For four years, my friends and I have made an annual fall voyage to “Washington’s Hawaii” — aka Orcas Island — right when the rain begins to fall and bikes are allowed back on Mount Constitution.
Though the trails are not as plentiful in comparison to the Bellingham scene, they make up for it in quality. Each trail manages to create soreness not only in the legs and arms but in the cheeks, too.
Just under 15 nautical miles away from Bellingham is the largest of the San Juan Islands, spanning nearly 57 square miles and sporting the tallest peak among the islands at 2,362 feet above sea level.
During Washington summers, Subarus, minivans with roof-top carriers, caravanners and van-lifers alike pack the ferries from Anacortes like sardines to swarm Moran State Park’s campground sites, experience the lakes and trails, and drive to the top of Mount Constitution for a 360-degree view of the San Juans.
A big ride will certainly necessitate refueling. After completing around 4,300 vertical feet of climbing and 18 miles, the convenient parking in Moran State Park is right at the bottom of Cold Spring trail. You will have to pay for parking or bring a Discover Pass prior to visiting the park. (Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)
But I’m interested in the off-season, when the tourist hikers have hibernated and the trails open to riders Sept. 16. Mountain bikes are not permitted on the trails from May 15 to Sept. 15 — nearly all of summer. The break from tire-caused erosion helps preserve the trails from major destruction in the dusty months, allowing the dirt to rejuvenate just in time for when the rain comes in the fall.
What lies beyond the basics of the small town of Eastsound, the views and ideal weather is a mountain biker’s pipedream. (But since you’re going to go through town, I advise you to stop at Brown Bear Baking for a pastry and coffee.) Narrow ribbons of trail are bordered by copious amounts of moss so bright green and dense you can’t help but want to take a siesta on it. What sounds like a ubiquitous Pacific Northwest trail aesthetic is quite rare on the mainland, where logging is prevalent.
Lush green grass and moss blanket much of the forest floor leaving only a sliver of dirt where the tires roll. (Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)
The older, second-growth forests on Orcas make for undergrowth that feels like a fantasy world, maybe one with hobbits. That undergrowth is a major appeal of the trails on Orcas. When given decades of time to recover from logging, a forest will absorb dead and fallen trees, and fungus breaks down old logs churning them into a layer of plush, red and brown dirt — that’s what keeps riders coming back.
About nine trails in Moran State Park are considered mountain bike worthy but there are only about five that most would actually consider riding due to their long and continuous descents: Powerline, Cold Spring, Mount Pickett DH, South Boundary Trail and Mount Constitution Loop. Each of those trails has varying character and style and can keep a gaggle of bikers entertained for an entire weekend.
When in the mood for hitting some big jumps with fun turns, Powerline is the go-to. If you’re looking for sheer speed and a laugh following some friends, Cold Spring, Mount Pickett DH and South Boundary Trail will offer fast sections with some tight, near 180-degree switchbacks.
Intermediate riders will be able to ride through each trail with caution or by taking go-arounds when bigger features come up. A more experienced rider can utilize some of the airtime and likely enjoy the narrow, techy trails. A beginner might find minor frustration with the technical aspects of all the trails, but by viewing their bike as a tool, they can have a good time, too.
Most of the laps will be between 7–10 miles and will offer 2,000–2,500 vertical feet of descent. Talus Lantz and I did three trails: Powerline, Mount Pickett DH and South Boundary Trail, equating to around 20-plus miles and 4,200-plus vertical feet.
Getting over to the island can sometimes be a logistical headache. Ferry and campsite reservations are hard to come by at times, and when you have reservations, sometimes you’re rewarded with a wet weekend of camping. Making matters worse, campsite reservations are only partially refundable, 50% back being the most you’d ever see of the $20–35 per night you’ll spend before non-refundable booking fees.
A ferry dock at the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. Without a reservation, you will almost always be waiting for a late-night ferry. Talus Lantz and Cascadia Daily News visual journalism intern Andrew Ford were on standby for the 7:50 p.m. sailing since the two ferries prior were full.
(Andrew Ford/Cascadia Daily News)
So long as you're not traveling during peak ferry season (May 1 to Sept. 30), you'll save yourself from the recently hiked 35% surcharge for vehicle passengers on your ferry ride. As of this publishing, a standard car and passenger will cost $48.50 and each extra friend you bring will be $15.85 on top. If you’re riding with a legend who is 65 or older, they’ll be $7.90.
For those searching for saddle-sores, you can take the bike-on option ferry ride for only $17.85, but you’ll pay on the backend when pedaling 16 miles just to get to the bottom of the trails.
Whatever the price, or a tax on comfort depending on the weather, the most important thing to bring is your good friends. From my experience, island time is better when shared.