Due to its immense natural beauty, plethora of outdoor activity and abundance of wildlife, the San Juan Islands are a favorite destination for both Washington residents and tourists.
Comprising of an archipelago between Vancouver Island and Washington state, the islands have a rich ecosystem and pristine landscapes allowing visitors to experience the idyllic Pacific Northwest scenery. Sitting in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, the San Juan Islands actually receives less rain than Seattle making it a prime vacation destination year round.
Of all the islands, Orcas Island or the “gem of the San Juan Islands” is considered to be the most beautiful. Home to a huge state park, several lakes and various harbors and bays, Orcas Island holds countless of things to do and adventures to embark on. Even though the island is small, you can spend every day full of fun, relaxation and excitement.
Need some ideas of what to put on your agenda? Here’s our list of 10 things to do on Orcas Island, Washington.
Camp at Moran State Park
With 151 campsites and 15 primitive sites, the camping at Moran State Park is excellent to say the least. This 5,252 acre state park offers endless hiking trails, scenic views and outdoor activities making every visitor wish they had more time to spend exploring. The Moran State Park camp sites is the perfect home base to explore the island.
Camping is one of the best ways to experience the Pacific Northwest summers, not to mention it’s much more fun than staying a hotel if you want to “become one with nature.” If you’re not quite keen on sleeping in a tent, there is a glamping section in the state park.
You need to make reservations for campsites and if you’re going in the summer, reserve early as spots go very fast. You can make them online and pay for it on the Moran State park website.
Remember the state park is dog friendly so don’t leave your furry friend at home!
Hike/Bike/Drive up Mount Constitution
For the best view from the highest point in the San Juans, hike/bike or drive 2,407 feet up Mount Constitution in Moran State Park. Have a picnic and climb up the stone tower for views of the San Juan Islands, Vancouver Island and the Canadian Gulf Islands.
Off in the distance you can spot the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges along with Mount Baker and Mount Rainier on a clear day.
See the Famous Orca Whales
Although Orcas Island wasn’t actually named after these beautiful animals, the orca whale watching is an absolute must do activity when visiting. This little corner of the world is one of the best to see orcas as it is home to the Southern Resident Killer Whales, population around 85.
If your goal is to see orca whales, then you must take a whale/wildlife watching expedition. There are a few charters that take visitors out on the boat for the sole reason to see these majestic mammals. You can also spot other wildlife such as seals, bald eagles and porpoises along the way.
A tour costs around $85 a person and you can book the tours at the stands in town or online.
With more than 38 trails in Moran State Park alone, it’s safe to say that the hiking on Orcas Island doesn’t disappoint. Wander around lakes, visit waterfalls and venture into the wilderness. Pick and choose the hike of your choice from leisurely loops to challenging climbs all while enjoying mountain, island and water views.
Bring a pole and fish at the many lakes on Orcas Island or go on a charter to catch salmon, halibut and more. Take advantage of both freshwater lakes and saltwater sea.
Ferry to the Other Islands
Lopez Island, San Juan Island and Shaw Island. These are the islands that most tourists visit although there are a designated 172 islands and reefs in the San Juan County. There are no bridges or walkways that connect them together, the only way to get around is by boat or by plane.
It’s worth taking a day to discover the natural treasures on the other islands, not to mention the ferry views are beautiful!
Enjoy the Lakes
There are 5 main lakes on Orcas Island to enjoy water sports on. The most popular lake is Cascade Lake where visitors can rent kayaks, paddle boats and canoes or swim, fish and relax. There are also trails that run along the lakes to stunning viewpoints like the Twin Lakes trail.
Sea kayaking is one of the top activities to do at Orcas Island for good reason. Experience the islands by water as you glide silently through the sea. Watch as bald eagles fly above you and sea lions playfully swim around you.
Kayak during sunset, moonlight, on the lakes or to the outer islands. You can find places to rent kayaks in town or at the harbors.
Drive Around the Island for Scenic Views
Shaped like a horseshoe and with a land area of 57.3 square miles, Orcas Island offers many opportunities for beautiful scenic views. The best way is to drive around the whole island from the Orcas Village Ferry dock to Deer Harbor to the east and Obstruction Pass Park to the west.
Drive through the forest, along the lakes and bays and past the harbors for stunning Pacific Northwest scenery full of Western red cedar, Western hemlock and Douglas fir.
Relax and Enjoy the Great Outdoors
Relax, you’re on island time now. There’s no need to rush at Orcas Island. Savor every breathe of fresh air, admire all the scenic views and let yourself sink into nature. Take an extra minute or two to enjoy the waterfall and wake up early to see the sunrise.
When it comes to having the quintessential Pacific Northwest trip, there is one crucial component. And that is to have the best time, no matter how hard the hike is or how much your arms ache from kayaking. It’s all part of the experience.
Tips for Visiting Orcas Island
- Summer is obviously the best time to go. You can camp, glamp or book a hotel.
- When leaving, make sure to go early to buy tickets for the ferry and to get in line. Tickets go fast in the summer and you should get there at least 2 hours early.
- You will need to get a Discover Pass for state parks in Washington. If you book a campsite online, the pass price is included.
- You need to check in at the office to the campgrounds to pick up your pass and hang it in your car.
- Even in the summer, it gets chilly at night so make sure to bring warm blankets, sweatshirts and long pants if you’re camping.
- The campsite to town is only about a 15 minute drive so you’re not too far from the supermarket and restaurants.
- This place is great for landscape and nature photographers as there are waterfalls, great view points and lots of wildlife. Bring a wide angle lens or a telephoto zoom lens for birders. If you’re going kayaking, a GoPro or any waterproof action cam is best.
- Closed toed hiking shoes are best. Hiking sandals will work but it still gets kinda cold (you could do the epic Pacific Northwest sandals plus socks combo though). I wore regular running shoes and Yeison bought a pair of KEEN hiking shoes. They do have clothing stores on the island.
- You can book whale watching and other tours when you get there but make sure it’s at least 1-2 days in advance. We managed to book the orca whale watching tour for the same afternoon but it was a little bit more expensive.