After a busy and virtually travel-free summer we were long over due for a weekend of adventure and a little relaxation. For a long time we have both wanted to visit the San Juan Islands, nestled in the northwest corner of Washington. The islands are a popular get-away during the summer and the islands actually see hundreds of thousands of visitors that time of year.
The San Juan islands include the main populated islands of San Juan Island, Orcas Island, Lopez Island and Shaw Island, as well as over 400 smaller, private or un-populated islands scattered through the Salish Sea.
I had found a great deal on Groupon for 2 nights at the historic Orcas Hotel so that’s how we ended up choosing Orcas Island for our first trip to the San Juan Islands. I would recommend checking Groupon if you are thinking of planning a trip to the San Juan Islands, as they often will have great deals on hotels. Otherwise, I recommend checking out Booking.com for the best prices.
Why Visit Orcas Island?
Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juans, at 57.3 square miles, although it is not the most populated (that would be San Juan Island). Orcas is actually popular among artists and writers. After our weekend there I can absolutely appreciate why!
The San Juan Islands is one of the best places in the United States to see Orca (Killer) whales in the wild, as it is home to 3 pods of residental Orcas as well as transient Orcas that frequently pass by due to the high volume of salmon in the area. We had unfortunately just missed the Orca whale-watching season, which is best in May-September but sightings do occur as early as March and as late as the end of October.
–> Again, I would recommend checking out Groupon for deals on whale watching excursions since they are frequently on sale.
The islands are also popular for camping, sea kayaking and sailing. There are a lot of organic farms on the island as well, so there is a really good food scene. I know of at least a couple breweries and a winery on Orcas Island as well, although we did not visit any this trip.
Getting to Orcas Island
There are 2 ways to get to the San Juan islands; by seaplane or, more affordably, by ferry from Anacortes, WA. we missed the ferry by a few minutes so we ended up getting dinner at Bob’s Chowder Bar. The clam chowder bowl was insanely good, as well as the clam strips which I usually am not a fan of. They had ‘Friday Specials’ so the chowder bowls were less than $5 and were more than filling. They had Veteran discounts as well, which is always nice to see.
The ferry was easily the best one we have been on. Apparently the fleet of ferries in Washington state is one of the largest in the world, only second to Hong Kong. It was very well organized and the ferries were spacious and made the 1 hour journey seem short. The ferry did stop briefly on Shaw Island, which is just a few minutes from Orcas Island. There are only a couple hundred residents on this tiny island.
We arrived to our hotel in Orcas Village after 9 PM. It was jazz night, so live music was playing in the bar downstairs. Since it was the off-season the hotel was pretty empty. The room we had booked had flooded when the french doors opened during the storm, so we were moved to the other ‘honeymoon suite’ which was actually even better! It rained nearly the whole time we were there, but even in the rain the views from the balcony were gorgeous.
We only had one full day to explore Orcas Island, so we started early to make the most of it. We ate breakfast in the Orcas Cafe which is in the Orcas Hotel. Our Groupon had included $60 to spend in the bar or restaurant so we used it for breakfast and lattes both days. The croissant breakfast sandwich was probably the best breakfast sandwich I have ever had! The owner of the hotel sat down with us and marked a map of all the ‘must sees’ on the island.
Orcas Island is shaped like a horseshoe so you have views of the Salish sea nearly everywhere on the island. The island is really easy to navigate, as the names of the roads are of what village/town you are headed to (i.e. Orcas road will get you to Orcas).
Do Go Chasing Waterfalls
We spent the entire morning into afternoon exploring the island in our favorite way, on a road trip. We first started by going to the far east side of the island to see a few of the bigger attractions in Moran State Park.
Heading deeper into Moran State Park we came across Mountain Lake, where we stopped to take a few more pictures. The drive up was a little eerie due to the heavy, low fog but it made for some cool photos! If you are looking for an easy hike the 3.9 mile loop around the lake is essentially flat.
Mt Constitution | Moran State Park
After the brief stop at Mountain Lake we continued on to “the number 1 must see on Orcas Island,” and the tallest point on the San Juan Islands: Mt Constitution. I could feel my ears popping as we drove up the windy road to reach the summit of Mt Constitution, 2,409 feet above sea level. I was prepared to be blown away by the stunning views of the nearby islands and views up into Canada…but instead we mostly saw fog and clouds. There was a watchtower we would have climbed if the weather had been more cooperative, but I can imagine the view is stunning on a clear day.
If you’re up for a hike you can do this 6.7 roundtrip hike from Mountain Lake to Mt Constitution.
Obstruction Pass State Park
According to the hotel owner, Obstruction Pass State Park was a “must see for photographers,” so we made that our next stop. We were the only car in the parking lot when we arrived, which we were surprised to see. We meant to do the 0.4 mile hike to a viewpoint since I was wearing Ugg boots and I had forgotten to pack Jake a pair of shoes other than his nice dress shoes. We must have missed a sign because we ended up doing the 0.8 mile hike down to the beach instead, and I’m so glad we did! There is a rustic campground there that we would LOVE to return to next summer. The beach was a beautiful pebble beach and was very private. We ended up not seeing another person the entire hike.
It wasn’t our cup of tea, but if you’re on this side of the island another…interesting thing to do is pay a visit to the nude only hot tub in Doe Bay Resort & Retreat. The hotel owner marked this site on the map with a peace sign. We are a little bit hippy, but not quite that much 😉 **Edit: apparently it’s not just for the nudes. So we will probably check it out next time we are there! Day passes are $15 and include access to saunas!
Deer Harbor Marina
Our final stop on our road trip was to the Deer Harbor Marina which was recommended for those who like boats. Since I was a kid I have always had a fascination with sail boats, although I am yet to go sailing. This was a must see stop for both of us. The cloudy weather had managed to hold out all day until we arrived to the marina. It was just above freezing and sprinkling, but we explored the marina for a little bit, picking out our favorite boats.
I had been excited to try Orcas Island’s notable food scene, which has a very strong farm-to-table and organic focus. We were on a tight budget this trip though so we ended up getting dinner at The Lower Tavern. It actually turned out to be a really good choice for us! My bacon cheeseburger was one of the best I’ve ever had (side note; there is something about the bacon on Orcas. It was always exceptionally good every time we had it!) and Jake enjoyed his wings too. The Lower Tavern has been voted ‘Best Burger’ so many years in a row and I totally understand why. The service was fantastic and the food and drinks great.
The next morning we had just enough time to explore the main (and only incorporated town) on the island, Eastsound. I could hear the seagulls calling and the church bells ringing as I walked the streets on a chilly, sunny Sunday morning. I spent some time in the adorable bookstore and got a chai latte to keep me warm as I perused the antique and souvenir shops. I wish we had more time to explore Eastsound, it felt like it would be an easy place to live.
When we had first started our road trip the day before Jake had talked about what if we moved to the island. I was adamantly against it, feeling like it would be claustrophobic to live on an island, especially one with less than 4,500 people. After we parked our car in the ferry line in Orcas Village we strolled down to the docks to get one last look at the island and I finally understood.
I understand why people would want to live there, and I actually felt myself yearning for the same. It’s a simple life in the San Juan Islands. There isn’t traffic, there wasn’t even a stop light on Orcas Island. There isn’t fast food restaurants or big chain stores. The restaurants serve real food. The people form real relationships with one another. Without all the distractions, you can find real purpose.
It’s a simpler life on the island. But, God, it’s a beautiful one.