In the waning days of this past July, a killer whale—soon to be known to the world as Tahlequah—gave birth to a calf in the waters off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia. The event was a cause for celebration for Tahlequah’s endangered pod, whose 75 members had not seen a live birth in nearly three years. But within less than an hour, the calf had stopped moving. And in an extraordinary act of mourning, Tahlequah spent the next 17 days with the body of her dead baby balanced upon her nose, pushing the calf for upwards of 60 miles a day rather than letting her sink to the ocean floor.
The saga of Tahlequah shined a spotlight on the effects of shipping, overfishing, and pollution in the Salish Sea, the body of water between Washington, Vancouver Island, and mainland British Columbia where the southern resident killer whales make their home. So perhaps there’s no better time to love and appreciate Orcas Island, the largest of the 172 San Juan Islands that share this special seascape.
All you’ll need is a pair of binoculars and a seat on the next ferry—we’re off to Orcas Island for the next three days.
In an island chain famous for its resident killer whales, you wouldn’t be alone in assuming a connection between the name of Orcas Island and the orcas themselves. But the name is actually a shortened form of Horcasitas, a reference to Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, the viceroy of New Spain who sponsored an expedition to the Pacific Northwest in 1791.
Like the viceroy’s men, your introduction to Orcas Island will come on board a boat—in this case, a Washington State Ferry sailing westward from Anacortes. Upon docking, you’ll grab a sandwich to go from the Orcas Village Store (10 Killebrew Lake Road) and follow the road to Eastsound by way of picturesque farms and orchards. Your objective? To set up camp in Moran State Park, where the 12-site Southend Campground offers a lakefront setting you won’t soon forget.
Insider Tip: It’s hard to beat the sunset views from Southend sites 14 and 15 on Cascade Lake. Online reservations can be made up to nine months in advance.
The Eastsound Boys And West End Girls
For a sleepy village of just a few thousand residents, Eastsound has a way of punching above its weight. Tidily tucked on these quaint, quiet streets is a wonderful collection of cafés and markets, where you’ll find everything from freshly baked breads to the island’s finest produce.
The best mornings begin with warm, seasonal pastries at Brown Bear Baking (29 N. Beach Road), a specialty benedict at New Leaf Café, and a lunchtime picnic packed with an assist from Island Market (469 Market Street) and the summer farmers market (N. Beach Road). As for the evenings? Seek out the company of a wood-fired pizza at Hogstone’s Wood Oven (460 Main Street), where almost every dish served in the garden is sourced by island ingredients.
Climb Every Mountain
Of the five lakes, 38 miles of trails, and 5,200 acres that fit within the boundaries of Moran State Park, one landmark manages to (quite literally) stand above the rest. The 2,409-foot summit of Mt. Constitution is the highest peak in the San Juan Islands, offering sweeping views of Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and downtown Vancouver on a clear day.
The summit can be reached by car, by bike, or on foot, with hiking options that tend toward the relaxing (park at Cold Springs and join the Mt. Constitution Trail, three miles roundtrip) as well as the challenging (begin the Mt. Constitution Loop Trail at the Mountain Lake picnic shelter, 6.7 miles roundtrip). But between us, the view is most rewarding when you’ve put in some leg work to get there.
Doe, A Deer
It doesn’t get much more local than the cuisine at Doe Bay Café, where each meal is a product of the vegetables, herbs, fruit trees, and chickens in the onsite organic garden. And if ricotta doughnuts, French toast with basil sugar, and other seed-to-table creations don’t charm you, the restaurant’s terrace on the waterfront most certainly will (107 Doe Bay Road).
Obstruction Junction, What’s Your Function?
The name suggests a hazard or a bit of unwanted trouble, but what you’ll find in the 76 acres of Obstruction Pass State Park is anything but. These rocky bluffs on the island’s southeastern tip are the realm of secluded campsites, canopies of Pacific madrone, and more than a mile of public saltwater beach and shoreline. It’s the perfect place to take a hike in solitude, moor your boat for the evening, or simply sit down to enjoy a sandwich packed with love from Roses Bakery Café (382 Prune Alley).
You Need Someone Ælder And Wiser
If it’s the land and the sea that you’ve come to experience, there’s no better capstone to a weekend on Orcas than an evening at Ælder. Hogstone’s sister restaurant is an ever-changing, ever-innovating showcase of Pacific Northwest terroir, with ingredients, flavors, and techniques that follow the whims of the seasons. The vegetable-focused tasting menu will give you more than a Sunday night dinner—it’s a sensory souvenir that will give you every reason to return (460 Main Street).
A Few Notes
So, how exactly do the Washington State Ferries work? Anacortes is your launching point to reach Orcas Island, and online reservations for this route are highly recommended for travelers with vehicles, especially in the summer. The reservation slots are released in phases: the first third become available two months before the start of the season; the second third are released two weeks before the sailing date; and the final third become available two days before the sailing date. Yes, it’s a complicated system, so click here to explore the website if you have any questions.
TITLE: The view looking eastward from Mt. Constitution | FRIDAY: The view from the Washington State Ferry; the view from the Washington State Ferry | SATURDAY: The shores of Eastsound; the view from the Mt. Constitution Loop Trail; looking toward Canada from Mt. Constitution; the view from Mt. Constitution | SUNDAY: Buck Bay; sunset at Obstruction Pass State Park; sunset at Cascade Lake in Moran State Park.