Orcas Island, WA is known for being the biggest of the San Juan Islands and the northern-most island, making it a popular destination for whale watching and weekend getaways. The quaint downtown makes for great window shopping and local eats, while Moran State Park and numerous whale watching charters give you a taste of the pacific northwest outdoors. It is a serene retreat just hours from Seattle with plenty of hidden treasures.
Getting to Orcas Island
Unless you are a pilot, or know one, your best bet for getting to Orcas Island is to make a reservation with Washington State Ferries. The ferry boats are quite large, but a reservation is recommended to ensure your spot. While it is possible to take the ferry without a car, and transportation options are available on the island, I recommend taking your car with you. For around $60 round-trip you can drive your car onboard and disembark on the island with an itinerary all your own. Once onboard, there’s plenty of window seating, outdoor seating, bathrooms, and a snack bar. Grab a cup of coffee and head outside to get a view of the islands from the water. After a quick stop at Lopez Island you’ll arrive to the Orcas Island terminal—50 mins in total one-way.
Where to Stay on Orcas Island
Lodging opportunities abound, but be sure to book well in advance if you’re visiting in the busy summer season. We went in late September, when tourism was just dying down on the island, so we were able to snag a last-minute place to stay on Airbnb. I cant recommend Airbnb enough to friends and family. If you want a more authetic island experience, try finding a host who lives on the island year-round. From yurts to seaside cabins, there’s an Airbnb for everyone. We were lucky enough to stay with Margaret in her garden cabins just a 2 minute drive (or 10 min walk) into town. I’d recommend glamping with her any day. If you’d rather go all in and do some full camping, I spotted several lakeside campgrounds that would be well worth the view.
Things to Do
Moran State Park is a must-see. Bring along your Discover Pass or purchase one at the parking lot at the top of Mt Constitution where you’ll have sprawling views of the islands and three mountain ranges. There’s plenty of hiking if that’s what you’re looking for, or you can drive to the top via some thrilling switchbacks to get to the visitor parking lot. The lookout point is only a quick, albeit steep, 3-5 min walk up. No hiking shoes necessary.
Whale watching is another must. It’s whale season practically all year round, but you’ll have to plan ahead if you’re hoping to spot a specific whale. This helpful calendar will tell you what you’re most likely to spot on any given month. We booked our trip with Outer Island Excursions and absolutely loved it! Our captain and our guide were both very friendly, knowledgeable guys who made the trip what it was. We ended up riding a ways out into Canadian waters to get a glimpse of a lone humpback whale and it’s fluking. Then we met up with a pod of four Orcas traveling along an island. It was well worth the money, but deal-seekers do be warned: we bought Living Social vouchers and ended up not being able to use them because of a poor booking system. If you choose to use a deal site, book weeks in advance—maybe more. They weren’t even willing to budget for the birthday girl (me). But do not let that steer you differently, I highly recommend Outer Island X. Check it out:
After you’ve had some adventure, explore downtown, with its cute seaside shops and restaurants. I wouldn’t miss Jillery, at the end of Main Street, as it had the coolest collection of jewelry and home goods. The campfire scented candle, though. I’ll be going back just to snag another one. I’d also recommend Rose’s Bakery & Cafe for breakfast or lunch. The local and seasonal menu hit the spot. There’s also a small park at the edge of town that I wouldn’t miss. Wonderful views of the sound and a few picnic tables to enjoy a snack or glass of wine at (we chose both).
Orcas Island Pottery was one of my favorite stops of the trip. On a nice sunny day, you won’t want to miss this off-the-beaten-path (quite literally down a dirt road) pottery shop. More local attraction than pure shop, it features multiple barns, a treehouse, a green yard, and a waterside view. You can easily spend an hour here browsing the artwork and admiring the views.
Unless you know to look for it, you might miss the island’s only brewery—Island Hoppin’ Brewery—which would be a shame. The tiny brewery is nestled down a side street you might otherwise never travel down. It’s welcoming outdoor area would have been delightful in the warmer summer months, but we opted to cozy up inside at the bar. It is a modest but very warm space with plenty of games and books to keep your party occupied. We got rowdy with a game of never-ending War, and then took home a growler of their porter. The bartender was super fun and entertaining as well.
I spent a fantastic birthday weekend on Orcas Island, and I can’t wait to go back for another weekend retreat. It’s a great place to unplug and enjoy small town living.