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The largest of the San Juan Islands, an archipelago off Washington State’s northern coast accessed by ferry, Orcas Island is a green paradise locals often refer to as the “gem of the San Juans.” The 57-square-mile island is rural and hilly, with winding roads that meander through dense forest, passing fields with old apple barns and art studios. It’s also home to the highest mountains in the San Juans, as well as a number of charming hamlets. While you could sit back and simply enjoy the scenery, you’ll find plenty of other things to do here as well.
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The San Juan Islands are renowned as one of the best destinations in the world for whale watching, particularly orca whales that come and stick around to dine on Chinook salmon. The Southern Resident killer whales as they’re known are most often seen from late May through early October. The best opportunity for a close up view is to take a kayak tour, a much more intimate experience than you’d get by joining your typical boat whale watching tour. As you paddle through the calm waters, in addition to orcas, you’re likely to spot all sorts of other wildlife, including bald eagles, porpoise, seals and sea otters.
Orcas Island, along with San Juan and Lopez islands, are ideal for wine enthusiasts with the opportunity to sip local wines. Orcas Island Winery hosts a tasting room that serves nine different varietals. Purchases are only available on site, so this is your chance to pick up a bottle or two to bring along on a picnic. Doe Bay Wine Company is another option, with both a tasting room and a bottleshop on the island. Owners Cole and Stephanie Sisson also offer pairing events and tastings, private classes and more.
Mount Constitution, rising nearly a half-mile from the landscape, is the tallest mountain in the San Juans, located in Moran State Park on Orcas Island. By climbing to the summit, a 3.4-mile trek each way, you’ll be rewarded for the effort with a 360-degree view that includes many other islands, as well as glimpses of the North Cascades and soaring Mount Baker. There are some 38 miles of hiking trails in the park, so you’ll have many other options as well if the trek to Mount Constitution sounds too challenging. That includes the Cascade Falls Trail, an easy, 3-mile round trip hike that provides picturesque views of the falls from several vantage points.
Avid golfers can tee off on the Orcas Island Golf Course, a 9-hole course open to the public that also offers an outstanding selection of golf club rentals, a practice range and golf lessons. Located near Eastsound, it not only enjoys a stunning setting across from Crow Valley, but well-groomed fairways and challenging holes for golfers at all skill levels.
The natural beauty of the San Juan Islands, including Orcas, provides an idyllic setting for some of the most breathtaking sunsets you’ll ever lay eyes on, with the colors splashed across the Salish Sea. There are some great spots for watching, like from the summit of Mount Constitution, where you can catch the light shining on Mount Baker, as well as West Beach, which offers expansive views across the bay to the other islands. North Beach is a favorite too, as looking west you’ll see Saturna Island and the sunset, while Matia and Sucia islands can be seen to the north. If the tide is low, you can even make your way further out to capture an especially spectacular view with the sun casting it’s final rays of the day over Mount Baker.
Obstruction Pass State Park is the less-visited state park that sits at the south end of the island. One of the few places on Orcas Island with access to more than a mile of publicly-owned saltwater shoreline, a short, half-mile trail will you lead you from the parking area to beach access. Unique to the area, this stretch is made up of fine gravel pockets rather than rocky shoreline and offers beautiful views that are ideal for enjoying a picnic or quiet contemplation.
Orcas Island isn’t all about saltwater, in fact, it’s home to a number of lakes offering freshwater activities, though the most popular is Cascade Lake, located near the entrance of Moran State Park. Here you’ll find a variety of watercraft rentals, including pedal boats, traditional boats, paddle boards, canoes and kayaks, along with a large swimming area. You might try your luck at fishing too, with stocked rainbow trout found here in abundance.
Eastsound is the central hub of life on the island, the place to go to mingle with locals, enjoy strolling with beautiful waterfront views and checking out the many art galleries and local shops. There are multiple eateries and bakeries with especially delectable treats here too. Much of the activity takes places in the Village Green, like the Saturday farmers market where you can pick up organic produce, arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, pottery and more, all of which has been crafted or grown by local farmers and artisans.
The Orcas Island Historical Museum is housed inside a series of six original homesteader cabins that date back to the 1880s. It’s focused on the local history of both Orcas Island and the other San Juans, with the usual collection of historic photographs, weapons, tools and household items, but it also offers a history of the island’s lime-kiln history as well as its first residents, the North Straits Salish.