Stand Up for Parks: Paddling Expert Shares His Favorite State Parks

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When I kayaked past a stand up paddleboarder on Puget Sound in 2006, I thought the activity looked hard and slow. I wondered why anyone would put themselves through that.

Soon after, my friend Bob showed me his 11-foot inflatable paddleboard. Unlike sitting in a kayak, you can see all the sea life below you on a stand up paddleboard (SUP). You can sit, kneel, lay on your belly or stand. You’re much more visible to powerboaters on busy waterways. 

Always open to a challenge, I tried Bob’s board. On my first SUP paddle to West Point Lighthouse in Seattle, I saw a harbor seal gliding directly below me in 3 feet of water. When I caught a small boat wake, I was amazed to watch the sand and marine life below my board as I was pushed effortlessly toward shore. I was hooked.

Stand up paddling is among the country’s fastest growing water sports, with SUP races springing up locally, nationally and globally. In addition to racing, SUP paddlers have found other ways to enjoy their boards:  SUP yoga, SUP fitness, running rivers, endurance racing, fishing, surfing and long expeditions or races such as the Race to Alaska (R2AK). By 2015, more than a dozen businesses in the Seattle area alone were offering SUP lessons and rentals.

I think the Pacific Northwest offers some of the best paddleboard opportunities in the world! Paddlers can enjoy numerous lakes, slow and fast-moving rivers, the Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the outer coast.  

Here are four of my favorite Washington state parks for paddleboarding:

Deception Pass State Park

Oak Harbor

Known for it’s swift tidal currents, Deception Pass also has several of the most protected bays on Puget Sound. In this paddler’s paradise, you can explore the craggy, tree-lined shores of Bowman Bay, sea caves and pocket beaches around Reservation Head. If you have solid river skills, run the tidal rapids below the bridge.* If you seek fresh and calm waters, you can paddle Pass Lake (above Bowman Bay), known for its fly fishing. Or take a SUP yoga class on Cranberry Lake on the south side of the park with Sound Yoga and SUP.

* Note from State Parks: Only attempt the tidal rapids if you are an expert-level stand up paddler.

Deception Pass State Park launch sites:

Bowman Bay

Cornet Bay

Rosario Beach

Pass and Cranberry lakes

West Beach – For experienced paddlers only; launching here puts you directly into the current and/or incoming swell from the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Resources:

SUP/Kayak rentals and tours at Bowman Bay: Anacortes Kayak Tours

Run the Rapids with Salmon Bay Paddle

SUP Yoga: Sound Yoga and SUP

Blake Island Marine State Park

Located off the south end of Bainbridge Island in Yukon Harbor, Blake Island Marine State Park is accessible by private or tour boats only. Once you get comfortable paddling in open water, you can paddle to the island  from a host of launch sites including:

Southworth ferry dock (1.12 miles to Blake Island). Beach access is south of the dock. Park up the hill from the ferry terminal.

Port of Manchester (1.87 miles). Overnight parking on street above boat launch.

Vashon Ferry Dock  (1.74 miles). Parking is up hill from the terminal.

Fort Ward Park boat launch. (2.64 miles)

Manchester State Park (3 miles).Southworth ferry dock

Charles Richey Sr. Viewpoint, Constellation Park, Alki (3.63 miles).

Fauntleroy Park, West Seattle (4.2 miles).

Please note that the waters near and around the island are heavily used by commercial vessels, from container ships and ferries to charter boats, as well as other recreational vessels. Knowing the rules of the road is critical to a safe and enjoyable passage.

Blake Island has 44 standard campsites and three campsites on the Cascadia Marine Trail. Even with the park’s popularity, you can find solitude on the many forest-lined foot trails, empty beaches and the dirt road circling the island. It’s not uncommon to see harbor seals offshore, deer and the island’s many raccoons.  

One of Blake Island’s unique features is Tillicum, a Coast Salish-themed building operated by Argosy Cruises with a restaurant and native music and dances.  Keep your packing light by reserving a seat for the salmon dinner—at least one hour before meal time.

Resources:

Argosy Cruises —Tillicum Excursion

Kayaking Puget Sound & the San Juan Islands

Sun Lakes - Dry Falls State Park

Coulee City

More than 13,000 years ago, a waterfall four times the size of Niagara Falls poured into this basalt canyon near Coulee City. You can experience this awesome sight from the lake below the magnificent rock walls surrounding Dry Falls. In summer, the canyon air and water temperatures can reach into the 80s to 90s, with cooler conditions and fewer crowds in fall and spring.

A few miles to the southwest of Dry Falls is the Sun Lakes - Dry Falls State Park campground.  From here, you’ll find additional paddling opportunities on several connected lakes – Deep, Blue, Park and Alkali. To the southeast, Lake Lenore is known for basalt caves seen in the cliffs above the lake. 

Resources:

Paddling Washington, Mountaineers Books

Lyons Ferry State Park

Washtucna

At the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers, Lyons Ferry State Park provides paddlers with protected access to these eastern Washington waterways. The area inside the breakwater is a great spot for novice paddlers wanting a calm place to get their bearings. Those wanting more of a challenge can venture out into the Snake River. Be on the lookout for motorized vessels: jet skis, motorboats and commercial tour boats share the river with paddlecraft. Depending on conditions, experienced paddlers also can head up the Palouse River canyon for a few miles, depending on conditions. Washington State Parks asks that you not go near or in to the plunge pool at the base of the 198-foot Palouse Falls. This area is extremely dangerous.

A day-use only park, Lyons Ferry has picnic tables and restrooms. Camping is available at the Starbuck / Lyons Ferry Marina KOAacross the river from the park.

Paddle safe — and have fun!

Wear a personal flotation device and leash

Whenever and wherever you paddle in Washington State, you must always carry — and preferably wear — a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life vest. PFDs designed especially for SUP use are comfortable and allow for unhindered paddling. In addition, a leash attached to your ankle or waist will prevent a long swim to shore, especially in windy conditions.  Also required is a sounding device, such as a whistle. 

Dress for the water temperature

One of the most common mistakes paddlers make is not dressing for the water temperature. Despite warm air temperatures, water temperatures in the Salish Sea and most rivers in the Pacific Northwest remain cold most of the year. Full 4/3 mm and 5/4 mm wetsuits or dry suits are essential in cold water conditions. Farmer John wetsuits are an option in mildly warm waters.

Deciding what to wear for a trip? Make your final decision when you see the water. It may be sunny and calm at home, but it could be blowing 30 knots on the water!

Rob’s suggested resources for learning to paddle:

Before embarking on a kayak, SUP, canoe or raft adventure, consider taking a lesson from a certified paddling instructor or school to learn how to have more control and understanding of your local or regional waters. Some suggestions include:

Professional Stand Up Paddle Association (SUP instructors)

Cold Water Bootcamp (video)

American Canoe Association (Kayak, SUP, canoe instructors)

Other paddling resource recommendations from Rob:

Washington Water Trails Association (WWTA) – Provides great information about the myriad water trails in the state, including the Cascadia Marine Trail.

U.S. Coast Guard Float Plan. It’s always a good idea to let people know where you’re going, who’s going with you, when you’ll return and what to do if you don’t return at that time. Share the float plan with a trusted friend or relative.

Coast Guard’s Navigation Center. Because understanding right of way is every vessel operator’s responsibility.

Marine Traffic. An indispensable website and/or app if you’re padding in waters with commercial boat traffic.

Wind condition apps, such as WindAlert or Windy.com, give current wind readings from multiple points on land or sea, worldwide.

NOAA Tide Predictions — Washington

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