Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands, and my favorite 1. There’s much here to do if you enjoy the camping and the outdoors — but it’s also a great getaway if you are more of a luxury traveler and love staying in bed and breakfasts.
If you’re in the latter category, we’ve written about the Forest House in our post about hobbit-y dwellings, and we can also recommend the Kangaroo House Bed and Breakfast and Rosario Resort, as we’ve stayed at both.
However, this post isn’t about that — it’s about camping (or, possibly, glamping) on the island, and other things you might want to do on Orcas Island while you’re there. 2
At the end of the post, there’s a map with some of the spots I’ve listed here.
Let’s start with camping spots:
Moran State Park
About Moran State Park
Moran State Park was one of my favorite places for family camping when my kids were young. The park. We’d go with friends and, sometimes, I’d get up early in the morning and take a solo dip in Cascade Lake early in the morning, beating the crowds.
And, during the Summer, you will find crowds. After my recent solo camping trip on the island, it was a slow drive getting through Moran with crowds and little parking. It seemed busier than I recalled, but my husband assured me that it had always been like that.
Being such a popular state park, you’ll want to make reservations in advance. Reservations are available online through the Washington State Parks reservation system. The park has RV sites, standard tent sites, and some primitive hiker/biker sites. Most are near Cascade Lake, some are by Mountain Lake.
Things to Do
Moran State Park has 5252 acres of things to do if you enjoy camping, hiking, boating. There are five lakes here with opportunities for swimming or boating, Mount Constitution with impressive views of Mt. Baker, and lots of hiking trails.
I didn’t spend time at Moran at my most recent visit, but when we were doing family camping there, we’d always hike the Cascade Falls trail. It’s an easy hike for the kids, who enjoyed looking at slugs, bugs, etc, and were rewarded with the waterfall at the end of the hike.
The OrcasWeb website has information about other hikes in the park.
Just be aware that there are a LOT of deer here. While that’s true for the island as a whole, I recall encountering many deer in our campsite. While I’m sure that you are careful of what you do with your food at night, our friend (unknown to us) left bread in our kitchen tent and we were awoken in the night with a large animal running into the side of our (sleeping) tent and a large hole in our kitchen tent in the morning, with telltale hoof marks.
About Doe Bay
I’ve always loved Doe Bay — it’s a private campground, also in Olga (on the East side of the island). I liked to escape during family camping trips to come over here and use the hot tubs, and once stayed here in one of the cabins for a nearby wedding.
This Summer was my first time doing solo camping here and I want to go back…with some caveats.
I won’t give a complete history here — you can get on on the history page of their website — but it still sort of has that vibe.
Amenities and events
Whether you like walk-in camping, car camping, or glamping, Doe Bay has something that might interest you.
There’s a large (and pricey) treehouse, several small cabins near the meadow, yurts — some with power, some “off the grid,” and both drive-in and hike-in tent sites.
The meadow is a great place for morning bird watching, and they have an organic garden there to boot! With chickens, and a very friendly cat (at least while I was there).
The resort also has a cafe and a small shop that has some gift and food items — but you’ll, of course, want to bring your own food with you.
Some Things to Be Aware of Before You Book A Camping Spot
I’m writing this as I met people at Doe Bay who were frustrated with their campsite as they weren’t fully aware of what it would take to get their gear to their camping spot and grossly overpacked.
If you’re staying in the car camping spots, or the cabins, this isn’t for you.
If you’re booking one of the tent sites, you’ll be aware that it’s walk in camping and that they offer a couple of wagons to help you get your gear to your campsite.
However, what some people were NOT aware of is that once you get past a certain point, there are some serious hills to contend with. A man in the hot tubs complained that he had borrowed his friend’s large propane BBQ but then had to abandon his effort to get it to the campspot.
Look at where the little bridge across the creek next to “Maya” is. Follow the dotted line trail from there down to Seal Landing. I can verify that that hike is doable for one not-too-strong middle aged woman with several wagonloads of stuff.
However, if you have booked any of the sites that go off from there — in the area of the beach campsites, Orca Yurt, etc…you will have some hills to navigate and should pack accordingly.
I don’t know that there is a “best spot,” but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to write this as I want to “keep” my spot from last Summer and just be able to homestead there for a while.
Some of the water-facing campsites on the bluff are sort of shady. I felt like the young woman next to me in Auklet who also seemed to be also doing a nice, quiet, solo retreat had a nice little “nest” it the woods, but it was a bit shady for my liking.
If you want to camp right ON the beach, you’ll either need to go with Sea Sparkles or Seagull, which only will take a small tent and have hills to navigate.
I ended up in Seal Landing — because it was available. Likely because it was more expensive. But I’m convinced I had the best place at Doe Bay (well, maybe except for the treehouse). Seal landing is on the bluff overlooking the water. It’s the only walk-in site with a picnic table and it has an expansive rock area where I set up my chair and looked out at the water — yes, there were seals out there, and auklets, and pigeon guillemots, and little silver fish that jumped up in the evening. And there was even room to hang my hammock. The only downside was that people sometimes stumbled into the campspot looking for the trail to their site, after having passed it by.
You’ll also find camping at Obstruction Pass State Park, which is closer to Turtleback Mountain if hiking there is one of your priorities. It’s also close to a marina where we took of on this day kayaking adventure. Kayaking in some areas on Orcas Island are only recommended if you are very experienced or with an experienced guide — the area around Obstruction Island is pretty protected and was a fun and easy trip.
I also came across West Beach Resort on my last trip as it was near a marina where we launched for a whale watching trip. Much of the lodging here appears to be cabin rentals or RV spots — but I found that they also offer tent camping spots, as well as “tent cabins” — a glamping-style accomodation with a large tent pre-set up with a bed.
Things You Might Want to DO On Orcas Island
Hike Turtleback Mountain
While I’d camped at Moran in the past, I “discovered” Turtleback Mountain when my daughter took me to Orcas for a Mother’s Day trip. I returned, later, on a solo trip to hike at a more leisurely pace and, hopefully, do some bird photography.
The most popular hike, here is to Ship’s Peak — a hike of 2.7 miles one direction on pedestrian-only paths if you take the main path. There, you might get a glimpse of why it might have been called Turtleback — you’re met with huge boulders, as though you might be on the back of a giant, mossy turtle, overlooking sweeping views of farmland and water. Pack and snack and take some time to sit and enjoy. 3
On my solo hike, I took the Morning Ridge trail, which added some extra time to my hike — but it was worth it, even though the weather was hot (bring lots of water). I saw a number of birds which, unfortunately, were too fleeting to capture good photos of. The area is a unique “garry oak savannah habitat” — composed of rocks, trees, and grasslands, so it seems to be a different world than the other forested areas on the island.
While the hike to Ship’s Peak is pedestrian-only, there are shared-use trails on the other side allowing equestrian access on some days, bike access on other days — a good way, I think, to share the trail.
You can download a map of the preserve here.
Visit Mount Constitution
Mount constitution is in Moran State Park. There’s a winding driving road up to the top, and there’s also a hiking route. At the top, you’ll find a large stone tower that was constructed to resemble Russion 12th century towers. Climb to the top for fabulous views of Mount Baker. I recommend going at Sunset for glowing colors — but then driving back down before it gets too dark (and the park closes at dusk, anyway).
Much of the area around the San Juans are best for strong kayakers or those going on a guided tour. However, the area near Obstruction Island is pretty mellow and, I understand, the area around Shallow Bay on Sucia.
We left from the marina near obstruction island, and then circumnavigated the island, which was a great day trip.
During the Summer, there were tons of cycling tourists on the road, particularly near the ferry and in Eastsound. Orcas is a popular area for cycling — but it’s also the largest island in the San Juans, and can be hilly. You can rent ebikes in Eastsound and — if you want to ebike around Sucia Island, Outer Island Excursions rents ebikes along with their water taxi to the boat-only island.
I’m not sure I’ll get to it this Summer, but I’d love to take my own ebike out to Sucia to explore the island.
Shopping and Dining in Eastsound
Eastsound is the largest town on the island. You’ll find fun browsing in numerous boutique shops — but, perhaps, not much parking during the Summer months.
As far as dining, much of my time on the island has either been spent camping, or in lodging with its own kitchen. However, I have eaten at a few restaurants on the island or heard about others:
- Matia Kitchen
This restaurant became very busy after it received national publicity. The food looks gorgeous from their website — but, unfortunately, I haven’t been there (yet).
Per their website, they’re reopening in Spring 2023, after renovations. We happened upon this by happy accident — we noted the signs at this woodfire pizza place that also seemed to have a multi-course farm-to-table menu. So we made reservations.
It was not cheap, but it was worth it. The food was creative, delicious AND this gourmet meal was ALSO served with a piece of woodfire pizza on the side and a “special suprise” that added a touch of humor for us Seattleites 4
- The Madrona Bar and Grill
This restaurant had classic American fare — but the highlight for me was sitting outside with a view of the bay and little Indian Island.
- Mijitas Mexican Kitchen
I’ve never eaten here, though its festive outdoor seating, lit up at night, draws me in.
- New Leaf Cafe
Situated at the Outlook Inn, they offered a good brunch (not of the buffet variety).
Go Whale Watching
You can find numerous whale watching trips from the area. I took a trip with Outer Island Excursions — they say that whales are guaranteed, though I am not sure how you can ever guarantee wildlife, but we were blessed with seeing a humpback with calf, who then put on a jumping show for us. Unfortunately, my photos were not the best, but it was a great trip and well worth it.
I also noted a number of raft-type boats also looking for whales which seemed to have fewer people on them, perhaps a closer view — but it seemed to me — also more of a potential for getting wet.
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- perhaps just because it’s the one with which I’m most familiar
- We’ve done MOST of these things…at least one of them we REALLY want to do but didn’t get the chance on our last trip as we came home a day early for an unexpected party. Oh well…just means we’ll need to go back again soon!
- That’s not me in the photo, but a hiker who was doing the same on my first visit there and, therefore, was in my photo. Incidentally, another hiker who was there at the same time was gushing about the “beautiful golden eagles” which had been circling overhead during our visit. These were, however not the pair of golden eagles that do inhabit the area but, instead, a pair of turkey vultures. Waiting for their next meal?, I had asked myself as I had run out of water on this hot day.
- This is the spoiler: a can of Rainier Beer!