By Jack Russillo
When Robert Moran donated 5,529 acres of luscious forest, epic waterfalls, and gorgeous lakes to the state of Washington in 1921, he did so with the intention of preserving a rare undeveloped parcel of the natural world for future generations to experience. His legacy turned into Washington’s first state park and provides a fine example of the serenity that you get when you make a trip to Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands.
Being the largest island of the Pacific Northwest archipelago at 57 square miles, Orcas offers a wide array of outdoor features such as lakes and mountains and being surrounded by miles of beaches lined with skipping rocks, driftwood, and sea creatures close to shore. Its only town, Eastsound, is located in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped island and is quite quaint, offering the necessities for the simple lifestyle.
Depending on when you visit Orcas during the year, you can have a vastly different experience. In the winter, the population is around 4,000 and the island is quiet. The seemingly-endless rain usually keeps people cozied up inside their houses. The tourism effect is at its minimum and some of the businesses close up for a month or two.
In the summer, however, the sun comes out for majority of the days and the warming temperatures bring the visitors from off island in flocks. The population multiplies and surpasses 15,000 people by June. Suddenly, the island is much busier. Families stroll around town, wandering from cafés like Brown Bear Bakery to island-style boutiques like the Crow’s Nest. Perhaps then on to one of the various restaurants for dinner that evening. On Saturdays — accompanied by live music — the locals set up booths on the Village Green to sell anything from artisan jewelry to organic food to handmade wooden furniture. The more adventurous travelers may make their way to Moran State Park to hike, mountain bike, or swim in its lakes. Or, they might take a kayak trip to one of the nearby islands and explore what the islands have to offer on the aquatic side of things.
As someone who grew up on the island, I’ve discovered that many of the tourists are surprised about a few aspects of island life, like how hitchhiking is commonplace or how everybody seems to chat with at least a person or two when passing through town.
No matter the time of year, the wildlife is always on display. Wild deer roam the land in overwhelming numbers while sea creatures like otters, seals, and whales occupy the surrounding waters. Bald eagles monitor the island from above.
Orcas Island, in general, creates a sense of simplicity. Without a single stop light or chain restaurant, the island may make you think as if you’ve traveled back in time. But that is not the case. You’re likely more in-touch with your surroundings, no longer tied to the stresses of life on the mainland. Your decreased cell service will allow you to take a deep breath and notice the vibrant colors of a particular flower or the perplexing texture of a plot of moss.
Traveling to Orcas Island means setting your internal clock to island time and truly slowing down. It’s important to relish the time that you do have there, however, as you’ll certainly be wishing for more when it comes time to head back to the mainland.
About the author: Raised on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands in northwestern Washington, Jack Russillo has always held the natural world close to his heart. Whether that means hiking up mountains or ensuring that his meals are from freshly-picked ingredients, whenever possible. He’s generally making conscious decisions to live closely with nature. Since moving to Seattle to attend the University of Washington in 2014, Jack has taken on a variety of activities in his never-ending quest to experience the world through fun and physical action. On any given day, you may find him biking around the U-District on his way to go rock-climbing or to attend a yoga class, while wearing a neat pair of socks. He’s been writing for The Daily, the UW’s on-campus newspaper, for two years and has been operating his own blog for nearly the same period of time. Studying journalism and international studies, Jack is paving his way to becoming a professional travel writer in hopes of spreading the word about getting out of your comfort zone a little bit and living life to the fullest.