Orcas Island is paradise found. With acres of pristine wilderness to explore, emerald green lakes, and a thriving community of artisans and farms, you’ll feel cradled in the magic here. There are so many things to do on Orcas Island! It’s one of the best places to see in Washington state.
While there are 400 islands and rocks that make up the archipelago known as the San Juan Islands here in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, the best known are Orcas, Lopez, and San Juan Island.
Orcas, with its horseshoe shape is the biggest of the three. In fact, it’s over 58 square miles!
We were fortunate to spend a whole week here driving wildflower-strewn backroads, tasting seafood just hauled out of a boat, and hiking everywhere. It’s easy to fall effortlessly into the peaceful rhythm of island life here.
Things to do on Orcas Island, Washington
Let’s get to it! If you don’t have a whole week as we did, you’ll want to be strategic choosing activities.
It can take a half hour to drive over to the other side of the island so you can also save time by grouping activities together in the same area.
How to Catch the Ferry
You’ll catch the ferry in the cute town of Anacortes, Washington. (Or you can take the ferry from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, Canada and then catch the Washington State Ferry to the San Juan Islands but most people leave from Anacortes.)
Plan on 60 to 90 minutes for the crossing, depending on whether you make a stop on Shaw Island to pick up passengers.
Ferry reservations well ahead of time are critical! Reservations are limited and you won’t get on a ferry from the mainland to the islands without one.
So book your accommodations and make your ferry reservation at the same time! You can make a ferry reservation here.
1. Hike Mount Constitution
The view from the top of Mount Constitution in Moran State Park is unparalleled. It’s the highest point on the island at nearly a half mile up!
On a clear day, you’ll spy Mount Baker and dozens of islands stretching out as far as you can see with a 180 degree view.
The hike here–rated difficult–is the bucket list hike for serious adventurers on Orcas Island. But you’re going to work up a serious sweat!
Plan about 4 hours to do the nearly 7 mile loop as you meander through deep forests and past beautiful mountain lakes. (Bring a swimsuit for a dip! And hiking poles.)
There’s an ongoing debate about whether it’s easier to do the hike clockwise (a mile or so of steep switchbacks at the outset) or counterclockwise for a milder slow burn at the beginning and a super steep descent at the end. Bring hiking poles! (Or find a pair of great walking sticks along the way.)
If you’re not up for a hike this intense, there are options. You can also drive to the top, park, and climb the short trail to the historic lookout tower at the top.
Or, you could hike the easier but also delightful Mountain Lake loop trail. It’s 4.4 scenic miles that are mostly flat—just 347 feet of elevation gain—around a forested lake. We loved hiking here in early evening in summer, stopping for a swim en route.
2. Go whale watching.
If you’re headed to Orcas Island, you’re hoping to see Orca whales, right?
Actually, the island was named after a viceroy in Mexico, but still…the opportunity to see the distinctive black and white killer wales is one of the main reasons visitors come to the island.
It’s one of the best places to spot them worldwide, particularly if you’re visiting between March and October.
The Southern Resident Pods consist of three endangered groups of whales who live here year-round but summer is when they are busy feasting on Chinook Salmon.
If you book a tour, you’re likely to see other wildlife, too…humpback and minke whales, porpoises, sea lions, and harbor seals. Remember to give these magnificent creatures lots of space while you’re viewing them.
Getting too close for too long stresses them as they’e looking for food or mates or raising babies. In fact, federal law requires that boats stay a minimum of 200 yards from orcas. A good tour is led by naturalists and follows these guidelines.
3. Chase waterfalls.
It’s easy to find swoon worthy waterfalls on Orcas…especially in Moran State Park.
Cascade Falls is an easy 0.8 mile down and back trail to a stunning falls. You can stop at the overlook or keep walking directly to the falls as we did.
If you’ve always wanted to stand behind a waterfall, now’s your chance!
Rustic Falls, Cavern falls, and Hidden Falls are also nearby…within a half mile of Cascade Falls. Just take the other fork at the beginning of the trail!
In fact, if you plan to spend much time in the three beautiful state parks here on Orcas—Moran State Park, Obstruction Pass State Park, and Doe Island Marine State Park—spring for the Washington Discover Pass.
Day passes to the park are $10 and the Discover Pass allows you a year of access to parks statewide for just $30. A steal!
4. Go wine tasting.
Orcas Island Winery has a small tasting room on the west side of the island. This side of the island has a more open feel than the densely forested east side of the island, with its gently rolling hills and farms.
It’s mostly too cool to grow grapes in the San Juans (although they do on San Juan Island) so the winery gets their grapes from the Columbia Valley in Prosser, Washington.
They make reds (Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and whites (Semillion) as well as rosés.
We’d just come from Sonoma, California on our visit so were a bit spoiled by truly outstanding wines there but these are drinkable.
The atmosphere is relaxed with lots of shaded picnic seating and tastings are reasonably priced (unlike Sonoma). Feel free to bring a book to while away a few hours as you sip.
Plus, you can assemble your own picnic or charcuterie and cheeseplate from packaged supplies in the fridge.
Local spices and chocolate are for sale, too. (I can vouch for the chocolate hazelnut bars!)
Where to Stay on Orcas Island
If you’d like to be close to shops and restaurants, stay in Eastsound, right in the middle of the island. If you’re looking for fewer people and more wilderness, stay near Olga, Doe Bay or Moran State Park on the east side of the island.
5. Explore the tide to table food scene.
The seafood in the San Juan Islands is fresher than fresh so make it a focus of your eating adventures.
What’s on? Local fisherman are bringing in halibut, salmon, clams, and oysters. Crabbing season in summer (opens mid-July) is legendary here!
We highly recommend heading over to Buck Bay Shellfish Farm near Olga. You can either buy fresh fish to cook at home in their market or head to their bistro, oyster & wine bar for lunch. (They close by 6 pm.) We did both!
Fish is not cheap here but it was worth every penny. If you’re lunching, you’ll sit outside at picnic tables while you slurp your grilled oysters (in butter with salt and lemon) or crab mac and cheese. This place rocks.
6. Visit Orcas Island Pottery.
Orcas Island Pottery isn’t just any pottery studio. It’s the oldest pottery studio in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a magical experience just being here, whether or not you choose to buy any pottery.
Not far from Eastsound, you’ll wind your way down Enchanted Forest Road—through a scenic forest with fern, perhaps shrouded by early morning fog—and arrive in the parking lot…perhaps greeted by a peacock as we were.
One-of-a-kind pottery handmade by local artisans is everywhere, from picnic tables out front to picnic tables out back and inside the studio. We were warmly welcomed and encouraged to hold these beautiful pieces in our hands to appreciate the workmanship.
Also, there is a magical treehouse with a birds-eye view of the ocean here. Kids (and adults) could lose themselves for days in it so don’t be afraid to bring the kids!
7. Soak up the beauty of pristine mountain lakes.
Moran State Park on the east side of the island is home to two beautiful lakes: Mountain Lake and Cascade Lake. These huge emerald lakes are paradise for fishing, kayaking, hiking, and swimming.
Mountain Lake has a reputation for being cleaner but colder than Cascade Lake. We swam it in July though and found it not too icy!
There’s a beautiful, mostly flat hiking loop around the lake that takes about two hours. Bring a bathing suit and picnic dinner and you have a bucket list evening outing.
This hike was so amazing that I’m thinking of taking the ferry over from Lopez Island next week just to do it again.
Head to Cascade Lake if you’re looking for kayak rentals. You’ll find them bobbing by the long dock. Easy to find.
8. Picnic on Pebble Beach.
Pebble Beach in Obstruction Pass State Park is unique in the San Juan Islands for its marble-sized pebbles in pale rainbow colors.
This crescent-shaped beach is the largest on Orcas Island and makes the perfect spot to launch a kayak or sunbathe on a summer day.
Obstruction Pass State Park is just 80 acres but it’s stunning with the beautiful warm brown bark of the Madrone trees framing the lake view. It’s an easy out and back half mile hike through the forest to the beach.
There are also some prime primitive camp spots (first come, first serve) up above the lake here!
9. Rent a bike.
We road tripped from San Diego to the San Juans and brought our e-bikes. The cycling here was better than I could’ve hoped for!
If you don’t have your own bikes, you can rent on island at Wild Life Cycles. While you can rent all kinds of bicycles here, unless you are a serious athlete, I recommend an e-bike.
Orcas is the hilliest of the three islands and having the extra power on steep uphills allowed us to range far and wide.
Since the sun wasn’t setting until after 9 pm, we enjoyed some pretty epic bike rides in the early evening watching the sun glint off the wild pink Foxgloves that were just everywhere.
We did a lot of cycling on the east end of the island where we stayed near Olga, but other great routes are cycling from the ferry landing into Eastsound, cycling through Moran State Park (highly recommended), and Deer Harbor on the west side (which we also loved).
Read more on Orcas cycling routes here. Just be aware that there’s not a lot of shoulder to ride on on most of these winding country roads. Still, we found drivers to be considerate and give us a wide berth.
10. Buy local eggs at a farmstand.
There are dozens of local farms here and most of them have local farmstands. For instance, Little Island Chic is run by an adorable teenage girl who makes pastries and small batch jams. (Her strawberry jam is to die for!)
She also sells chicken, quail, and duck eggs. I love the small town honor system here, too. If no one’s at the farm stand, you’ll likely find eggs in a cooler. Leave your money and take your eggs!
You’ll also find local artisans and farmers selling their wares at the Saturday morning market in Eastsound.
I found the Saturday Market on San Juan Island to be more interesting and robust than the one on Orcas but if you find yourself in Eastsound on Saturday morning, definitely swing by for a gorgeous bouquet of local flowers.
11. Soak in a hot tub with a view.
Doe Bay Resort is a beautiful resort with a down-to-earth vibe on the east end of the island. They offer cabins, yurts, and campsites here.
Plus, it’s possible to rent private outdoor soaking tubs with a phenomenal view of the bay here. This would make such a memorable date night or evening out for friends.
While we didn’t soak in the tubs during our visit, we did enjoy one of the best meals of our trip at the resort’s on-site restaurant, Doe Bay Cafe.
It’s not fancy but your $$$ meal comes with an epic view and the food is fresh, creative, and on point!
We had the King salmon cooked to perfection (nearly sushi) and an incredible spicy shrimp pasta with sugar snap peas. Yum. Be sure to make a reservation or prepare to be disappointed.
Insider tip: Many nights a week local musicians host free live music outside here.
12. Walk Eastsound
Cute little Eastsound is the “hub” of the island, smack between the eastern and western “lobes” that make up the two distinct sides of the island.
Base here if you’d like to be within walking distance of bakeries, restaurants, and the wonderful independent bookstore (coffee bar in the back). Don’t miss the Orcas Island Historical Museum.
However, if you’re looking for more of a serene, secluded wilderness experience, stay near Moran State Park as we did on the east side. (Expect a 25-minute drive into town though for groceries.)
We found the Food Co-Op exorbitantly expensive compared to the grocery store across the street, unfortunately…which was weird since the Yelp reviews said just the opposite.
But don’t miss Rose’s Bakery Café. It makes a fantastic stop for morning pastries or top-notch deli sandwiches when procuring picnic supplies!
13. Hike Turtleback Mountain
This is the one hike we wanted to do that we didn’t get to! Turtleback Mountain is on the west side of the island.
And thanks to the San Juan Preservation Trust which conserves and cares for special natural resources here, you can access Turtleback Mountain for free. There are four great trails here.
The most popular are the 6.6 mile Turtleback Mountain South Trail and the 5.9 mile hike to Orcas Knob. Both deliver stunning views of the outlying islands from the top.
14. Eat at The Mansion.
The Mansion is the restaurant at Rosario Resort near Doe Bay on the east side of the island. It’s a historic resort build by a Seattle shipbuilder back in 1906.
Even if you don’t eat here, you can stop and explore the history here. Head to the second floor of the resort which has been turned into a small museum with lots of black and white photos of the founders and original furnishings and fixtures. It’s a fun step back in time.
Downstairs is The Mansion Restaurant. In my opinion, the main draw here is the fantastic view of the bay from the sleek dining room.
This restaurant is $$$ and while the food is perfectly nice, I found Doe Bay Inn to be much more creative and delicious considering the similar price tag. This venue is much more upscale though so go here if you’re feeling fancy!
A compromise would be to head here for breakfast when the prices are lower and the view is still phenomenal.
Orcas Island Washington is a dream.
The main thing to do on Orcas is to get out into nature. You can’t go wrong cycling and driving adorable back roads like “Lover’s Lane”, “Yellow Brick Road”, and “Enchanted Forest.”
However you spend your time here, your spirit is sure to be renewed.