Time from Seattle: 3 hrs (ferry en route)
What to Pack
DSLR + 50mm, 18-135 mm
Puffy coat/waterproof coat
Pair of jeans
Pair of Shorts
What's a Pacific Northwest summer without a visit to the epic San Juan Islands?! Sooooooooo in this guide, I'm going to give you the Orcas Island lowdown for all you awesome people looking to take on Washington's gorgeous archipelago for a summer you'll never forget!
Anacortes - the gateway to the San Juan's - is where it all begins. Now, to get here, those from Seattle would typically take I5 North, while those from the Peninsula may consider taking the ferry from Port Townsend to Whidbey Island, driving across Deception Pass (added bonus!!) and on to Anacortes - lengthy, but beautiful! If you're hungry, grab a delicious sandwich, coffee, or any other snack from the ferry terminal; their stuff is delicious! For me? Anything with bacon plus a latte s'il vous plait.
Pro Tip: Make sure you have your ferry reservation handy!! These are IMPORTANT. Most people have a reservation and if you don't, you could be waiting a few sailings before you finally get to board. I don't like to risk it.
AND you MUST arrive 31 minutes early, or they give your reservation away. Learned this the hard way.
Board the ferry and book it to a table with a puzzle because if you're lucky and happen to get a ferry with no additional stops, it'll take a little over an hour to arrive. Although, you're most likely to make at least one stop at Shaw and possibly Lopez as well - don't get off at the wrong place! It's a common newb mistake.
Pro Tip: Lopez conveniently has a painted bulls eye on the right side of the ferry dock, so grab some pennies and see who can throw it in the center!! It's a ton of fun!
Welcome to Orcas Island!! Break out the hiking boots, flannel shirts, and ditch the makeup, you've arrived at your final destination. Disembark and drive past a few buildings, down Orcas Rd. along pastures, in and out of forest, by the one and only "flamingo house" (you can see those plastic yard flamingos year-round - Orcas wouldn't be the same without them), and past a massive lavender field to Eastsound: the quaint and quintessential downtown area. Explore its boutiques, cafes, restaurants, and local shops for goods you're likely to find nowhere else. But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Before I provide some of my favorite Eastsound highlights, peruse my overnight recommendations for a well-rounded, Orcas-esque stay.
Take this recommendation to heart because I'm literally giving away my family's best-kept secret. Why? Because I believe everyone should get to experience this oasis in all its specialness! My family has been staying in one of Beach Haven's cabins for two generations. My mom stayed here as a little girl with her sister and three brothers. With just a few gap years in which she and her siblings grew older, some married, and began a family of their own. My aunt eventually found her way back to this hidden cove. My immediate family would visit my aunt, uncle, and two cousins every once in a while until my mom got in on the deal and we reserved the Beachcomber for years to come.
Kiss your cell service goodbye (unless you have Verizon), and continue down the winding gravel road through forest and down to the water. The playground comes into view as you drive up and around the ping pong table, slide, swings, and a piece of driftwood made to look like a donkey - it has character - on the one-way loop. One, two, and three bedroom cabins sit on the water's edge. The one-bedroom "Stargazers" cabin lies across the street from the water, but in luxury - it houses the only hot tub on the premises and has its own private deck on the beach. Then there's the Lodge Building with three apartment-style accommodations overlooking the bay. Last but not least, the Beachcomber - the largest of the cabins - lies at the north end of the beach and can accommodate up to ten guests. Every cabin is uniquely built and decorated - the charm is unprecedented, the getaway unparalleled, the experience incredible. I apologize for my sappiness - it's like my third home, ok? I get sentimental about this stuff!
Rent a metal boat or kayak to cruise out to Freeman Island for eagle watching or cliff jumping (choose your cliff wisely), go crabbing and/or fishing, and settle in at one of the two fire pits for a magical s'more-filled evening. Hang out with the seals during the day, hear them slapping their flippers on the water at night while they fish, and keep an eye out for the little otter family that lives in the area! You might just see them playing in the water or running up the beach.
Spots fill up fast, and there's a bit of a wait list for summer cabin rentals, but winter is just as incredible and is usually easier to book!
Just around the point from Beach Haven lies West Beach. A little more connected to the world, West Beach has modern beach-front and hill-top cabins with WiFi in each unit, and a convenient store and gift shop with a computer and public WiFi access. We sometimes would walk, paddle, or ride our bikes over to grab some ice cream or check our phones.
Enjoy a public hot tub, a fire pit, and fishing and crabbing straight from the beach. Camping, glamping, and RV sites are available towards the entrance for those looking for a cheaper stay.
Is a 4-bedroom, rustic cabin just a short walk from the ferry dock with wifi, a large deck, and a view.
Easily the best hotel in Eastsound, the Outlook Inn offers incredible views of Fishing Bay and Indian Island. Every room has a balcony of its own! It was founded by settlers in 1888, revised by hippies in the 1960s, and refined in the 2000s with modern day amenities. Take a walk through their beautiful gardens, dine in their delicious restaurant, or walk through town!
The Orcas Hotel by the ferry is more than a place to stay. It opened its doors in 1904 and still retains its Victorian heritage to this day. Stay in one of its 12 rooms, all giving off the early 1900's vibe: red, red, stripes, blue, and more red. But gosh is this place freaking beautiful!!
Pick up a hearty breakfast and a latte at the hotel's restaurant, Octavia's Bistro, as you watch the ferries come and go. Even if you're just waiting in the ferry line, walk on over and hit up Octavia's; grab a seat in the sun on their garden-flanked outdoor patio for a hot second. It's just an Orcas Island thing you gotta do.
Atelier might just be my favorite Orcas shop. The decor is welcoming with its white, wooded interior, naturally-colored decor, and handmade goods. They offer clothing (from delicate lace and vintage blouses to hoodies and Orcas Island tanks), organic body care goods, minimalist home decor, PNW-esque candles, accessories, and more. If you're familiar with The Great Pacific Northwest brand, they carry select items of theirs.
My second favorite: Nest. I'm a sucker for plants and this shop offers some really cool stuff. Nest provides flowers and gift baskets for all events regardless of its size. Check out their store for cute gifts and gorgeous flora.
For local and elegant handmade gifts, stop by Springboard. Jewelry, accessories, clothing, and houseware from locals (as well as a few select items from around the world) are at your fingertips in this trendy boutique. There's no website so you'll have to stop in and check it out on your own!
Darvill's - Oh Darvill's. This classic, independently-owned book store is filled to the brim with charm. Stop in, grab a coffee from the back, and settle in with a good book. Orcas warrants a select handful of great writers and Darvill's carries their published masterpieces - I typically pick up an Orcas-focused book every summer (and often an autographed copy because why not?)
Pelindaba Lavender Farm - If you're a lavender fiend as much as I am, you're going to loveeee this store. Chapstick, chocolate, lotion, you name it, it's here, and it's lavender-scented/flavored. This new store just opened last year (July, 2017), and although the Pelindaba Lavender Farm that denotes this luxurious product is actually on San Juan Island, this store is definitely worth a visit! (Their lavender ice cream is pretty freaking good - highly recommend)
For the early risers: Brown Bear Baking is to die for. This is one of the few places that can get me out of my cozy cabin bed before 9:00 a.m. Their mouth-watering pastries are baked just beyond your table (seating is limited indoors but venture outside for a welcoming garden complete with picnic tables and a porch with tables and chairs). Try their salmon quiche, famous bread pudding, peach (and cream cheese) croissant, bear claw, and honestly whatever else your heart desires; I guarantee it won't disappoint. Chat up the whale watching tours person in the summer, their office is smack in the middle of the garden - If I had their job, you could count on a coffee and pastry from Brown Bear every.single.day. - I'd be fat but happy and that's all that matters.
For the weekend warriors: The farmer's market!! The Saturday Market always has some of the best food in town. Delicious Mexican food, wood-oven pizza, seafood skewers, and more. This is also the place to get your local goods!! Fresh produce, flowers, and a botanical body care shop called Island Thyme among other unique items.
For the brunch enthusiasts: Island Skillet offers delectable brunch at a reasonable price!
For a fancy treat: Rosario Resort & Spa is a bit removed from the public's eye, just outside of Moran State Park on its own. Maybe you've heard of it? It's a popular spot for boaters and visitors looking for a getaway. This resort oasis offers locally-sourced foods with a killer waterfront view. With a full service hotel complete with a general store, museum, marina, spa, whale watching and kayak tours, day sailing and three pools, it's too easy to stick around. Spend some time here but don't get sucked in! Orcas is so beautiful! Get out and explore!
For those who want a view: White Horse Pub offers everything from crab cakes to Guinness Stew with an unobstructed view of Indian Island and out to the sound. Not quite as good of food as Rosario's, but the view is pretty incredible.
For the foodies: Hogstone's Wood Oven is a casual farm-to-table restaurant focusing on wood-fired pizza and veggie dishes, but the tasting menu is where it's at. Chef Jay is a James Beard Award semi-finalist and resides right here, on Orcas Island. His restaurant (now one of two of his on Orcas) serves approximately 150 dishes a year from its constantly rotating menu. I haven't heard a soul who didn't love their experience here.
His other abode, ÆLDER, is an ongoing investigation into the terroir of the Pacific Northwest islands. Explore the PNW with your taste buds by enjoying one of three set tasting menus that change as the Island and their farm dictate. Make your reservations now!! This popular attraction happens just four nights a week.
For those with a sweet tooth: Clever Cow Creamery prides themselves with their use of local, healthy, and delicious ingredients that give their ice cream that unique flavor! With over 30 rotating ice creams, chocolate popcorn, espresso, and seasonal foods, you're sure to have your cravings cured. Try ice cream IN espresso for a delicious change! Who says ice cream for breakfast can't be a thing?
The Barnacle - I.love.this.place. This tasteful cocktail bar is truly something special. Tucked away behind Island Skillet with a courtyard entrance, this small and intimate setting is flanked with gorgeous flowers and vines (at least in the summer) with a wood interior and large windows. Taste one of their creative cocktails complete with locally-produced, house-infused spirits. Or in contrast, check out their PNW wines and Orcas Island beers. Their menu features local produce, meats, and seafood snacks for an added bonus.
Island Hoppin' Brewery - "Beer inspired by the sea, sky, and earth of Orcas Island." Let's just leave it at that. Ok, but really, this place is awesome, and definitely hoppin' in the summer. The amount of peppered cheese dip, pretzels, and beers I consumed during my week stays was unprecedented. I'm from a family of beer-lovers, what can I say? Indoors you'll find the bar and an additional hangout room. The brewing section is home to a ping pong table - get ready for some intense games during rowdy hour (maybe that's just me). During the summer, this back room opens up to a patio that offers live music. Last time I was there, two women played some killer folk music - I never wanted to leave.
Lower Tavern - It's your average pub but a family favorite. Pick up food to go, dine in, play some pool, and maybe walk down to Fishing or Ship Bays afterwards, as it's right in town.
Up next, activities!! Orcas Island is not only freaking gorgeous, but it also features a plethora of trails, lakes, and outdoor excursions. So here we go!
Towns + Activities
Moran State Park
Plan to spend a MINIMUM of one full day here. Discover Pass required.
Past Eastbound down Olga road lies Moran State Park - the fourth largest state park in Washington state. Pass under the iconic arch to find Cascade Lake, which ends up being most visiting tourists' final destination. Kayak, canoe, and paddleboat rentals are available from the dock, a snack stand is open during the summer months, and a buoyed swimming area is popular with the crowd. We typically bring along our own kayaks and paddle straight across the lake to a hidden cove. If you don't want to rent, don't have kayaks, or would rather hike, a gorgeous trail follows the perimeter of the lake leading to the same cove. Take the walking bridge to continue the hike, or if you're paddling, glide underneath the bridge to venture back into shallower waters. But be advised - nudists magnetize here. I mean, you do you, but wouldn't you want to pick a spot that wasn't overrun by tourists to let it all hang loose? Maybe that's just me.
Lakeside campsite are also available here.
Continue down Olga Road, and just as it leaves the lake, veer left for Mt. Constitution Road. Spectacular, unobstructed views await at the summit of the tallest point in Puget Sound. The drive is beautiful in and of itself with my favorite spot on the entire mountain only about halfway up on the western face. See the first image on this post for reference! It was my favorite place of all time even before this talented rock-perched hippie sang some incredible mountain-esque music in that very same spot. Once that delightful experience happened, my obsession was confirmed.
Awaiting at the top of this iconic landmark is a stone tower replica of Russian watchtowers constructed in the Caucasus during the 12th century. Climb to the top for 360-degree panoramic views of the San Juan's. There's nothing quite like it!
Approximately 14 trails cascade down and around Mt. Constitution to lakes, creeks, and falls. I could honestly spend all day up there. Some bike up and down (hats off to you) and I've heard of snowboarding down in the winter. Don't miss out on this insane park! It's a gem of the San Juan's for sure.
The tiny little town of Olga - named after the island's first postmaster's wife - sits on the southeastern side of Orcas. The main attraction? Orcas Island Artworks - a cooperative featuring work from over 45 island artists. Browse gorgeous paintings, prints, sculpture, pottery, jewelry, wood, fiber, and wearable art - the building's loft is dedicated to the giclée limited-edition prints by artist and composer James Hardman, featuring many Orcas Island scenes.
The original 1930's strawberry barreling plant burnt down in 2013, but the community did its best to reconstruct this unique building with the same historic charm, reopening it to the public in 2015.
Grab a bite to eat at the Catkin Cafe, or hit up Buck Bay Shellfish Farms just down the road for fresh seafood straight from the Sound!
Deer Harbor is an adorable postage stamp town with a marina, sandy beach, and quick eats just 20 minutes from the ferry. Book a kayak or whale watching tour and end the day with some comfort food back at the dock. The Dock Store houses all the necessities and more. Pick up a burger, or some Lopez Island ice cream. For a fancier meal, check out Deer Harbor Inn Restaurant on the weekend!
A family favorite - turtleback mountain offers a beautiful hike and an escape from the over-crowded Moran State Park. Just three miles round trip, take in views of farms and pastures to the east before wrapping around to views of Waldron Island and the Canadian San Juan's. For a longer hike that hails that Pacific Northwest feel, continue on the north route through old growth forest and water views. For the shorter option, veer left on the Center Loop trail that takes you away from the ridge. It doesn't disappoint!
Orcas Island Pottery
Why is this not in the shopping section? Because it truly is an event in and of itself. Born in 1945, Orcas Island Pottery is the oldest studio pottery in the PNW offering only handmade original works. One of the onsite cabins is over 150 years old! The studio is located on the far west side of the island (under Turtleback Mountain) down a winding, dirt road on West Beach. If you think you're headed in the wrong direction, keep at it, you'll see a sign. The property is incredible!! Handmade pottery is on every corner, on every sidewalk, and in every tree. There's even an impressive tree house and swings for the kids to explore. Follow the paths through gardens and around endless tables piled high with pottery. You should see my mug collection..
Photo: Orcas Island Pottery
Girl Meets Dirt
If you're a jam fan, DO NOT miss this one stop shop for local "throwback jams." Girl Meets Dirt celebrates the ancient orchard keeping history pairing single varietal fruit with unrefined organic can sugar, organic lemon, hand-making each batch in seasoned copper pans in their on-island kitchen.
Choose between 15 flavors of preserves including Peach Chamomile Vanilla Bean, Bourboned Pink Pearl Apple, Plum Lavender, and more; the list goes on and on! A crowd favorite is always the Tomato Jam. Gift packs and sampler sets are also available if you're as indecisive as I am.
Girl Meets Dirt likes to waste nothing, which is one of the reasons I'm so fond of them! Their latest products are their "Shrubs." These syrupy concoctions are really just the leftovers of their Orcas Island house-made preserves, but pour them on top of ice cream or mix them into a beverage (alcoholic or not) and you've got yourself a tasty treat. The limited edition Peach Shrub, for example, is delectable when mixed into bourbon, iced tea, rum, or Prosecco!
Set up a tasting to try all of their preserve varieties paired with some incredible cheese! Or, create a tasting of your own at home with some of their recommended cheese pairings found on their website. This place is incredible. Seriously, check it out
Photo: Girl Meets Dirt
If you cruised on up to the San Juan's via boat, definitely check out Matia and Turn islands - the only islands of the San Juan Island National Wildlife Refuge available to the public. These islands sit just north of Orcas and offer fantastic hiking, wildlife watching, kayaking, and more - they're ideal for nature and wildlife photographers. Camping is also available on both islands. Make sure to check the National Wildlife Refuge website to see what permits you might need for the activities you wish to do. See the full list here.
Thanks for Reading!
I hope this guide helps you dive deeper into this beautiful San Juan Island this summer, experiencing more than the average tourist and truly getting a feel for this wonderful place we hold so close to our hearts! As always, I love to hear all of your feedback, recommendations, etc! Send them my way and thank you for reading!