The days are short, and it’s cold. Most people are skiing. But winter is often the best time for sea kayaking the inland waterways of the Pacific Northwest. There are no crowds or jet-skis, just you and tons of wildlife and a thermos of hot cocoa. Here are eight great winter day trips in the Northwest suitable for short days when you’re bundled up.
Hope Island, near Olympia, WA
Hope Island is situated at the South Sound’s intersection of Hammersley, Totten, Pickering, and Squaxin passages. This intersection makes for nearly infinite route options. Hope Island itself is also interesting to explore on land: an old orchard, campgrounds, and no road access. Hammersley Inlet, with strong currents, often sports active fish and eagle populations. If you don’t want to “abandon Hope” at the end of the day, you can camp at the island’s Washington Water Trails site.
Access: Boston Harbor, near Olympia, or the “Shelton Shuttle”: launch at Shelton at high tide, and ride the ebb current to Boston Harbor.
Skill level: Beginner to intermediate, depending on weather and currents
Smith & Bybee Lakes, Portland, OR
Smith and Bybee Lakes are Portland’s secret wildlife refuge, hidden in an industrial district and difficult to access except with a canoe or kayak. The Lakes are actually one of the nation’s largest urban wetlands, and they’re at their best in winter. The high water opens many intricate jungle-maze passages, and the leafless trees make spotting the vast numbers of herons, egrets, hawks, and eagles easy. Keep an eye out for otter and beaver as well.
Access: Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area on North Marine Drive
Skill level: Beginner
Willamette Narrows, West Linn, OR
Willamette Narrows is a strange spot on the Willamette River south of Portland. During the Ice Age Floods, massive walls of water funneled through this narrow spot, scraping the area down to rocky bare islands with oak trees, bisected by narrow maze-like channels. When the current’s low in summer, the Narrows are a placid paddle. But when the water gets high, the narrows become a play spot as the current zips and eddies amongst the rocks. Keep an eye on the gauge.
Access: Put in at Hebb Park and take out at Willamette Park in West Linn
Skill level: Beginner at low water, advanced at high water.
The Three Graces, Garibaldi, OR
The Three Graces, known to locals as the Harlequin Duck Rocks, are a series of rocks just inside the mouth of Tillamook Bay. As the nickname implies, they’re a hot spot for birds, and also a great place to paddle amongst the rocks without having to venture into the open ocean. It’s also a good launching spot for exploring the rest of the Bay—just be sure you’re not hanging out at the bay’s mouth during an ebb current. It’s also a good spot for kayak fishing and crabbing.
Access: Garibaldi, OR.
Skill level: Intermediate, unless there’s a big storm at sea or a full moon.
Jim Crow Point, Skamokawa, WA
Skamokawa is where the lower Columbia River starts to feel like an inland sea—which, near it’s mouth, is basically what it is. From Vista Park, paddle west along the cliffs and coves around Three Tree Point, explore Jim Crow Creek and paddle around Jim Crow Point to a big sandy beach with a small cave. If you’re feeling adventurous and conditions are good, cross to Jim Crow Sands.
Access: Launch at Vista Park in Skamokawa. Either return to the takeout or leave a car at Pillar Rock downstream.
Skill level: Intermediate
Lummi Island, WA
Southern Lummi Island is uninhabited, steep, and provides great views east to the Cascades and west to the San Juans. Paddle across from the mainland and climb atop the rocks near the Washington Water Trail Campsite for views to the west. If conditions are good and you have enough daylight, extend the journey to the Lummi Rocks in mid-channel to the west. Keep an eye out for seals, porpoises, and the occasional Orca.
Access: Larabee State Park
Skill level: Intermediate
Deception Pass, Fidalgo Island, WA
Deception Pass and the islands near it offer paddling for any skill level. Advanced paddlers will likely want to play in the currents, eddylines, and whirlpools where current funnels through Canoe Pass and Deception Pass at up to 8 knots. Less adrenaline-oriented paddlers can tour along the rocky cliff faces between canoe pass and north of Bowman Bay, explore Deception Island in the Strait of Juan De Fuca, or visit Strawberry, Skagit, and Hope islands (a different Hope Island than the one near Olympia). After your paddle, walk out to the top of the bridge and photograph the spectacular early winter sunsets over the Strait and the Olympic Peninsula.
Access: Bowman Bay, or trips on the west side of the pass, or play on the ebb current, or Cornet Bay for trips to Strawberry, Hope, and Skagit Islands, or the flood current.
Skill level: Beginner (Hope & Skagit Islands from Cornet Bay), Intermediate (Deception Island and cliffs to the north, in most conditions, Advanced (play in the pass)
Miller Island near Biggs, OR
Miller Island is in the dry, desert eastern section of the Columbia River Gorge, and a good place to get a sunny break from the gray winter rain. The island is an eight-mile loop that begs for exploration on foot: it hosts pictographs, sand dunes, and easy grassy scrambles atop basalt cliffs for spectacular views. Be aware of the wind forecast—on calm days, it’s an easy paddle. When the wind rises, it can become challenging to intermediate paddlers and a playground for advanced kayakers.
Access: Put in at Deschutes River State Park, OR. On a west wind, leave a car at Maryhill State Park, WA.
Skill level: Beginner to Advanced, depending on the wind.