Orcas Island

Wednesday 26 August-Friday 28 August, 2015

Deception Pass State Park. Photo by Eric.

The San Juan Islands are not well known, but their stunning beauty and easy and comfortable atmosphere make them a special vacation destination. These islands, northwest of Seattle, are inaccessible by car, so the adventure begins with a ferry ride on the lovely Puget Sound. Once landed on the islands themselves, remote from the roar of traffic and the constant threat of crime in the city, you find calm and peace in a seemingly-enchanted land of rocky beaches, clear waters, pastoral scenery, and evergreen forests. Experiences like this are precious.

On our previous Pacific Northwest tour, we followed Lonely Planet's Cycling the USA West Coast's tour of Lopez Island. This time, we aimed for somewhat more developed Orcas Island, planning two days for the larger island. We planned to rent bikes from Skagit Cycle in Anacortes, site of the ferry terminal for the San Juans. Anacortes itself is on Fidalgo Island, an island with bridges that go to the mainland. The ferry from Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula drops you off in Coupeville on Whidbey Island. What with the drive to Port Townsend, the ferry ride, and then the drive from Coupleville to Anacortes, we spent much of the day Wednesday just traveling from Lake Crescent to Anacortes.

View from Port Townsend-Coupeville ferry.

Eric took a picture of another ferry on the way to Whidbey Island.

Deception Pass State Park

No visit to Anacortes can be made without a stop at beautiful Deception Pass State Park, the narrow passage between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands.

Beach at Deception Pass.

Looking east from the bridge over Deception Pass.

Eric took a picture of the shadow of the bridge over the channel.


Anacortes is a cute little seaside town.

Eric took a picture of the arched sign.

The municipal garbage cans are all decorated to resemble cans of fish. Eric took my picture posing next to one.

On our previous visit, we had been very comfortable at the San Juan Motel, where, for an extremely modest price, you got the equivalent of an entire apartment, two rooms plus an efficiency kitchen. We thought that, since we'd have bicycles with us, it would be nice to have that extra space. To my complete lack of surprise, Eric found the motel by dead reckoning.

He took a picture of the front room, looking through the kitchen to the back room.

The toilet didn't flush well, the knobs on the stove were broken, the faucets were mislabeled, the ice machine was out of service, and, most disappointingly, the wi-fi was quite unreliable, but the price was right and it was really nice to have the extra space.

While my rental bike was much better and more like Scheherazade than any other bike I have rented, the handlebars were too fat to mount my nifty camera bag without stopping to purchase additional hardware. Eric came up with an efficient way to mount the bag on my rack so I wouldn't have to ride with it hanging from my shoulder. I was very grateful.

I consulted the ferry schedule Sandy had so helpfully given me, and found out that there was one outbound ferry at 7:25, and that the next one wasn't until 10:20, arriving on Orcas Island at 11:25. We would never make a 7:25 ferry. We had about 30 km/20 mi to ride each day around the horseshoe-shaped island from the ferry landing on the southwest tip to Doe Bay Resort on the southeast tip and back, which should be easily accomplished starting at 11:25, even for us. We planned to do the 15-km/9.4 mi ride up to the top of 730-m/2,400-ft Mt. Constitution in Moran State Park, but, as there was a 20:45 ferry back on Friday, we thought there would be more time to do that on our way back from the resort to the ferry landing. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men are usually about equal.

Ferry Ride

I bubbled with excitement as we arrived at the ferry terminal in the morning, remembering the joy of our previous trip.

Mt. Baker, in the Cascades, from the ferry.

Eric enjoying the ferry.

Juvenile cormorants on a piling.

One of the many small islands along the way.

The expanse of water around us was beautiful.

The ferries are dog-friendly. There was even a bucket of dog water.

Eric took a picture of the ferry landing at the island.

Orcas Island

Eric took my picture riding along the road.

I was dismayed when I discovered that, while I had carefully photocopied the route description, route notes, and elevation profile from the Lonely Planet guide, I had forgotten to copy the map! I bought a Great Pacific map of the San Juan Islands. The map had the following Oracas Island Biking Notes:

"Challenging terrain and condition: not for the novice! Hilly, narrow winding roads, no shoulders. No bike paths. Use extreme caution when pedaling along scenic Deer Harbor Rd.; don't be distracted while riding--stop and pull off the pavement to look at beautiful harbor views!"

If they thought this road was scary, they obviously had never seen Grizzly Peak Boulevard!

Eric took a picture of the signs identifying our route as a scenic byway.

We found a geocache at this pretty marina.

The route led us away from the water and into the pastoral interior of the island.

Eric took a picture of a shiny hanging kinetic sculpture.

We came to Eastsound, at the northern part of the horseshoe. We were halfway around, and it was only about 14:30.

Eric took a picture of the beach at Eastsound.

Eric looking for a geocache on the beach at Eastsound.

I found this dead tree interesting.

Eric photographed rocks along the shore. Note the clarity of the water.

We stopped in the town of Eastsound to buy sandwiches to eat for lunch. We overheard several people in town discussing the weather, as a storm that had originally been planned for the weekend was now expected to start the next day. One person said that an inch of rain was expected the next day. Since we were doing so well for time, we decided it would be better to go up to the top of Mt. Constitution that day, on the outbound trip, while it was still beautifully clear and the steep road would be dry. We would arrive at the resort late, but, with just an easy ride the next day, we would have plenty of time to enjoy it then. My one concern was that the resort restaurant had told me on the phone that they closed at 21:00, and took the last seating at 20:15. I thought we could just about climb Mt. Constitution and make it to the resort by 20:15.

Eric took my picture riding on the quiet road.

Eric photographed the entrance to Moran State Park, one of the big scenic attractions on the island.

Canoes on Crescent Lake in the park. You can rent them and paddle out to an island on an island.

Lily pads on Crescent Lake.

The ride up to the top of Mt. Constitution was, in a word, murderous. Most of the steep elevation gain was in the first 5 km/3 mi, particularly in a series of brutal switchbacks about halfway up. We were not on our own super low-geared bikes. While we had not brought full heavy camping gear, we did have overnight items, extra clothes and toiletries. I also had my extra-warm sleeping bag, as we would be sleeping in a yurt with no heat, electricity, or plumbing. Worst of all, since we only had time for the downhill portion of the Hiawatha Trail ride, we hadn't done any steep climbing on bikes for three entire weeks! It would have been much easier to have done this climb on Friday, when we would have had plenty of time, rather than forcing ourselves to make it as fast as we could so that we could have something more exciting than Clif bars for dinner. We sweat. We panted. Although we were very hungry, I dared not risk the stomach upset that might come from eating under these conditions. This is the agony of cycle touring that must be overcome.

By the time we got to the top, more than two hours after we started, it was evident that we would not reach the resort by 20:15. A rare phone signal allowed Eric to call them and leave a message asking if they could save us some tacos. They called back right away and told him that Thursdays were a special open mike night at that the restaurant would be open until 22:00. Augh! Why couldn't they have told me that in the morning? We would have done much more riding in the dark, but we could have climbed the hill much more comfortably.

Eric took a picture of the observation tower at the top.

View of islands and Sound from the top of the tower, where we finally enjoyed our sandwiches.

Mt. Baker on the mainland from the top of the tower.

Eric took a picture looking down at tiny people on the overlook from the top of the tower.

We now knew we had enough time to get dinner, but we still wanted to beat the oncoming darkness. We rode down the steep hill back to the main road, stopping only briefly to cool our rims. We still had about 9 km/5.5 mi to get to the resort. We arrived at 20:30.

Doe Bay Resort

Our yurt.

Eric's picture of the inside of our yurt. There was plenty of room for the bikes.

But the window covers were open, and low temperatures were expected overnight, and we wanted them closed. We were unable to reach the covers ourselves. While our yurt was out on a lovely promontory, it was far from the office and restaurant. Eric had to bring someone from the office all the way out to the yurt to cover the windows while I went to the restaurant and ordered yummy salmon tacos for us. The food at Doe Bay was very, very good.

Our yurt was on this remote promontory.

By the time we were finished with our delicious dinner and ready for a nice hot soak, it was 22:00. We headed for the tubs and found a sign saying "Closed at 10:00."

10:00? Really? How brutally disappointing! We headed back to the yurt and went to sleep. At least we would have plenty of time to soak with only 37 km/23 mi to ride before 20:45 the next day.

A light rain fell all night. Landing on the roof of the yurt, it sounded like a downpour. But we were so tired from the climb up Mt. Constitution, we slept until 8:00.

Skylight at the top of the yurt.

View from next to the yurt.

Rocks on the beach below our yurt.

Kayak trip on the water. As the kayak tours were three hours, we didn't have time to take one, even with the late ferry.

I took a surreptitious picture of a camper relaxing with her coffee on a lower section of the promontory. The setting was idyllic.

Of course, by the time we were showered and dressed, it was close to the 11:00 check-out time. We would have to check out before breakfast and leave the bikes locked up while we enjoyed the resort. At least it was nothing like leaving a bike with panniers on it locked to a wooden structure with a cable lock in Oakland. This is part of the joy of these islands, conditions that are so different from those back home.

As we pushed the bikes along the path on the way to the restaurant for breakfast, Eric took a picture of one of the other types of lodging, a dome. They did also have cabins with plumbing and electricity.

Our breakfast was expensive, but it was the best meal we'd had on the trip. Eric had an earthy-flavored duck egg omelet. I had biscuits with mushroom gravy and scrambled (chicken) eggs with cheese and potatoes. It was quite delicious.

Eric took a picture of reflections on the beach from behind the restaurant.

Surreptitious picture of lovers looking out over the Sound.

At last, it was time to enjoy the hot tubs!

We couldn't find any towels there, and were told that you had to rent them back at the office. When we went back there to ask for them, the desk clerk told us that there were no clean and dry towels at the moment and that most people brought their own. "We came by bike!" I protested. "Uh, didn't you guys check out at 11:00?" he asked. "Well, yes, but we didn't get here until 8:30 last night," I said. This was obviously not the usual pattern of resort guests. As it seemed he might be about to try to ask each of us for a $15 day use fee, I decided not to push the towel issue any further and hoped to use the tubs undiscovered. Fortunately, we were able to do so.

We had a very good time at the tubs. We met some Brazilians and had a chance to practice our Portuguese. They were very complimentary of our Portuguese, perhaps because Brazilians rarely seem to encounter Americans who speak any Portuguese at all. So, of course, we stayed longer than we had intended. We had thought we might have time to have a sit-down dinner at the ferry landing before lining up for the ferry, but it was now apparent that that probably would not happen. We dried ourselves with paper towels from the bathroom, unlocked our bikes, and took off around 15:30.

A dock on the Sound.

The nearby town of Olga, or, what's left of it.

Eric in Olga, posing with his bike and matching jersey, gloves, and Camelbak. We found a couple of geocaches in Olga.

The southern entrance to Moran State Park, on the way back.

We stopped to find a geocache in Turtleback Mountain Preserve back on the west side of the island, but for the most part, we rode without stopping, trying to beat the darkness. Fortunately, the rain held off, although it was overcast all day, and it clearly had been better to see the view from Mt. Constitution the previous day. My legs were so tired, I found even moderate hills difficult, and was miserably slow even on gradual ones. Our butts had lost their cycling conditioning and were very sore.

Then, as we were getting close to the ferry, we found that someone had put up a trapeze by the side of the road! Eric took my picture flying from it.

As the sky darkened and the moisture content of the air increased, we began to see these brown slugs everywhere. Is it technically a banana slug if it's not yellow?

We reached the ferry terminal around 19:45, still before dark. We had time to buy take-out sandwiches from the restaurant at a nearby motel, to eat on the boat.

The ferry stopping at nearby Shaw Island before coming over to Orcas.

There were no views from the ferry on the return trip, as it was after dark. Still, the ferry was comfortable. There is plenty of room, no crowding. Riding the ferry is a pleasure.

The promised rain had finally begun to fall by the time we landed at Anacortes. We had to ride 5 km/3 mi from the ferry landing back into town, on a dark, wet road. We had lights that were better for allowing motorists to see us than for allowing us to see the road surface before us. All the same, we arrived safely back at the San Juan Motel at 20:10.

That was a marvelous adventure! Exactly what a vacation should be! Beautiful scenery, great food, relaxing atmosphere, friendly people, and good exercise. I would love to do it again, but with some more training beforehand!

On to Seattle, Portland, and Albany.

Last updated: 29 August, 2015 by Eric and Beth Zuckerman