The beauty of visiting Orcas Island is you can travel the byways taking in mountain views, visit small farms or grab a treat at a bakery. Or, in our case, you can hang out at your rental cabin and watch the world unfold in front of you.
During our four-day stay in May, Mother Nature made a very good case for staying put. We were treated to sunlight poking through the clouds at daybreak, dappling the calm waters of northern Puget Sound. We saw a menagerie of animals swim, float or fly by, including harbor seals, bald eagles, otters, common loons, porpoises and a pair of harlequin ducks. On our final night, the setting sun cast its orange rays on the snow-clad flanks of distant Mount Baker.
Still, the urge to explore is strong, and the island’s attractions are difficult to ignore, especially when they include the highest point in the San Juan Islands. While a trip to the top of Mount Constitution is a must for visitors, the island is a blend of resorts large and small, natural wonders and a chance to enjoy an ice cream treat while watching marina boat traffic.
Here are recommendations of things to do and see while visiting Orcas.
For those looking for a more luxurious option to camping, this plush resort might be the answer. If you don’t want to spend the night, the resort is still worth a visit.
Photos, artifacts and other displays help visitors envision what life must have been like during the complex’s heyday, when it served as the home for shipbuilder and one-time Seattle mayor Robert Moran. Built as his retirement home in 1906-09, the mansion is open from 9 a.m.-9 p.m. daily for self-guided tours.
The objects of interest range from large to more sublime. There is a swimming pool in the basement of the main building, reminiscent of a Roman spa. You can see your reflection in the massive copper coffee urns in the dining room. Some nights, you can hear the two-story 1913 Aeolian pipe organ being played. Also, there are models of Moran’s shipyard, the largest employer in Seattle when he won the contract in 1902 to build the battleship USS Nebraska.
Moran’s legacy extends beyond the resort’s confines. Thanks to his largess, island visitors can enjoy nearby Moran State Park.
MORAN STATE PARK
The 5,252-acre park dominates the east side of the island. It includes five freshwater lakes, more than 30 miles of hiking trails and views that seem endless on a clear day. The park began with a donation to the state of more than 2,700 acres from Moran.
The high point, literally, is 2,409-foot-high Mount Constitution. Those who are in good shape can hike or ride their bike to the top. For the rest of us, a road leads to the top and amazing views of the eastern San Juans islands. Once there, visitors can climb the steps leading to the top of the 45-foot stone observation tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. The tower offers a panorama difficult to match. With views to the north, east and south, one can view the Cascade Mountains, watch boats and ships of all sizes and purpose pass by and see a number of cities, in Washington and Canada. If you can’t make the trip to the island, check out the webcam operated by the Friends of Moran State Park (friendsofmoran.com/ webcam).
Visitors need to be aware there is no potable water at the summit. A vending machine sells bottled water, sports drinks and energy drinks. Hikers and bikers should include extra water in their gear.
The park also has five lakes and more than 30 miles of trails. Cascade Lake, near the entrance, has a swimming beach and day-use area.
The park also is undergoing a forest health project. As a result, the park’s 15 primitive campsites are closed until further notice.
A Discover Pass is necessary to enter the park. They are $10 a day or $30 a year. discoverpass.wa.gov
EXPLORE BY GEOCACHING
We did much of our exploring of the island’s west side by geocaching. Our GPS-based treasure hunt began with a stop at a church in Eastsound, then on to the southern trailhead to Turtleback Mountain Preserve, a small park and a great picnic spot overlooking the marina in Deer Harbor and a large bog. A side note, the marina store in Deer Harbor sells ice cream treats, a good way to reward the family after an afternoon of geocaching.
We have found that geocaching is a great way to explore new places, and it keeps the children interested as you drive from location to location.
Interestingly, of the more than 30 caches on the island, the majority are on the west side of the island.
TURTLEBACK MOUNTAIN PRESERVE
One of six parks or preserves maintained by the San Juan County Land Bank, the 1,576-acre preserve is one of the largest protected natural areas in San Juan County. It protects a number of habitats, including Garry oak woodlands, grasslands, forests and wetlands.
The preserve was protected in 2007 through the efforts of the land bank, the San Juan Preservation Trust, the Trust for Public Land, and more than 1,500 private donors.
The area offers a number of recreational opportunities, including a primitive trail system covering more than 7 miles. Trails at the south end of the preserve are for pedestrian use only. Multiuse trails — for pedestrian, equestrian and mountain bike users — are accessed from the North Trailhead. Bikes are permitted on even calendar days only; horses on odd calendar days only, to avoid conflicts.
At 1,520 feet, Turtleback is the second-highest summit in the islands. The meadows and ridges along the top offer views of the San Juan Islands and Canadian Gulf Islands.
OBSTRUCTION PASS STATE PARK
Tucked away on the far southeastern tip of the island, this simple 80-acre park offers hiking, primitive camping, views of Lopez Island and access to a beach known for its tidepools and marble-size multicolored pebbles.
The main trail leading to the 10 campsites and one of the largest public saltwater beaches on the island is about 0.6 miles long, running through a fairly dense forest. The 0.4-mile Sound View Trail offers views and leads to a good picnic spot.
A Discover Pass is needed to park at the trailhead.
Nearby is Doe Bay Resort, with great views of Rosario Strait. The resort has cabins, a small store and a cafe.
GRAB A BITE
Because we had a cabin with a full kitchen, we did our own cooking. But exploring the island will make you hungry for a snack. We discovered a couple of good spots in Eastsound to get some pastry treats.
Teezer’s Cookies (A Street and North Beach Road) offers yummy breakfast items and coffee drinks. I recommend the chocolate croissant, seemingly baked with an entire chocolate bar inside.
Rose’s Bakery & Café, 29 N. Beach Road, is another Eastsound spot worth visiting. Some folks come for treats such as the doughnuts. There also were plenty of people ordering sandwiches when we stopped in. Others prefer to pick up house-made bread for that night’s dinner.
If you forgot any basics, Island Market in Eastsound is as well-stocked as any small-town grocery store, with more than enough options to keep even young, picky eaters happy. Given its island location, the prices were reasonable.
Did you know: At 57 square miles, Orcas is the largest of the San Juan Islands. The island has a year-round population of about 4,450 people.
Getting there: Most visitors take a Washington State ferry from Anacortes. You can get a schedule and pricing at wsdot. wa.gov/ferries. Travelers should pay attention to which directions fees are charged for a ferry ride, in case they choose to stop at other islands on the way out or back. The fees can stack up quickly.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640