How to Spend a Weekend on Orcas Island
Nestled in the stunning San Juan archipelago of Washington State, Orcas Island beckons travelers seeking a tranquil escape into nature’s embrace. With its lush forests, serene landscapes, and diverse wildlife, this picturesque island offers a myriad of experiences to satisfy every adventurer’s soul. Whether you’re a nature enthusiast, a water sports lover, art aficionado, or just looking for a “latitude adjustment,” Orcas Island has something special to offer.
Getting to Orcas Island requires taking a ferry from Anacrotes (reservations can be made via wsdot.com), or by plane. If you’re taking a car over on the ferry, book reservations as early as possible as they fill up quickly. You must arrive at least 30-minutes before the scheduled departure or you’ll lose your reservation.
Tip: If you’re coming from the south, make sure you leave a good time buffer for traffic in Tacoma and Seattle so you don’t miss your reservation. I left a two hour buffer and still made it seven minutes late. Luckily there was a standby spot available.
What to Do on Orcas Island
Once you’re on the island the fun can begin! Here are some of the best things to do on Orcas Island to discover why it’s a must-visit destination for nature lovers and wanderers alike.
One of the best things about Orcas Island is that it’s a great place to reconnect with nature. And what better way to get really connected with the great outdoors than to live in it for a few days! Moran State Park is one of the most popular places on the island to camp. It has 124 standard campsites and 6 hiker/biker sites spread across four campgrounds:
Northend: Across the road from Cascade Lake day use area and swimming beach it includes standard campsites with flush toilets and showers.
Midway: Located near the Cascade lake boat launch it includes standard campsites with flush toilets and showers. 12 campsites are located on the shore of the lake.
Southend: This is the most popular campground with almost all of the sites located right along the shoreline. This area has standard campsites, flush toilets, showers and has one ADA-accessible campsite and restroom facility.
Mountain Lake: This hiker/biker campground is located 1 mile up Mount Constitution Road on the shores of Mountain Lake, the largest lake in the park.
If you’re looking for a more glamorous camping experience, LEANTO, also located within Moran State Park, offers walk-in platform tents with everything but the bedding included. If you’d rather skip camping altogether, the island is full of hotels, inns and resorts to stay in.
Visit Moran State Park
For nature lovers and hikers, a visit to Moran State Park is a must. With over 5,000 acres of pristine wilderness, it’s a playground for outdoor enthusiasts.
Cascade Lake within the park is a great place to cool off and enjoy a day of swimming and picnicking. This idyllic lake offers a refreshing oasis surrounded by lush forest and breathtaking scenery. If you didn’t bring your own, you can rent a kayak or paddleboard to explore the tranquil waters or simply relax on the shore with a good book. The water is also a lot warmer than many other lakes in the PNW, so it’s a nice treat to swim in!
The park is full of beautiful hikes including:
Mount Constitution Trail: Arguably the most popular hike in the park, the Mount Constitution Trail leads to the summit of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The trail is approximately 6 miles round trip and offers stunning views of the surrounding islands, the Salish Sea, and even the distant Cascade and Olympic Mountains on clear days. At the summit, you’ll find the historic stone observation tower, offering breathtaking panoramic views.
Cascade Falls Trail: This family-friendly hike is a shorter and easier option, perfect for all ages and skill levels. The trail is around 1.6 miles round trip and leads to the picturesque Cascade Falls. The waterfall, nestled in a lush forest setting, is particularly beautiful after rainfall or during the spring when the water flow is at its peak. Hiking up the trail in the opposite direction for a little more than a mile round trip, will take you to three additional waterfalls: Rustic Falls, Cavern Falls and Hidden Falls. This was my favorite trail on Orcas Island and definitely worth the trip.
Mountain Lake Loop Trail: The Mountain Lake Loop Trail is a 4-mile loop that meanders through enchanting old-growth forests and offers picturesque views of Mountain Lake. The trail provides an opportunity to spot various wildlife.
Drive to the Top of Mount Constitution
If you’re not up for the 6 mile hike up Mount Constitution, don’t worry! You can drive to the top and enjoy the same spectacular views of the San Juan Islands and Salish Sea. The road leading up Mount Constitution Road is steep, a little winding, and narrow in some spots, but it’s smooth and paved all the way up. If the 2,400 foot summit isn’t high enough for your viewing pleasure, climb to the top of the stone watchtower and enjoy 360 degree views of Mount Baker, the North Cascades and other islands.
Go Whale Watching:
Orcas Island is appropriately named as one of the best places in the world for whale watching. Hop on a guided boat tour to witness majestic orcas, humpback whales, gray whales, and porpoises gracefully navigating the Salish Sea. The experience of observing these magnificent creatures in their natural habitat is truly awe-inspiring and unforgettable.
We didn’t have time to do a whale watching tour while staying on the island, but some of the locals I spoke with highly recommended taking the tour from Deer Harbor Charters. Tours run nearly every day in the high season and cost between $119 – $125 for 18 and over with special rates for seniors and children.
Explore Eastsound Village:
Head to Eastsound, the heart of Orcas Island, for a charming village experience. Stroll along the bustling streets lined with boutiques, art galleries, and local eateries. Sample regional delicacies, browse unique handcrafted souvenirs, and immerse yourself in the island’s vibrant arts and culture scene.
If you’re visiting over a weekend in the summer, don’t miss the giant farmers market that takes place every Saturday morning. Farmers and artisans from all over the island come together and offer up delicious food, fresh produce and beautiful handicrafts. There is also live music and activities.
Turtleback Mountain Preserve:
Hike the trails of Turtleback Mountain Preserve to witness the island’s diverse flora and fauna. The preserve offers multiple hiking options with varying levels of difficulty. As you explore the trails, keep an eye out for the diverse bird species and other wildlife that call this place home.
The most popular hiking trail in the Turtleback Mountain Preserve on Orcas Island is the “Turtleback Mountain Trail.” This trail leads to the summit of Turtleback Mountain and offers hikers breathtaking panoramic views of the San Juan Islands, the Salish Sea, and the surrounding mountains. The trail is approximately 3.5 miles round trip and provides a moderately challenging yet rewarding hiking experience.
Kayak in the Bioluminescence:
Experience the island’s magical bioluminescence phenomenon by taking a guided kayak tour after sunset. Paddle through the sparkling waters as tiny bioluminescent organisms create an otherworldly light show. It’s a truly surreal experience that will leave you in awe of nature’s wonders.
There are several companies that run tours but tours take place during the dark phases of the moon, the bioluminescence is too hard to see with a bright moon. If you aren’t lucky enough to visit during a dark moon, there are also sunset and full moon kayaking tours available.
Visit the Rosario Museum
Tucked away within the Rosario Resort & Spa, the Rosario Museum is a hidden gem and cultural treasure. Once the private mansion of shipbuilder and entrepreneur Robert Moran in the early 20th century, the museum now welcomes visitors to explore its rich heritage and art collection. See the private bedrooms, bathrooms and sitting areas that the family once called home. The walls are littered with photographs of the island, and Moran family from the early 20th century and showcase Moran’s love of ships. On certain days and times, you can even enjoy a concert on the grand piano in the music room.
Take a Drive the Orcas Island Scenic Byway
Stretching from Deer Harbor on the west side of the island to Doe Bay on the east side of the island, this scenic byway winds through some of the most scenic farmlands, seascapes and tucked away hamlets on the island. The drive takes around 2-3 hours to complete – longer depending on time spent at each stop. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the island.
Enjoy a Low Tide
During a very low tide, Indian Island, which is normally surrounded by water, becomes accessible via a “tombolo” – a raised trail that is uncovered by ebbing water. Low tide is also a great time to explore the many tide pools around the island. The ones on the beach of Obstruction Pass State Park are exceptionally good! We saw so many sea stars, crabs, and anemones there during low tide.
No matter how you choose to spend your time, Orcas Island is a perfect blend of kicked back island vibes and Pacific Northwest adventure. So, pack your bags and enjoy the magic of Orcas Island!