Camping at Moran State Park on Orcas Island

Quick Facts:
  • Washington State Park website:
  • Judd rating: 5 stars out of 5
  • Stienstra rating: 10 out of 10, Most Scenic, Best for Hiking
  • Access to water: some sites are directly on the lake front
  • Coin-operated hot shower, flush toilets, drinking water source
  • Activities: hiking, biking, paddling on the lakes
  • Outdoor Fam rating: 10/10

Moran State Park is located on the Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands (basically Washington State’s continuation of our Southern Gulf Islands). It is consistently described as one of the best state parks in Washington, so it naturally became a prime target for our southern expeditions this year.

Visiting Orcas Island was analogous to Gulf Islands. We took a Washington State Ferry, which seemed equally difficult to reserve as our BC Ferries, with 2-month, 2-week, and 2-day rolling reservation windows.

Orcas Island is shaped like a thyroid gland, with two lobes connected by an isthmus in the middle. The ferry landing is on the southern tip of the left lobe, and Moran Park takes up the majority of the right lobe.

We booked a site in the Midway Campground, which was about midway between the North Camp and South Camp on Cascade Lake, and only a short walk away from the boat launch. After paddling around the lake, I noticed that there were sites right on the water’s edge that looked even more amazing.

Site #46 in Midway Campground

There was a firewood dispensing machine which was pretty interesting. $7 USD per bundle, and credit card was accepted.

Since our campsite was so close to the lake, we headed down for a paddle on several occasions. Grandpa also took the opportunity to practice paddleboarding and did very well.

After the kids were asleep, Tina and I even walked down to the lake and stargazed for a bit.

Cascade Lake under starlight

Mount Constitution Observation Tower

Most of the attractions on Orcas Island require a drive from our campground. The crown jewel of Moran Park is the observation tower on Mount Constitution, which is the tallest point of the San Juan Islands. After a 5 mile climb on the narrow and steep Mount Constitution Road, we arrived at the Visitor Center and gift shop. The opening hours are subject to volunteer availability, and it was closed at 4pm when we visited. Undeterred, we went again on the last day of our trip and got in for a browse.

From the Visitor Center, it’s a very short walk to the ‘castle’ – a stone observation tower that offers an expansive, nearly 360 degree view of the surrounding San Juan Islands, Gulf Islands, Cascade Mountains, and even Vancovuer Island and our Lower Mainland.

We were extremely lucky that when we first arrived, we had the tower and picnic tables to ourselves.

After spending plenty of time on the tower, we had the brilliant, unplanned idea of cooking our dinner here. We had everything we needed in the car: the stove, the food, and the cookware, since we practice bear-safe camping and always pack away everything food related. The good practice serendipitously gave us the most spectacular steak dinner we’ve ever had!

Cascade Falls Trail

Alltrails Link:

The Cascade Falls Trail is a very short, 1.3km lollipop loop that showcases 4 waterfalls. It’s a bit of a stretch to name the Hidden Falls as a destination though, as it’s basically just a small drop in a creek under a bridge. In comparison, the Cascade Falls and Rustic Falls were quite beautiful with opportunity to dip your toes in the creek.

Buck Bay Shellfish Farm

Near the southern end of the right lobe of Orcas Island is the small town of Olga. There’s really nothing there for a tourist to see except a small art gallery hosted by local artists, and the famous Buck Bay Shellfish Farm.

It’s a little hard to find the Shellfish Farm at first, since it’s poorly signed and there was no cellular reception. Aim for the eastern shore of Buck Bay by turning right onto E.J. Young Road. Or save an offline map of the area.

The best deal here was the fresh oysters that you get to shuck yourself. If needed, the friendly staff will give you a shucking lesson. Everything else on the menu was delicious but pricey. It was a lot of fun enjoying freshly shucked oysters and seafood on their shaded garden picnic tables.

East Sound

In the center of the isthmus that connects the two lobes of Orcas Island lies East Sound, which is the main town on the island. We thought we had some free time before our ferry off the island, so we took our time strolling through the shops and beach here.

A clear stand-out for us was the Clever Cow Creamery, where we had the most amazing strawberry lavender ice cream. It made us forget about our ferry reservation and missed it by a few cars, pushing our departure time back by 3 hours. But we had no regrets, because the delicious mixture of lavender aroma and vanilla ice cream lives on happily in our memory, as a perfect ending of our wonderful trip to Orcas Island.

After missing the ferry by a hair, we got out of the car and went for a walk in the quaint little town by the terminal. We stopped at Orcas Hotel Cafe, located in a 1904 historic Victorian building, for some food before finally saying goodbye to this wonderful island.

Overall, we absolutely loved Orcas Island and Moran State Park. The variety of things to do and views to see is unparalleled. The observation tower is a clear highlight, opening up a panoramic view that is usually reserved for epic summit hikes. The warm lakes, waterfalls, and vibrant town of East Sound easily fill out several days of travel itinerary.

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