8 Reasons to Explore Orcas Island, Washington

Hike a mountain, learn about history, shop at local markets + more in this charming spot for a weekend getaway

Credit: Janet Gyenes

Enjoy much more than wildlife watching on this hidden gem in the San Juan Islands

If a piece of rural B.C. had broken off and drifted south across the 49th parallel, it very well could be Orcas Island. Decamping from the city for a weekend (or maybe forever) starts with driving aboard the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes on Whidbey Island. Once upstairs, you have about 70 minutes to make headway with one of the communal jigsaw puzzles placed on the tables. Too much pressure? Cast your gaze seaward instead, and feel the city stress instantly evaporate.

Looking for respite or adventure? There’s plenty on Orcas Island to keep you chilled out or tuned in for the weekend, with a little extra to come back for.

Here are some of our favourite things to do on the island.

Credit: Orcas Hotel

Explore a Slice of History at the Ferry Landing

Orcas Island is suspended in the Salish Sea like an upside-down horseshoe. The “Emerald Isle” is the largest in the San Juan Islands archipelago, with about 5,000 residents. That means there are enough bars, boutiques and restaurants scattered about to satisfy any lingering city cravings, without the crowds.

When you arrive at the ferry landing, you’ll soon see Arbutus trees with peeling red bark framing the centrepiece of the island’s namesake village, the 1904 Orcas Hotel. The Victorian edifice almost fell to the wrecking ball before being restored and eventually added to the National Register of Historic Places. If you’re not bedding down here for the weekend, it’s still worthwhile to pop into the cafe for some liquid fortification, whether a morning espresso or an afternoon tipple. Sit on the veranda overlooking the ferry landing, and if you’re extra still, you might see a bunny in the English garden below.

Before you go: The Washington State Ferry from Anacortes fills up quickly, especially on weekends, so make a free reservation in advance. Your ticket is round trip, so you only pay once.

Make a Pit Stop at a Market

You know the ones: those romantic roadside stands with bouquets of heavy-headed dahlias, baskets of just-picked apples, silky ears of corn, and speckled free-range eggs. Take your goods and leave your money—no receipts needed or questions asked. I was instantly enamoured by one of these honour markets tucked in a bend of Deer Harbor Road (the left arm of the horseshoe), west of Orcas on the way to the marina. The unexpected loot: a jar of homemade cookies for two bucks each. There is also a Farmer’s Market in Eastsound, on the north end of the island, where you can find local produce and handmade crafts, as well as food and drink vendors.

While you’re here: Pay it forward. Forget about taking change and leave a little extra for the farmer.

Get Pampered at the Ataraxia Spa Cottage

The historic Deer Harbor Inn has been welcoming visitors for more than 100 years, and its storied roots are worth digging into. But before you learn about the former two-room schoolhouse and apple-picker cabins, head to Ataraxia Spa Cottage with your partner for a couples massage. The hour-long invigorating and relaxing treatment will set you back just $198, a small price to pay to work out those knots and get into chill mode. If you get hungry, the inn also has a restaurant.

While you’re here: Stay overnight in one of the inn’s guest rooms or cottages (two days minimum) and soak in the outdoor Jacuzzi under the gazebo.

Indulge in Some Handmade Ice Cream

If your post-massage jelly arms and legs will let you, continue driving southwest to Deer Harbor Marina. It’s where getting a massive cone of Lopez Island Creamery ice cream is mandatory, while watching the boaters do their thing, prepping and polishing before setting off. Truth be told, the eponymous ice cream scooped at the Marina Market and Dock Store isn’t actually made on Lopez—the “friendly island”—anymore. The creamery moved to Anacortes after it outgrew its original roots. But it’s a taste of heaven you won’t want to miss.

While you’re here: Work off that ice cream by taking a three-hour tour with Shearwater Kayaks and see if you can spot some sea stars, eagles and other creatures.

See the Skull of a 14,000-year-old Bison Antiquus

The intact skull of the prehistoric “ancient bison,” six homestead log cabins from the late 1800s and more than 6,000 paper documents, objects, and photos are just some of the artifacts that underpin the history of the island. You can trip back in time when you visit the Orcas Island Historical Museum, an interpretive heritage facility, which is situated smack in the middle of Eastsound, the island’s beating heart.

While you’re here: Remember to check out the Orcas Island Farmers Market (held at The Village Green right behind the museum) on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until the last weekend of September.

Eat Like a Local

While the outer fringes of the horseshoe-shaped island are rural respite, Eastsound, the centre of the horseshoe, is a hive of activity. Galleries galore butt up against coffee shops and agrarian cuisine is proudly served up at the smattering of eateries. For me, the “I gotta go back” standout was Hogstones Wood Oven, a pizza place that transcends the term, with farm fresh and seasonal ingredients. I was blown away by my pizza’s pleasantly blistered crust, topped with thinly sliced red spuds, peppery watercress and the obligatory cheese.

While you’re here: Get your local beer fix at Island Hoppin’ Brewery, which has seven brews on tap. It’s just a five-minute walk away from Hogstones.

Get a Glimpse of Canada from the Top of Mount Constitution

Missing B.C.? Get a glimpse of it from Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands. The 730-metre peak is located in Moran State Park, a 5,200-acre gem crowned with old-growth forests, five freshwater lakes and enough trails for the most intrepid of hikers. On a clear day, get sweeping views of the Gulf Islands, Boundary Bay and Mount Baker from this eagle’s perch. A tip: pay your $10 Discover Fee at the park entrance, or visit on free days, August 25 or September 26.

While you’re here: Be the queen or king of the “castle.” Climb up the 1936 stone observation tower (built by the Civilian Conservation Corps) and get a 360-view of the spectacular surroundings.

Play at Pebble Beach in Obstruction Pass State Park

For a horseshoe surrounded by water, Orcas Island has surprisingly few stretches of public beaches where you can worship the sun or hide under the shade of a big, fat book. Make your way to Obstruction Pass State Park (just south of the artsy hamlet, Olga), where crescent-shaped Pebble Beach is the prize at the end of a kilometre-long interpretive trail that meanders through the woods. Pack a picnic and spend the afternoon here or, if you’re lucky, snap up one of the eight first-come, first-serve campsites.

While you’re here: Double back to Buck Bay Shellfish Farm near Olga and slurp some organic oysters at Toni’s Shuck Shack.