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The Best Things To Do on Orcas Island, WA (Whales & More)

July 2, 2024

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If you’re planning a visit to the San Juan Islands, you’re in the right place! The San Juan Islands are an archipelago in the Pacific Northwest, located in the corner of Washington close to the Canadian border. It’s a magical region known for cozy farms, great hiking, fantastic whale spotting and more.

There are 4 islands serviced by the Washington State Ferries: Shaw, San Juan Islands, Lopez Island and Orcas Island. San Juan Island is the largest island and known for being a great place to see orcas. Orcas Island is known for its outdoor recreation and the vibrant community of Eastsound. Shaw Island is known for its community of nuns. And Lopez Island is known for its slow pace of life and for being a quiet place for biking and camping.

This guide is all about the best things to do on Orcas Island! In my opinion, Orcas has the best mix of outdoorsy activities along with cute local shops, delicious food and unique lodging. It offers the perfect elements for a fun weekend getaway from Seattle and should be on your Pacific Northwest bucket list! Keep reading to learn all about visiting Orcas Island.

Full disclaimer – Most of these activities were hosted by Visit San Juans. As always, my opinions are unbiased and my own. I want to thank the San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau board for their generosity!

How to Get To Orcas Island

You can reach Orcas Island via plane, ferry or boat. The majority of visitors arrive via the ferry! In order to take a vehicle on the ferry, you’ll need a reservation. A percentage of the reservations are released 2 months, 2 weeks and 2 days ahead of time. If you don’t get a reservation, it’s possible that there will be stand-by space available, but it’s not guaranteed and may take a lot longer.

A Washington state ferry seen in the distance while traveling in the San Juan Islands
A ferry in the San Juan Islands

If you would like to walk-on without a vehicle, a reservation is not required. But I recommend taking a vehicle so that you can get around the island without any stress!

Thing To Know: It’s not uncommon for ferries to be delayed and sometimes canceled. Be flexible and patient!

How long should you spend on Orcas Island?

I recommend spending at least 2 days on Orcas Island to fully experience what the island has to offer! However, you can easily spend longer if you have the time.

Before you Go

Please make it a priority to leave no trace on Orcas Island! Pack out your trash, stay on the trails and be mindful of those around you.

Learn more about what it means to leave no trace on the San Juan Islands.

The Best Things To Do on Orcas Island

Take a Whale Watching Tour

A whale watching tour is easily one of the best things to do in the San Juan Islands! Five different types of whales call the surrounding ocean home: humpbacks, minkes, grays and two types of orcas.

Two humpback whales with their fins coming out of the water
Humpback whales

Whales can be spotted year round, but the best time tends to be from April to October. The best way to see whales is by taking an organized tour. The guides collaborate with other outfitters via radio to find recent sightings, plus they can teach you a lot about the animals.

I had a fantastic experience with Deer Harbor Charters. They have been in operation since 1988, making them one of the oldest operators in the entire region. They also have a commitment to protecting the whales by keeping the proper distance and maneuvering slowly.

Orcas swimming together in the San Juan IslandsAn orca swimming, with it's fin above the water, in the San Juan Islands
Orcas in the San Juan Islands

During my tour with Deer Harbor Charters (in June), we got to watch two humpback whales swimming alongside each other! Humpback whales do not have tight-knit pods (and these whales were not related or mating), so it was rare to see them together.

Pro Tip: Most tour operators offer free or discounted tickets to go on another tour if you don’t see any whales, so plan your tour early in your itinerary to keep your options open.

We also saw a huge number of sea lions sitting upon Whale Rock and even saw a bald eagle up in a tree. It was a beautiful afternoon out on the water.

Several sea lions hanging out on a rockTwo sea lions fighting on a rock surrounded by other sea lions
Sea lions in the San Juan Islands

On the following day, I saw a pod of three orcas from the ferry! It was a group of orcas, and at least one of them was younger. It was incredible to see them swimming around! I highly recommend taking the time to go on a whale watching tour during your trip to Orcas Island.

Explore Moran State Park

Moran State Park is the oldest state park in Washington and must-visit during your trip to Orcas Island!

The park exists today because Robert Moran had the foresight to buy up a lot of the land for protection, and eventually donate it to the state of Washington. The land was donated in 1921 and made accessible by the work of CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), who built roads, bridges, shelters and the stone observation tower at the top of Mount Constitution.

The back of Lydia's head and she looks out at the view from the top of Mount ConstitutionLydia standing at a stone wall and looking out at the view from Mount Constitution
Views from Mount Constitution

Pro Tip: It costs $10 to visit Moran State Park, but an annual Discover Pass only costs $30 and will grant you access to all Washington State Parks for a year. It’s a great deal if you’ll be visiting any other parks!

Whether you want to hike or just take in the views, there is a mix of views and adventures in this park. Don’t miss Mount Constitution, which is the highest point in all of the San Juan Islands. You can drive to the top and it’s a short walk to take in iconic views of the water and surrounding islands.

Looking up at a white arch that reads 'Moran State Park.' It extends over the road as you enter the parkLooking down at green hills and water with a pink flower in the foreground

If you’re up for it, you can also climb to the top of the tower, which gives you an even higher perspective. Inside, you’ll find signage about how the tower was built, and other tidbits.

Pro Tip: Pack a picnic, there are some picnic tables on Mount Constitution with some incredible views!

There are also a couple stunning lakes in Moran State Park. Mountain Lake can be enjoyed from a dock a short walk from the parking lot, or via the Twin Lakes Trail. Cascade Lake is popular for water sports and there is a place to rent kayaks, paddle boards, paddle boats and more. There is also a little ice cream shop serving local scoops from Lopez Island Creamery.

Lydia looking at a small waterfall in Moran State ParkPink flowers next to Mountain Lake in Moran State Park

One short but beautiful trail in the park is Cascade Falls. Starting at the parking lot, you can hike a route with four waterfalls; Cascade Falls is the most impressive. The trail has slight elevation change but it is doable for most. You may see a lot of desire paths, but please do your best to stay on the main trail so as not to trample vegetation and increase erosion.

With waterfalls, lakes and expansive views, this park has it all and should definitely be included in your Orcas Island itinerary.

Visit a Beach

Orcas Island does not have many public beaches, but Crescent Beach is a beautiful one to stop at during your visit. You can walk along the beach to see countless shells, drift wood and interesting things. There is also a short trail that will lead you through a forest to a wetland area. This nature preserve protects birds and animals, and multiple ecosystems. It’s a beautiful place for a quick walk.

A stretch of beach area with green algae on Orcas Island
Crescent Beach

There are a few different parking lots across from Crescent Beach, but they’re a bit hidden. Keep your eyes out for them.

For sunset, North Beach offers an incredible view. There is only a small sliver of public beach here, meaning you’ll be surrounded by private property on either side. However, this spot is one of the best places to watch sunset on Orcas Island and is worth a visit. Bring a chair or blanket to sit down and relax as the sun goes down.

The sun setting over the ocean with hills in the distance, seen from the north side of Orcas Island
North Beach

Hike in Turtleback Mountain Preserve

Turtleback Mountain Preserve has 8+ miles of trails and protects over 1,500 acres of land. It’s managed by the San Juan County Conservation Land Bank and the San Juan Preservation Trust.

The trails here offer some epic views of the surrounding island. There are several great trail options depending on your time. Ship Peak (3 miles) is one of the most popular.

Pro Tip: Bikes are permitted on even number days, and horses are permitted on odd number days.

Be sure to stay on the designated trails when exploring this beautiful area.

Visit Obstruction Pass State Park

Obstruction Pass is a small but beautiful state park located on Orcas Island. There are a few different trails to enjoy, including a hike to the beach or a view on a bluff. A hike here will lead you to one of the only public beaches on Orcas Island and you’ll get to enjoy towering trees and ocean views along the way.

Shop and Explore in Eastsound

Eastsound is the unincorporated community in the heart of Orcas Island. Even if your trip to Orcas is more outdoor-focused, it’s worth spending a little time to eat, shop and experience this little town.

A collection of books instead of Darvill's BookstoreA boat seen through the large windows at Darvill's Bookstore
Darvill’s Bookstore

If you like to read, Darvill’s Bookstore is a great place to stop. Along with a large variety of books, they have a coffee shop, huge windows with a nice view of the bay, and some local souvenirs.

Rows of colorful soaps in Island Thyme BotanicalsLooking looking at shelves with lotions, sprays and more in Island Thyme Botanicals
Island Thyme Botanicals

A couple doors down from Darvill’s, stop into Island Thyme Botanicals for the best smells. They make a variety of soaps, lotions, scrubs, deodorants and more. Everything is made in small batches at their farm and apothecary studio nearby. I loved the oatmeal almond bar of soap!

Colorful jars of preserves from Girl Meets Dirt at the Eastsound Farmer's MarketSmall bottles of shrubs from Girl Meets Dirt
Girl Meets Dirt at the Eastsound Farmer's Market

Another place worth visiting is Girl Meets Dirt. They make preserves from fruits grown on the island. They also make wine and are famous for their ‘scrubs’ - a vinegar-based syrup with concentrated flavors of their fruits. Head to their Eastsound shop and sample their various options until you find your favorite!

A wall with several hanging mugs at Orcas Island PotteryA garden space with tables full of pottery at Orcas Island Pottery
Orcas Island Pottery

Finally, Orcas Island Pottery is a must-visit during your time on the island. It’s a little outside of downtown Eastsound, but well worth the drive. The unique part about this pottery store is that a lot of the pottery is set out outside among a garden. You’ll find stacks and rows of bowls, plates, mugs and more on picnic tables as you explore the grounds. They also have a shed full of mugs, a treehouse (with a kids play area, but of course I went up there too!) and some beautiful animal figures. It’s almost impossible to leave without buying something special!

Visit a Winery

Orcas Island has some wonderful wineries that are perfect for relaxing and enjoying a wine tasting. Doe Bay Wine Company is located in the heart of Eastsound in a cute storefront. It was founded in 2016 and has a mix of wines, beers and ciders inspired by the owner’s travels.

Holding up a glass of red wine inside Doe Bay Wine CompanyLooking at shelves full of wine bottles at Doe Bay Wine Company
Doe Bay Wine Company

I enjoyed a tasting and especially enjoyed The Orcas Project 2022 Grenache Rosé. It was unlike any other rosé I've had, in that it wasn’t very sweet. It was delicious!

Holding up a glass of white wine at Orcas Island WineryA small dog curled up on a pillow at Orcas Island Winery
Orcas Island Winery

Another winery to visit is Orcas Island Winery. It’s located outside of town in a stunning outdoor setting. It’s up on a hill and you can sit outside and admire the view of the surrounding hills and trees. It’s very peaceful. Plus, they have a friendly pup named Arthur who loves to greet guests. In addition to the high quality wine, they also have some local items for sale.

Both of these wineries have fantastic atmospheres, and I recommend visiting both if wine is your thing.

Visit during the Farmer’s Market

The Orcas Island Farmers Market operates on Saturday’s between May and September. I happened to visit on the same day as the Summer Solstice Parade and it felt like the entire community had come together for live music, great food and local goods. The market has a mix of gift items (everything from pottery to t-shirts to jewelry and more) and food vendors.

A canoe full of greenry with a mask on topA girl dancing with ribbons at the Eastsound Farmer's Market
The Eastsound Farmers Market after the Summer Solstice Parade

I had a giant veggie spring roll while I watched live performances and loved the atmosphere. I even got to vote for mayor! It’s a tradition on Orcas Island to elect a local pet as an honorary mayor and they’ve been doing this for over a decade. It costs $1 to vote and the proceeds go to the Orca Island Children’s House. Typically, the voting occurs throughout June and concludes around the 4th of July!

If you visit during the weekend in the summer, definitely plan some time to explore the Farmer’s Market.

Dine Around the Island

For breakfast on Orcas Island, Brown Bear Baking is a must-visit. You may wait in a line that extends out the door, but it moves fast and is worth the time spent.

A slice of quiche and 2 pastries from Brown Bear BakingPink flowers in front of the outside of Brown Bear Baking
Brown Bear Baking

Chef Lee Horswill and his partner, bread baker David Ellertsen, are the owners. They’re classically trained in French baking. Items such as chocolate croissants, current scones, sesame and sunflower bread are baked in small batches throughout the day. You can even see them being made as you order. I especially enjoyed the veggie frittata and the almond bearclaw.

A bahn mi from West Side Kitchen
West Side Kitchen
Shakskuka from Doe Bay Cafe
Doe Bay Cafe

If you’re staying at Doe Bay Resort (see more below), the Doe Bay Cafe is another great place to eat breakfast. This is best for a leisurely morning, as it took a while to get our food. However, the shakshuka was full of flavor and deliciously balanced.

One great place for lunch is The West Side Kitchen. They serve some delicious Asian fusion and you’ll usually find options such as banh mis, rice bowls, salads and more. I really enjoyed their tofu banh mi.

A plate of rice, mushrooms and bok choy at New Leaf Cafe
New Leaf Cafe

For a nice dinner, make a reservation at New Leaf Cafe in the Outlook Inn. They have rotating, seasonal menus inspired by the surrounding region. I am still raving about the miso marinated portobello and confit king oyster mushrooms. A take on a vegetarian steak, the dish came with a finadene sauce, rice and bok choy. The flavors were incredible and it was the best meal I’ve had in a while. My husband also enjoyed the Dungeness crab cakes.

Stay at Doe Bay Resort

If you’re wondering where to stay on Orcas Island, Doe Bay Resort is the best for a unique and cozy retreat! This 38-acre property is right on the water on the east end of the island. You’ll have your choice between a cabin, yurt, dome, treehouse or campsite, and many of the options have beautiful views!

Lydia standing on the porch of a cabin at Doe Bay ResortYellow flowers in front of the ocean on Orcas Island
Doe Bay Resort

I stayed in a cabin and it was equipped with a kitchen, fast internet and a view of the water in the distance.

Doe Bay Resort also has a spa, general store, restaurant and community fire pit. You’ll want to make a reservation for the spa, which offers soaking tubs, massages and even yoga classes.

From the incredible waterfront views to the unique accommodations, this the perfect place to stay for a long weekend of exploring.

Thing To Know: During certain times of year, minimum night stays are in effect.

Final Thoughts

I hope this guide helps you plan the perfect weekend getaway to Orcas Island! From whale watching to hiking to shopping, this dreamy island has a little of something for everyone.

More Guides on the Pacific Northwest and Nearby:

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