by Lucas Alberg
Some people are fortunate enough to marry into money; I was fortunate to marry into a destination. My partner of seventeen years grew up on Orcas Island, located off the coast of the northwest corner of Washington state. The biggest of the archipelago, Orcas is shaped like a pair of rugged saddlebags and is 57 square miles of rolling hills and forests dotted with small communities and connected by curvy, scenic roads through the trees.
Though we now live inland in the Pacific Northwest, her family still lives there today. As a result, during the past two decades I’ve spent a lot of time on the island, from summer vacations to holidays and visits in between. A lot has changed during that time, but Orcas still feels like a hidden gem.
The island is certainly no secret, but it never feels overrun or too busy. Somehow, there are always just the right amount of people, whether that be a few sporadic folks on the trail for a warm hello or a nearly full restaurant to create a vibrant and fun atmosphere. Orcas is the type of place that the more time you spend exploring, the more you’re rewarded.
One of the best places to meander is Moran State Park. Made up of more than 5,000 acres and 30 miles of trails, it’s the perfect spot for a trail run or a hike—a lap around Mountain Lake is a must. As the weather warms up into late spring and summer, the park offers a swimming option with Cascade Lake, which has a designated swim area as well as paddle boats for rent. Post-swim, drive up the winding road to the top of Mount Constitution, which is the highest point in the San Juan Islands at 2,407 feet. The observation tower at the top, built between 1935-1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, provides phenomenal views of the surrounding area on a clear day, including the snowy peaks of Mount Baker and Mount Olympus and north to Vancouver, Canada.
For a hike on the west side of the island, visit Turtleback Mountain Preserve. Once a hotly contested piece of land for development, the 1,578 acres were purchased in 2006 by the San Juan County Land Bank and turned into a preserve for permanent protection. Less old growth and more mixed forests and open meadows, Turtleback provides a quiet refuge and views across the nearby valley farmlands and Salish Sea.
On sunny days, an exploration along the East Sound coastline by kayak provides hours of fun. Crescent Beach Kayak Rentals is a longstanding kayak rental shop with knowledgeable staff to point you in the right direction. Post-excursion, Crescent Beach itself is a quiet spot for a walk, picnic or to take a moment and soak it all in.
For an adventure, plan a walk at low tide out to Indian Island, which is normally about 100 yards offshore. Negative low tides allow you to walk with dry feet, but if it’s warm enough you can also wade during normal low tides and the water won’t go much past an adult’s knees. Once you arrive, the rocky islet is chock-full of tide pools and is a perfect spot to spy various species of crabs, sea stars and small fish. Just be sure to always keep an eye on the rising tide to make a safe return.
Established in 1906, the Rosario Resort & Spa features eighty-eight guest rooms and suites and is located right on the water and just minutes away from Moran State Park. The grounds include the Moran Mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses waterfront dining, a full-service spa and a museum. A more modern take, the Outlook Inn in Eastsound offers waterfront lodging, the best brunch spot in town at the hotel’s New Leaf Café and quick access to the town’s many shops and restaurants. For a stay on the quieter side, the Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast is the longest running B&B in the San Juans with more than forty years of service.
No weekend getaway is complete without an enticing book. Darvill’s Bookstore in Eastsound has you covered. With well-curated shelves across a variety of genres, plus an excellent in-house coffee shop, it’s an easy spot to let the minutes slip away. Right next door is Crow Valley Gallery, a welcoming shop that features island and Pacific Northwest pottery, fine art and crafts. On the eastside of the island, Orcas Island Artworks is a popular stop for local artwork from paintings to wearables and jewelry.
Eat & Drink
Though the year-round population of Orcas is less than 5,000 people, the steady flow of tourists helps sustain a variety of options for food and drink. Buck Bay Shellfish Farm serves locally caught seafood pulled in right offshore. In town, check out Brown Bear Bakery for pastries or The Kitchen for fresh, Pan-Asian inspired food. For a sweet treat, visit the Clever Cow Creamery for a house-made waffle cone and ice cream. Owned and operated by an Orcas native and sommelier, Cole Sisson, Doe Bay Wine Company has its own label featuring local island artists and serves wine by the glass or bottles to take away. For cocktails, The Barnacle has handcrafted drinks and an intimate atmosphere. If you’re looking to have a pint with the locals, stop at Island Hoppin’ Brewery, the island’s first and only microbrewery.
Orcas Island is one of 172 named islands and reefs in the San Juan Islands and—luckily—one of four that receive ferry service. Washington State ferries leave throughout the day from Anacortes, Washington; prices vary depending on vehicle length and height. Flights from Kenmore Air are also available from Boeing Field (SEATAC) and Everett airport. Upon arrival though, Orcas is a place where weekend trips turn into annual ones, and annual ones turn into the year’s best ones – whether you have family on the island or not.