Weekenders: Orcas Island - A Center of the Cascadia Universe
This post is one of an intermittent series on weekend getaway destinations that are 1/2 day or less drive from Seattle. There are so many options: seashore, islands, mountains, countryside, neighboring cities and towns. We will take a look at some of the best examples of each.
About 100 miles north of Seattle, in the most northwest corner of the contiguous US lies a group of craggy, evergreen, windswept islands called the San Juans. They are part of a larger archipelago that reaches north along the BC coast.
Above: A view of the hamlet of Olga on Orcas Island
The San Juan Islands include far over 100 islands. Many are tiny holding, at times, a single tree. Some are completely owned by a single person. Some are entirely state parks, complete with docks, mooring bouys, and basic camping facilities such as water spigots, fire rings, and outhouses. Only four of these islands have sizeable populations: San Juan, Lopez, Shaw and Orcas. These are also the only four islands in San Juan County that are accessible by the Washington State Ferries. As the WSFs are by far the most affordable way to travel to the islands, these four islands have become even more populated and have developed into destinations for travelers.
Left: Riding the Washington State Ferry
Each of the four major islands has its own individual charm and unique landmarks and assets. Each has accommodations and parks and historic sights. Orcas, although not the largest or most populated (San Juan Island is), seems to be the most popular with visitors. It may have to do with the charm of East Sound, the only town on the island. It could be the marketing muscle behind historic Rosario Resort. Or it might be that Orcas has, by far, the highest point in the county, Mount Constitution in Moran State Park, from the top of which on a clear day one can see as far north as Canada and behold breathtaking views of Mt. Baker, the Olympic Peninsula, and nearer bird’s eye views of the islands themselves.
Right: A view southwest toward Lopez Island after sunset from Buck Bay
This mild, sunny region (due to a “rain shadow” created by the Olympic Mountains, the San Juans get about ½ the rainfall of Seattle), is rich in wildlife from eagles, loons and herons, to whales, seals, otters, and deer. Orcas Island, approximately 60 square miles in size and with a year around population of about 5000, is also rich in landscape, arts, and activities. It has such a vast spectrum of things to do and see it’s hard to know where to start in describing Orcas and highlighting the must-see sights. Nonetheless, here is an intrepid attempt:
How To Get There
To drive to Orcas (recommended due to its size and limited rental car service), you must plan ahead, particularly in the summertime. There are a limited number of ferries to Orcas each day. Check the WSF website for the schedule. You cannot reserve a space, and boats fill up in the summertime, so depending on the day and time (Thursdays and Fridays are most popular), you should arrive at the landing between 1 and 3 hours ahead of your intended sailing time.
Left: 90 minutes before the ferry departs on a Friday in April
Directions: From Seattle, drive North on I-5 about 65 miles to exit 230.
At exit 230 head west on highway 20 approximately 15 miles to Anacortes.
Head north on Commercial Ave a little over a mile, then follow signs west to the Washington State Ferry Landing.
Flights are also available through San Juan Airlines and Kenmore Air.
Scenic Drive Destinations
West Sound is a sweet little crossroads on, you guessed it, the western half of the island. There is a small inn and café with a view south to the water. Getting there, you drive through farmland reminiscent of Ireland with its sheep and grassy expanses.
• Deer Harbor is a step beyond West Sound, and offers views of a snug little harbor after a trek along a rocky shoreline.
• Mt. Constitution in Moran State Park on the east side of the island is a long, windy drive up and up through fir forests breaking open to ever-more breath taking views as you climb.
Above: A summer solstice sunrise from the top of Mt. Constitution, looking across Lummi Island toward Mt. Baker. Photo Credit: Cascadia Dad.
• Olga, a couple miles south of Moran Park, is small, quaint and intimate. The Orcas Artworks is there, with Café Olga, and a drive down to the road’s end offers a peek into hamlet life on the island. A dock, gazebo, potter’s workshop, community hall and park, and a post office being the highlights
Above: The public dock in Olga
• Moran State Park offers several hiking trails of varying length and difficulty, two beautiful and COLD lakes which are perfect for trout fishing (in season) and non-motorized boating (paddle and row boats can be rented in the summer), and comfortable camping facilities.
Left: Cascadia Falls in Moran State Park
Right: Hiking Mt. Pickett in Moran State Park
• Turtleback Mountain, recently saved from the threat of development through the efforts of the San Juan Preservation Trust is another hiking gem of the island, only recently opened to the public for hiking.
• Obstruction Pass Park is a locals’ favorite. A short, flat hike through fir and madrona forest and dense salal leads to a beautiful rocky beach. A few campsites are available.
• Madrona Point is a small park and sacred Lummi burial site just a few short blocks from “downtown” Eastsound. It offers an easy, short hike to views south out of the Sound. Grab a picnic lunch at Roses Bakery or Island Market and head over.
• The Orcas Center,hosts local and visiting performances of theater and music. If you see a local group on the calendar, don’t shy away… Orcas is a magnet for artists of all kinds and the talent shows up on stage.
• Orcas Grange hosts the occasional dance, which is supposed to be truly a wonderful time.
• Orcas Artworks shows and sells fine art and craft only from full-time residents of the island. Membership in the co-op is competitive and prospective members’ work is juried.
Left: A self-serve flower stand across the street from the Artworks. Photo Credit: Cascadia Dad
• Howe Art is a magical, kinetic sculpture garden and gallery.
• Crow Valley Pottery is both beautiful and historic.
• Lamiel Museum is a continuously evolving collection of local art in a private home.
• Other Ideas
• Orcas History Museum is a sweet little place in Eastsound, comprised of several historic cabins from the island which have been moved and attached. Learn about the Native American tribes and the European pioneers as well as later history through the depression and world wars.
• Rosario Resort was originally the private home of Robert Moran, a wealthy Seattle shipbuilder. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century and is a lovely place to tour. Robert Moran was also a great patron of the island, developing and donating the land that would become Moran State Park to Washington State.
Shopping in Eastsound
Here are a few Cascadia Girl favorites:
• Farmer’s Market
• Tres Fabu
• Darvill’s Bookstore
So Much More
• Kayaking, Whale Watching, Fishing, Spas, Sailing are just a few of the other activities on Orcas. Here is a good resource for finding outfitters, charters, rental companies, etc: thesanjuans.com
Where To Stay
Inns and B&Bs
Turtleback Farm Inn
Buck Bay Farm
Inn at Ship Bay
Deer Harbor Inn
There are far more options than the ones listed here, but it is a start. Here is a resource for more ideas: gonorthwest.com
Camping and Other
Moran State Park Note: Try to reserve a camping spot NOT along the main road.
Vacation Rentals Note: These are for longer stays. Usual minimum rental is 1 week.
Doe Bay Resort Note: Very crunchy-granola funky.
Rosario Resort Note: Very popular due to strong advertising and long history. Some folks love it. Not a Cascadia Girl favorite, however the spa there is said to be very nice.
As with the accommodation list, the array of options for dining is far wider than the list here. However, all those listed below have the “Cascadia Girl Seal of Approval.”
Casual, less expensive, options
• Café Olga
• Rose’s Bakery
• The Kitchen
• Portofino Pizzeria
• Bilbo’s Festiva
• Westsound Café
• Inn at Ship Bay Note: Their scallops are heavenly.
• Deer Harbor Inn
Other Information Resources
The list above does not begin to do justice to highlighting all the attractions of Orcas… there is just so much. Therefore, here are a few more resources for research and dreaming:
• Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce
• Guide to the San Juans