The San Juan Islands are an archipelago of four 'main' islands (Orcas, Shaw, Lopez and San Juan) and hundreds of little rocks and islets located in the Puget Sound off the coast of northwest Washington; collectively these islands form San Juan County. Geographically these islands would seem to be more logically attached to Victoria Island and be part of British Columbia, but in fact the international boundary that formally separates the San Juans from Victoria (and by extension Canada from the United States) was settled only in 1871 and marked the final confrontation between British and American "forces" over the issue of American National boundaries. The so called Pig War
really happened - and was a fitting, somewhat ironic way to have the islands come into United States territory. How many pigs in history have been so intrumental in setting an international boundary?
These days the San Juans are an attractive tourist destination, well-served by ferries coming from many points on the mainland (this page will be devoted to the ferry from Anacortes). The islands are variously rocky and hilly, covered in gentle grasses and thick forests, with high-end mansions dotting some of the hills. The area is positively beautiful and it is no surprise that many of the wealthiest have homes established here, although just exactly who is here is not necessarily made known. My wife, en ex-Seattlite, knew of a few big names who call the San Juans home. Furthermore, the San Juans are usually less rainy than areas further south in the Puget Sound.
Hikers will most likely be interested in Mount Constitution, at 2,407 feet the highpoint of the island chain and of San Juan County. A wonderful trail system allows for a variety of choices to gain the summit, and a fine paved road allows for drivers to make their way to the top as well, where a huge stone lookout tower can be climbed for some of the best marine views in the country! On a clear day, Mount Baker and the Olympics are easily visible, along with the innumerable mountains and littler peaks on Victoria, the British Columbia mainland and the rest of the San Juan Islands. Even the mighty hump of Mount Rainier can be seen on the very clearest and driest afternoons.
A hike of Mount Constitution usually lasts no more than a few hours, but managing this with the ferries and your likely desire to explore the rest of the island(s) afterwards means you should alot a full day at the very least for this venture. You will not be disappointed.
Mount Baker as seen from Mount Constitution, by Eric Noel
The Lookout Tower, by Eric Noel
Drive, bike, walk or pogo-stick your way to the town of Anacortes, which is about 60 miles north of Seattle via Interstate-5 and WA-20. The highway signs all say "Anacortes - San Juan Islands". The ferry terminal is on the west end of town, and is very easy to find. Below is a link:
Ferry Schedule and Prices - Anacortes to the San Juan Islands
Please note there are seasonal changes to the times. Summer has more service times. Please also note the cost to bring your vehicle. Arrive to the ferry terminal well in advance - at least an hour and sometimes at least two hours - to ensure you get on the ferry you want. You want to get off at Orcas, so it's best to choose a time that has Orcas as its first port-of-call, so to speak. It is about an hour's ride from Anacortes to Orcas.
Once in Orcas, proceed north along the main road following the signs to Rosario/Moran State Park. The general route is north through the town of East Sound, then east and south toward Moran State Park. The Rosario Resort is passed just before entering the park. It's about 15 miles to the trailhead we followed. Pay your fee at the self-pay kiosk. One of the hiking routes to the top starts here near Cascade Lake. The route that we followed starts at Mountain Lake. Follow the road that eventually leads to the top, but make a right at the signed turn-off to Mountain Lake, and drive it to the very end, parking near a small dock for boats (no motorized allowed).
Orcas Island Page
(link updated Feb 2007)
Moran State Park page
(with fee structure, times, etc)
Have the USGS "Mount Constitution" quad handy.
Note: the signs along the roads on Orcas Island are sometimes small, hard to read and not placed in logical places, so go slow, read them carefully, and enjoy the scenery.
[img:87548:aligncenter:medium:Snow! by Alpendave]
Moran State Park requires a reasonable use fee to park within its boundaries. I believe the fee was no more than $5/vehicle. See the link above for more info.
When To Climb
Summer is the best time due to the warm weather and best chances for clear weather. Rain is common, of course, but extensive snow is not. The San Juan islands don't seem to get clouded in as much as those areas nearer Seattle, so sez my wife who lived up there for 7 years.
See the Moran State Park link above for information. There is camping right at the Mountain Lake trailhead, plus in other places. Also check out Doe Bay. I'm told there's a hot spring there and they allow nekkidness, if that's your scene.
Again, I refer the kind reader to the above links. Also, try:
this web-cam link
for some real-time photos of the islands.
Spend the whole day there!
Orcas Island is a wonderful place with little shops, restaurants, boat docks and places to poke around in. The town of East Sound has some basic cafes, while there's a nice restaurant near West Sound (link
During weekends beware of large crowds and plan accordingly. We got our car in line 3 hours in advance for the 4 pm ferry, and simply spent that time walking around the town of Orcas and relaxing on the grassy slopes of the nearby park.