The largest island in the San Juan Archipelago, Orcas Island, is a serene, unspoiled getaway. The horseshoe-shaped, 56.9 Square Mile island features 125 miles of coastline. It is complete with a pebble beach dotted shoreline and mountains providing dramatic, panoramic vistas of the surrounding areas. The island’s old-growth forests are dense with ancient towering trees and quaint shore towns populated by artists. Orcas Island presents innumerable activities for any outdoor enthusiast, from hiking and biking to kayaking and horseback riding to whale watching and checking out the area’s other abundant wildlife.
Orca Island: A Brief History
The Orcas Island Historical Museum, located in Eastsound, is a must-visit for any history buff. The museum is housed in six cabins built by homesteaders between the 1870s and 90s. The museum covers the island’s history from Native American tribes, primarily the Lummi band of the Salish people, to the early European settlers. The Lummi used the island as a shellfishing ground during the summer and for foraging year-round. The powerful Hudson’s Bay Company sent European trappers in 1843 to “settle” the area; they began trading with the locals in addition to farming and raising sheep. The island has featured several prominent industries that faded and evolved into something new. In the late 1800’s it was the lumber industry, and logging was pervasive. Beginning in the early 1900s and lasting until the 1930s, the island was known for its booming fruit trade, which went bust due to increased competition from the mainland. Following the fruit boom, today’s standbys fishing and tourism became the dominant industries and remain so to this day.
Historical Resorts: Modern Luxury
Visitors to Eastsound can take in the historic and insanely picturesque Outlook Inn, which early settler Charles Shattuck built in 1876. At the time, the resort was a haven offering anything and everything early pioneers needed. Today visitors can stay in the original historical building or in the new and top-of-the-line Water’s Edge rooms, which feature all of the trappings of modern luxury with unobstructed views of Fishing bay. Anyone can enjoy brunch, dinner, or happy hour at the highly acclaimed New Leaf Cafe.
The Doe Bay Resort and Retreat was originally one of the island’s first post offices and taverns. In the 1920’s it featured a dock home to a large fleet of boats dubbed the “mosquito fleet.” Today the resort features- a bevy of cabins, campsites, yurts, a treehouse, outdoor soaking tubs, a yoga studio, two beaches, live music performances in the summer, and a lovely organic garden that supplies the resort’s cafe with produce.
Orca Island Activities
Eastsound, the hub of Orcas Island, was named “One of America’s Top Twelve small-town Art places.” Eastsound is home to Orcas Island Pottery which has been around since 1945 and takes the title of the oldest pottery in the United States. The Orcas Center, also in Eastsound, is a performing art and community theatre that features frequent performances year-round.
The Orcas Island Artworks Gallery is located in the tiny hamlet of Olga, about 20 miles south of Eastsound. The gallery is located on the site of the historic Olga Strawberry Barrelling Plant. A co-op founded in 1981, Artworks is one of the oldest artistic cooperatives in the country and features an impressive collection of local arts and crafts produced on the San Juan Islands. Forty-five local artists are featured, and the mediums they work with include- woodwork, paintings, pottery, fiber art, wearable art, glass, sculpture, jewelry, and more.
Parks, Forrests, Hiking
Turtleback Mountain is a much-beloved hiking spot that, at its peak, reaches 1,520 ft. making it the second tallest spot on the island. The mountain, located on Orcas Island’s westside, features spectacular vistas of the waters below and the local flora and fauna at the peak and upon ascent. An eight-mile network of trails climbs the turtle’s “back,” connecting the north and south trailheads. An additional one-mile trail takes hikers to the top or the turtle’s “head,” where some of the best views in the entire San Juan archipelago can be taken in. The trails lead through thickly forested areas and wide open grassy meadows alike.
Moran State Park is a sprawling 5,252-acre park that allows camping and features five freshwater lakes and 38 miles of trails perfect for hiking, mountain biking, or bird watching. The park also offers horseback riding and boat rentals. Moran State Park is home to an old-growth forest surrounding Mountain Lake, with soaring trees estimated to be over 300 years old. Tree types include- Sitka Spruce, Douglass Firs, Western Red Cedars, and Big Leaf Maple in abundance. The Western Hemlock, Grand Fir, Shore Pine, and Pacific Yew are all native trees that exist but sparsely. The park also features the tallest point on the island, Mt. Constitution, which sits at 2,409 ft. and offers commanding views of the surrounding San Juan Islands, American and Canadian cities, and the majestic volcanic Cascade Range mountains. Atop the mountain sits a stone observation tower which the Civilian Conservation Corps built in 1936.
Whale-Watching & Other Wildlife
No trip to the San Juan Islands, especially Orcas Island, would be complete without a whale-watching tour. These tours feature the possibility of seeing a variety of the area’s wildlife, including- orcas, minke whales, bald eagles, ospreys, California and steller sea lions, grey whales, and more.
Several tour guide companies take customers on whale-watching and animal life excursions from Orcas Island, there links are listed below.