Skill Level: Beginner to Intermediate
Be Aware: Alaskan weather is wet, and wilderness camping skills are required.
Wilderness Factor: As wild as it gets.

Columbia River Gorge

Lower Columbia Water Trail, OR-WA

Follow the paddle strokes of Lewis and Clark on their journey to and from the Pacific by paddling 144 miles from the Columbia Gorge to the sea. The river starts as a big wide river in a scenic gorge; then it passes Portland, winds through mazes of islands, and eventually becomes a 4-mile wide river mouth that feels a lot like the sea. Can be paddled in a single trip, or as a series of day trips. Camping at parts or on uninhabited midriver islands.
How Long: 1 day to 1 week
Skill Level: Intermediate overall; protected sections inland, wind and big ships on the lower river.
Be Aware: Upriver winds on summer afternoons and shipping traffic
Wilderness Factor: Rural, passes through Portland, OR.

Your Local Lake

Sea kayaking’s best trips are great—but you don’t have to travel to paddle. Once you’ve caught the kayaking bug, every waterway near your house is a destination.
How Long: When you want to avoid mowing the lawn
Skill Level: Variable
Be Aware: The lawn won’t mow itself
Wilderness Factor: Variable

by Neil Schulman