Island Experience

Best Hikes on Orcas Island

The Emerald Isle offers big trees, hidden beaches and panoramic views of the sparkling Salish Sea dotted with islands

Cascade Lake, Moran State Park, Orcas Island
Mountain Lake, Moran State Park, Orcas Island

 

Cascade Lake

One of the easiest and most rewarding hikes on Orcas Island is the 2.9-mile loop around Cascade Lake. If you start out counterclockwise, you'll pass over a stream where the landlocked kokanee salmon make their way upstream from Cascade Lake to Moran Creek hatchery to spawn in the fall.

As you make your way around the lake, stop at the highest point above the lake, where a twisted but regal fir tree reigns over the water. About halfway around, you'll walk over a wooden bridge where you can stop for a beautiful view of the lake's lagoon, where locals swim and stop their rowboats for picnics. 

Mountain Lake

There is a paved road all the way up Mount Constitution, so consider parking partway up for a leisurely and beautiful four-mile stroll around Mountain Lake—you can even jump in for a cooling swim. Beyond Mountain Lake, trails lead out to Cascade Falls and Twin Lakes. With over 38 miles of trails, 5,200-acre Moran State Park offers something for every fitness level.

The basic lake hike trail starts at the Mountain Lake parking lot halfway up Mt. Constitution, at about 900-feet elevation. If you are facing the lake, you can go either direction, although I like to walk counter clockwise. The trail starts out, and remains, wide and soft, padded with duff. It has a gentle slope for most of the loop, with some interesting stops along the way, through forest of Western Red Cedar, Douglas fir, salmonberries and salal berries, ferns and an endless array of mosses and flora to photograph and discover. There’s a weir, or concrete waterfall to cross, and a few felled trees to walk over or under.

There are several campsites along the lake, so you can wake up to the song of forest birds and a view of the placid water. The coolest thing about the Mountain Lake Trail is that it is the perfect length for a leisurely two-hour outing, including time to sit on the lake’s dock and dangle your feet in the water, or dive into the clear water to cool off on a hot summer day.

 

Mount Constitution

If you want the challenge of a steep hike and the reward of breathtaking views, grab your hiking boots and a packed lunch and head to Mount Constitution in Moran State Park, the highest point in the San Juan Islands—2,409 feet. It’s not a hike to be rushed, however, as there is a lot to appreciate on the way up. Hike from the cool shade of old-growth forest to sunshine and wildflowers in alpine meadows.

From the summit, you’ll have 360-degree views of the San Juan Islands, Vancouver, and the mainland, bracketed by snow-tipped Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier. Enjoy an added touch of historical interest in the watchtower, built from hand-cut stone by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936.

Obstruction Pass State Park, Orcas Island, Washington
Turtleback Mountain, Orcas Island, Washington, Photography by Monica Bennett

 

Obstruction Pass State Park

Obstruction Pass is a small gem for those seeking the atmosphere of a wilderness escape. Situated at the far southeastern tip of Orcas, Obstruction Pass offers 80 acres of parkland to explore plus 10 campsites. The main trails run well under a mile through lush vegetation and forest.

The easterly trail leads to a 150-yard beach unique in the islands, covered with interestingly shaped rocks - some triangular—as well as views of Lopez Island, Blakely Island, and Obstruction Island. The westerly trail ends in a panoramic water view and great picnic site.

Turtleback Mountain Preserve - Ship Peak Trail

With dramatic views of snow-capped mountains and scattered islands, the Ship Peak Trail is a favorite local loop trail. Open grassy hillsides and Garry oaks stretch out along a 2.9 trail ascending 860 feet. The South Trail crosses a stream, winding up to wildflower-covered slopes in springtime.

After about 1.2 miles you’ll reach the West Overlook, a perfect place to rest and savor a spectacular view from the comfort of a bench. Continue about .3 miles to the intersection with the Lost Oak Trail on the open peak, turn right on a short spur to the Ship Peak Overlook. Linger here to drink in the view and take panoramic photographs before returning to the Lost Oak trail by retracing your steps and turning right at the junction. Descend first through mature oak and Douglas fir forest, then denser, darker woods to the old road where you started.

One can hike all day in the San Juan County Land Bank’s 1,718-acre preserve. The Ship Peak trail connects with the rest of the Preserve’s trail system, however, step-for-step no other trail rivals its spectacular sweeping views or variety of landscape. Download a map and info: www.sjclandbank.org.