Orcas Island is our favorite of the San Juan Islands, and it makes a perfect weekend getaway from Seattle. We’re big hikers, which means we were a little disappointed to find that there really aren’t too many good hikes on San Juan Island, which is the most visited island in the archipelago. There are tons of great things to do on San Juan Island, but hiking really isn’t one of them. But on Orcas, you’ll have your choice of hiking trails to choose from, whether you’re looking for an easy stroll through the forest to a couple of gorgeous waterfalls, or for a grueling hike to a mountain summit (there are two of them!).
In this guide, we’re going to give you the information you need to know to go hiking on Orcas Island.
Planning a trip to Orcas? You won’t want to miss our guide to the best things to do on Orcas Island!
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A Complete Guide to the Best Hikes on Orcas Island
Unlike San Juan Island, which didn’t really have too much great hiking, Orcas Island has multiple worthwhile hikes to tackle, some easy, some more strenuous.
If you have limited time and have to choose two hikes for to tackle, we’d choose Mount Constitution and Cascade Falls.
Turtleback Mountain Preserve
There are a few different ways to do this hike, and we have thoughts on three of them. This hike is good both in the morning and afternoon.
The first way is to do the full lollipop, starting from the South Trailhead, climbing up to Ship Peak, and taking the Ravens Ridge trail to the summit before descending down the west side. Now, this trail is pretty spectacular from the trailhead up to Ship Peak, with multiple amazing viewpoints out to the east and west as you climb. However, the second half of this hike was a little underwhelming. We thought we’d be getting coastal island views all the way through, and as soon as you leave Ship Peak, you enter a dense fir forest that you stay in until you leave the trailhead when you’re done. It’s still beautiful, but it wasn’t what we were expecting. We’d recommend you tackle this hike counter-clockwise, starting with the amazing views and descending through the forest. This is a 6.5 mile hike with 1,500 feet of elevation gain.
The second way to do this hike is to do a shorter loop that goes up to Ship Peak, which is the best part of the trail, and then take the left fork to return to the South Trailhead. This is a 3 mile hike with 900 feet of elevation gain. This hike essentially just does the best part of the southern loop, and heads back down from there.
The last way to do this hike, which we didn’t do but we had on our list, is to hike to Turtlehead from the North Trailhead along Crow’s Nest Road and head out to Turtlehead (or Ocas Knob? I’ve seen it called both). This hike takes you out to a great viewpoint to the west, but skips the southern section of trail that we loved. It’s 6 miles round trip, with 1,300 feet of elevation gain.
Again, like Turtleback Mountain, there are multiple ways to get to the summit of Mt. Constitution (including by car and bike). I would try to do this hike in the afternoon (or for sunset), because the great views are out to the east, which means you’ll be looking directly at the sun if you do it in the morning.
If you’re looking to hike to the summit, you basically have three options. Below, they’re in order from most difficult to least difficult.
Your first option is to hike from the campground at Cascade Lake, which is an 8.5 mile hike with around 2,100 feet of elevation gain. In reality, I think this version and the second version below are roughly tied in terms of difficulty. This hike has a slightly longer, more gradual climb, while the first part of the other trail is a brutal ascent. This hike climbs from the day use area at Cascade Lake out to the northeast, which involves a steady 2.4 mile climb that gains 1,600 feet of elevation. Not an easy hike, by any means. From there, the trail levels out a bit – over the next 1.6 miles or so, you only gain another 500 feet. Once you’re up on the ridge, you’ll be treated to some pretty spectacular views out over the islands. More trail information here.
Your second option is to hike from the parking lot at the southwest end of Mountain Lake. You could do it out and back from this trailhead, but we’d recommend doing the loop that includes Mt. Constitution, Twin Lakes, and the western shore of Mountain Lake. The only problem is that the trail climbs 1,000 feet in just over a mile. Which is brutal. If you’ve driven to the summit, you understand. You need to cover a lot of vertical feet in a relatively short distance whether you’re hiking, driving, or cycling. More information here.
Your last, and definitely the easiest option, is to do it from the small parking lot at Little Summit, which is about halfway up the drive to the summit, and cuts out the hardest part of the climb up from Mountain Lake. From there, it’s a relatively short 2.3 miles up to the summit with about 450 feet of elevation gain (4.5 miles round trip). The parking lot is small with only 6-8 spots for cars, but we were one of two cars there at 3pm on a Saturday.
Cascade Falls (+ Bonus Waterfall!)
This is a short and relatively easy hike in Moran State Park with two gorgeous waterfalls for the price of one! A 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot (with a steep downhill section to the base of the falls) takes you to Cascade Falls, which tumbles off of a rocky ledge into Cascade Creek. The base of the waterfall has a nice collection of logs that remind me of that game I played as a kid where you put in all the plastic straws, add marbles on top, then start pulling the straws out one by one.
Anyway, the waterfall is beautiful.
But wait, there’s more! You actually pass a second, much smaller (but equally beautiful) waterfall – Rustic Falls – as you leave the parking lot.
More trail information here.
Mountain Lake Loop
This is a nice and easy flat loop that circumnavigates Mountain Lake, the less-traveled of the two lakes in Moran State Park. We did it at 7:30am, and it took us an hour and a half at a very leisurely pace. We saw less than 10 people along the way. Good for a morning or evening stroll, and it’s definitely family-friendly.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can add 2 miles (round trip) to make your way up to Twin Lakes, which leaves from the south end of the lake from a clearly-marked junction. However, before you do that, you should know that the trail starts to climb pretty aggressively once you leave the shore of Mountain Lake. That’s where the “easy” part of the hike ends.
More trail information here.
Obstruction Pass State Park
Somehow, despite being an island full of beaches, there really aren’t that many public access points where you can walk out onto the beach. The vast majority of coast on Orcas is private land, which kind of sucks.
One of the better places to access the beach is Obstruction Pass State Park, which is near the town of Olga due south of Mt. Constitution. At the end of a gravel road, there’s a small parking lot that leads to a two mile loop.
We tried to do this hike at sunset, but unfortunately we showed up a little later than expected, and essentially did this hike as a trail run. Which is fine, because the sunset was a bit of a bust thanks to the clouds that rolled in over the afternoon.
The vast majority of this hike is in the forest, only emerging onto the coast at the end. We don’t really think that the left-hand side of the loop (when you’re at the trailhead) is worth it. Instead, we’d recommend an out-and-back along the right side of the loop, which has various beach access points along the way that allow you to get down to the water.
At the far end of the trail, there’s a small campground just above the beach that is first come, first served. It would be a cool place to spend the night, but you’ll have to get there early to snag a spot.
More trail information here.
Getting to Orcas Island
Orcas Island is one of the four main islands in the San Juan Islands (there are literally hundreds of them) just off the western coast of Washington State in the Haro Strait. Since it’s an island, you’ll need to take a boat to get there. Well, you could take a private seaplane flight with Kenmore Air, but it’s expensive, and the ferry is pretty scenic in its own right.
The best way to get to Orcas Island from the Seattle area (or really anywhere in Western Washington) Is by ferry from Anacortes. Washington State Ferries runs the system of ferries between Anacortes and the other San Juan Islands, and also the interisland ferries between the islands.
Here is the ferry schedule from Anacortes out to the San Juan Islands. At the time of writing (summer 2021, literally sitting at a campsite on Orcas Island as I’m writing this), there are seven sailings per day in the summer going in either direction. Some ferries stop at Shaw or Lopez Island before Orcas, which adds a few minutes to the sailing time. The fastest time between Anacortes and Orcas is 65 minutes, some take as much as 85 minutes.
Reservations are essentially required in the summertime – especially on weekends when the standby lines for ferries are bonkers – and we’d recommend reservations on weekends year-round for peace of mind. You’re essentially paying a little extra money to guarantee your spot on a specific ferry, rather than potentially having to wait hours to get on a ferry in the standby line, which could ruin your trip real quick if you have a short amount of time. You can make a reservation for the ferry here.
The ferry reservation IS NOT your fare. You’ll need to pay at the toll booth for a round trip journey out to Orcas Island.
Keep in mind that once you’re out in the islands, your ferry is free as long as you’re traveling east, back towards the mainland. This means that a ferry from Friday Harbor on San Juan Island to Orcas Island is free, but the ferry in the opposite direction is not. If you’re planning on including San Juan Island in your itinerary, we’d recommend heading there first (and reading our guide to the best things to do on San Juan Island, obviously). If you’re not, then know that the hefty price you pay for the ferry includes your fare back to the mainland.
However, you WILL need to make ferry reservations in both directions to save a spot on a ferry to and from the island (I repeat, that’s TWO ferry reservations – one there, one back – and only ONE roundtrip fare – which you pay leaving the mainland).
When to Visit
Orcas Island is at its best in the summer, between June and August, when the days are long, dry, and warm. It’s also the busiest time of year in terms of tourism, so don’t go into a summer trip thinking you’re going to be the only one on the hiking trail. Temperatures will be relatively warm, but the nature of being on an island means a nice sea breeze makes it significantly cooler than the mainland. Think 10-15 degrees cooler, give or take.
Fall and spring are also lovely times to visit, and benefit from being shoulder seasons when fewer people make the journey out to Orcas. Weather will be a bit more unpredictable than the summer – it could be damp and cold, or you could get blue sky – so pack a rain jacket and rain boots just in case. Temperatures are likely to be in the 50’s and 60’s.
Winter is actually a great time to be on Orcas, but I wouldn’t recommend camping in the winter. Most of the island is totally accessible in the winter time (sometimes Mt. Constitution gets snow, but most of the island is essentially at sea level). However, it will almost certainly be cool and damp, so be prepared to do things in the rain. Temperatures in the winter are likely to be in the 40’s and 50’s, with the most precipitation happening between November and February.
Planning a trip to Washington? Don’t miss our other Washington State travel guides based on our personal experience exploring the Pacific Northwest.