We recently spent 6 ½ weeks on Orcas Island and it was just an amazing experience. We usually travel through Europe and help other people plan amazing trips there, but these pandemic times have given us a chance to explore parts of the U.S. that we had never visited before. Orcas Island is one of those very special places.
Orcas is part of a group called the San Juan Islands about 90 miles north of Seattle, Washington in the Salish Sea. The only access to Orcas is by ferry which is OK because once you are there you will not want to leave.
This is a place to come, slow down, and enjoy the paradise that surrounds you. Everything just moves at a slower pace and that is a good thing. The top speed limit on the island is 40 mph and people observe it. If you want to get away from it all Orcas Island is just the spot.
Orcas Island Hiking
For us the main attraction of Orcas was the all hiking available and just being outdoors. There are three main parks with miles and miles of trails passing by lakes, waterfalls, majestic Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, and Lodge Pole Pine, and vistas over looking the surrounding islands and mountain ranges. The scenery is breathtaking!
The biggest and most popular of the parks is Moran State Park, which is located on the eastern side of the horseshoe shaped island. It includes Mount Constitution, the highest point on the island. You can drive to the top but we recommend parking at Mountain Lake and hiking up. Either way you can climb the Stone Tower at the top and enjoy a panoramic view including Mount Baker, Vancouver, and the Cascade Mountain Range.
On the west side of the horseshoe is Turtleback Mountain Preserve. This impressive piece of land includes the highest point on the west side and affords glorious views of the islands to the west and south. Don’t miss the Turtlehead Overlook, our favorite spot for a picnic lunch overlooking the ominous sounding Massacre Bay.
The smallest park, yet not to be missed, is back on the east side. Obstruction Pass State Park has a central trail with loops on either side that can all be easily covered in an afternoon. What this park lacks in size is made up for in unique features. It is the only one where you can walk along the coast, and it has some of the best of the exotic looking Pacific Madrone trees.
Our Favorite Orcas Island Hikes
Cascade Falls Trail
This is probably the easiest and fastest way to get a good look at what Moran State Park has to offer. Just a quarter of a mile from the parking lot is Cascade Falls, the most beautiful waterfall on this short creek between Mountain Lake and Cascade Lake. From here we suggest walking up steam where you will pass several more waterfalls and be surrounded by magnificent Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar. Turn around whenever you want or take it the whole way up to Mountain Lake and make a loop by joining the Mount Pickett Service Road to bring you back.
Mount Constitution Loop
Nearly 7 miles long, Mount Constitution Loop gives you some of the most dramatic vista points in the park. The heavily forested trail climbs steeply from Mountain Lake up to Little Summit. The short detour to the overlook there is highly recommended and on a clear day there is a stunning view of Mount Baker to the east. From there, the climb to Mount Constitution is more gentle. We loved the overlook shortly before the summit where we sat and enjoyed our lunch gazing at the surrounding islands and distant mountain ranges. Mount Constitution is the highest point on the island. Climb the rock tower for a 360-degree view of all that surrounds you. From the top the trail leads back down past Twin Lakes and finally back to Mountain Lake. Take a picnic and plenty of water, it’s just a marvelous way to spend a day.
This is an out and back trail in Turtleback Mountain Preserve that is about 6 miles round trip. Start at the north parking lot and head up the main trail. There are two overlooks on the way up that are well worth the time to stop, but the goal is the amazing vista at Turtlehead which looks south over Massacre Bay dotted with islands and the Olympic Mountains in the distance. On a very clear day you can even see Mount Rainier far to the south.
Orcas Island Whale Watching
If you want to get out on the water, we suggest Deer Harbor Charters. In addition to whale watching tours, they offer sailing trips, island cruises, private tours, and even an evening wine cruise. On our trip with them we did see some Orcas (Killer Whales) from a distance plus sea lions. porpoise, eagles, and much more as we cruised around the islands. The captain, who is the son of the original owner, and the knowledgeable naturalist, were both amazing and friendly as can be. As a matter of fact, everyone on the island is super friendly!
Orcas Island Pottery and Art
Pottery has a long tradition on Orcas and you will see pottery shops all over the island. One of the oldest and most picturesque is the aptly named Orcas Island Pottery on the northwest shore of the island. Here you find the work of over a dozen different artists beautifully displayed in a number of historic buildings and on a lawn that overlooks President’s Channel. Several of the artists have ties to OIP that go back generations.
Orcas Island Pottery
Orcas Island Pottery
Orcas Island Pottery
Orcas Island Pottery
Orcas Island Pottery
Another popular spot for art seekers is Orcas Island Artworks, which is housed in an old strawberry barreling plant. This historic building is filled with paintings, prints, jewelry, pottery, sculpture, and clothing, as well as other locally made items and gifts.
Both of these locations are essentially co-ops and you will likely find one of the artists behind the counter running the shop when you visit.
Orcas Island Golf Course
The Orcas Island Golf Course was built in the early 60’s on what had been a mustard farm. The original farmhouse now serves as the clubhouse. The course was designed to mimic old Scottish courses and it retains a somewhat rustic feel. The nine-hole layout winds through tree lined hills and feels very natural. The day I played it was quite wet and I got more than a little muddy…and I had a great time!
Where to Eat and Drink on Orcas Island
We visited during the off-season at the height of a pandemic and yet we still found plenty of culinary delights. Many of these we cooked ourselves with supplies from Orcas Island Market and Orcas Food Co-op. Both grocers are located in Eastsound, the main town on the island, centrally located at the top of the horseshoe.
One day we bought fresh Dungeness crabs in town and boiled them that night. One each, and it was a feast! And where did we get them? From the Crab Man, of course, who shows up every Saturday outside the Co-op and sells out of the back of his truck. They were out of this world delish!
If you are a wine lover, and you know we are, you will be pleasantly surprised with your selection here. Doe Bay Wine Company offers a remarkable selection of wine from the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The staff is very knowledgeable and can help you pick the perfect bottles. In the before times (before coronavirus changed the world) they offered in-store tastings that looked great and I’m sure will return. We loved all the wine we got there. This is the kind of wine shop you wish you had in your neighborhood!
We can also highly recommend Hogstone’s Wood Oven for great pizza and another amazing wine selection. Although they were closed at the time, we managed to join their Pizza and Wine Club for a one-time delivery. They specialize in natural wines and we just let the owner pick out a batch for us. They were some of the most interesting, mouthwatering wines we’ve enjoyed anywhere.
After a good day of hiking, follow our lead and enjoy a pint or two at Island Hoppin’ Brewery just outside of Eastsound. They feature a rotating selection on tap as well as some regulars in cans plus some nice finger foods and snacks. All can be enjoyed on their outdoor patio.
Where to Stay on Orcas Island
There are all sorts of options to stay on Orcas Island, from camping to the historic Rosario Resort. The Chamber of Commerce has a very good list of hotels, B&Bs, resorts, and vacation rentals. We stayed in a private home serviced by a local management company. We loved the solitude of being up in the hills with views to the north of Vancouver and the mountain ranges beyond. We cooked our own meals most nights and enjoyed wine from Doe Bay Wine Co. or Hogstone. Contact Us and we can help you find your ideal spot.
If you are interested in visiting Orcas Island, give us a call and let us help you plan a perfect vacation. As we begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel we are excited to help you travel again. Whether it is the Pacific Northwest, or our specialty, Europe, we can take the hassle out of trip planning for you.
Would you like help planning the perfect hiking trip? We can help with that! We are here for your custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, the UK and all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. We also book European cruises! Feel free to reach out via email — We’re always available to talk about travel!
Greg Ball – Greg is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group tours to Europe. In his previous life he taught Woodwinds and Jazz at the university level for 30 years. As a professor he took his bands to England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Austria, Switzerland, and England. Since “retiring” he and his wife/ETC co-founder Betsy travel Europe nine months out of the year. Together they have visited over 40 countries and counting! He loves cooking, hiking, listening and playing music, and wine and holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.
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