James Island Marine State Park

Looking for a great island to visit in the San Juan Islands? James Island is right up there with Sucia Island, but it’s a lot further south. James also makes an ideal staging spot for further exploration into the islands.

main campsite at james island

The main campsite at James Island

James Island is a Marine State Park operated by the Washington State Parks. It’s located just east of Thatcher Pass, the ‘gateway’ to the San Juan Islands, so it makes an excellent staging island for boats planning multi-day trips into the islands or beginning a journey up the inside passage. The island has three clusters of camp sites scattered around it. It also has a forty foot dock on the west side and three mooring buoys on the east side of the island. Each cluster of camp sites has a composting toilet, stocked with toilet paper and hand sanitizer. However, there is no water or garbage facilities on the island. Finally, the island has a large population of aggressive raccoons.

My wife and I spent Saturday evening at James Island. This is one of our favorite islands, but it only has one 40 foot dock and island is very popular, so it’s hard to find dock space.

Mooring Buoys, Docks, and Anchorage

dock at james island

The dock at James Island

The three mooring buoys on the east side of the island are easy to spot from a distance and are rarely full, except on the nicest, most popular weekends. Since they face Rosario Strait however, they are constantly buffeted by waves from the ferry and commercial traffic. On calm summer evenings, it’s usually a pleasant stay, but if wind is whipping up waves in the Strait, then it can be a bumpy night. There is a great landing beach next to the buoys with a toilet that is used less frequently (read cleaner) than the ones in the main camp site. There are also picnic tables and fire pits, which makes it great for having dinner on land, sitting by the fire, or watching the sun rise over the mainland, while not straying too far from your boat.

On the west side of the island is a forty foot dock with a ramp up to the center of the island. The dock is often crowded due to the islands popularity. Supposedly, the dock is removed in the off-season, but I haven’t verified this personally. Because of the half-moon shape created by James Island and Decatur Head, the winds and currents can get really weird on this side of the island, and can make docking and undocking extra difficult. Be forewarned and take extra caution when trying to dock or undock – particularly if the dock is crowded.

Unfortunately, there are no good anchorages on the west side of the island, near the dock. I have personally watched at least a half dozen boats try to anchor just south of the dock, and never with any success. There is good anchorage on the east side of the island (in the event that all the mooring buoys are taken), between the southern bay and the mooring buys.

As of summer 2012:

  • Mooring buoys cost $12 per day, regardless of length.
  • Dock fees are $0.60 per foot per night.
  • An annual pass can be purchased for $4 per foot which covers both the buoys and dock fees
mooring buoys at james island

The three mooring buoys on the east side of James Island.

Camping & Sea Kayaking

There are three clusters of camp sites on James Island. All of the camp sites include picnic tables, fire rings, and toilets. However, there is no water or garbage facility, so it’s important to follow the slogan ‘pack it in, pack it out’. Firewood is scarce in main camp site area, due to its popularity, but is prevalent in the other two areas. All the camp sites are connected by a loop trail that goes around the southern end of the island.

Main Camp Sites In The Center Of The Island

toilets at james island

Main bathroom at James Island

The main camp sites are located in the center of the island, and I believe I counted six sites with fire rings. There are two very nice toilets in this area. Usually, campers will pull up to the dock and unload gear. Sea kayakers have traditionally brought their kayaks up on the west side of the beach. There are a few camp sites located close to the west side of the beach for this purpose. It’s possible to do the same on the east side of the island, but it’s about a forty foot climb from the beach to the nearest camp site. Also, the sites on the east side of the island are the most popular, since they have the best view. There is also a covered shelter / picnic area for large gatherings. I believe this shelter can be reserved through the Washington State Parks.

View James Island Marine State Park – Hiking Trail in a larger map

Southwest Campsites

The southwestern campsites are a relatively new addition to the island. I believe the toilet was installed just last year and it appears that these sites were created specifically to cater to sea kayakers. There are four camp sites located close to the beach. The beach is made up of small, smooth black stones, which is easy on the feet and easy to pull kayaks up on to. However, this same stone does not provide a good anchoring for boats, so these camp sites are not popular with boaters. Finally, the beach is physically close the dock, but by trail, it’s a pretty good jaunt. Due to it’s relative unpopularity, firewood is pretty easy to collect from the beach and surrounding woods.

Southeast Campsites

The southeast campsite area has four sites with fire rings and one toilet. It’s only a short walk from the main camping area, so it’s used most frequently on those popular weekends when the main sites fill up. It also faces the three mooring buoys, so is popular with boaters who tie up to them. The nicest thing about this camp area is that it’s relatively flat, heavily wooded, and has plenty of shade during the hot summer months. There is also a trail to a beautiful lookout point on the south end of island, which is a flat, easy hike from this camp area.

james island san juan island

Looking at James Island from the dock.

Share Your Experience!

Have you spent any time on James Island? Please leave a comment to share your information with everyone about it.

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One Response to “James Island Marine State Park”
  1. Shondra says:

    Wow…I’m not familiar with James Island. Thanks for the info.

    I’d love to feature this post on our Seattle-based site. Email me for details.


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