Exploring dirt on Orcas Island
Many trails on Orcas Island offer expansive views of the surrounding waterways and mountains. Photo by Austin Lottimer.
Off the coast of Washington State lies Orcas Island, the largest among a cluster of lush, rain-forested islands known as the San Juans. Their jutted, rocky shores pierce into the dark water of the Salish Sea, a winding network of intercoastal waterways that curl between British Columbia and northwest Washington.
An archipelago of over 400 islands makes up the San Juans, but Orcas Island is perhaps the best hidden gem for trail runners. While it’s true that trail mileage is limited (it’s an island after all), you can happily pound out more than 100 miles on Orcas. A third of that can be completed on the trails that weave through Moran State Park.
“You feel isolated on the trails here without ever actually being far from help,” says Randall Gaylord, president of the Orcas Island Trail Runners, a small handful of folks who meet for casual runs as often as they can. “I’m always looking for runners, so if anyone calls me I try to run with them.”
Runners in the Orcas island 25K/50K. Photo by Glenn Tachiyama.
A Runner’s Paradise
After just one visit to Orcas in 1978, Gaylord and his wife moved there to raise their kids. He works as a prosecuting attorney on neighboring island Friday Harbor, an eight-mile motorboat commute every morning and evening, but has no interest in moving to be closer to work.
“I live here because of the running,” says Gaylord. “We have wonderful state parks with great trail systems, excellent climbs, technical and nontechnical terrain and landscape diversity.”
Like much of the Northwest, it’s cool on Orcas Island. Summer temps rarely exceed low 70s in the warmest months (July and August). In the winter, the mercury might creep down to the mid-30s, but most often remains in the 40s. Due to the rain-shadow effect of the Olympic Mountains, the islands lock in 240-plus days of sunshine, unlike Seattle, their neighbor 65 miles to the south; the rainy city receives upward of 150 days of annual rainfall and over 200 cloudy days.
The summit of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans (2,398 feet), lies within Moran State Park. It can be reached by trail or paved road, so you may not have it all to yourself, but the courtyard-like viewpoint offers the most expansive views of Puget Sound. Deep, blue water, speckled with green and rock, stretches endlessly. Far in the distance, white, glaciated peaks pierce the horizon and offer sharp contrast to the calm, rolling water.
On the opposite end of the island from Mount Constitution, Turtleback Mountain sits within a 1,576-acre nature preserve that has about seven miles of trails. Dozens of other, little-traveled dirt roads hidden below forest canopies offer even more reprieve from the pavement.
“What makes running there so great is that the trails weave their way through old-growth forest, by mountain lakes and below waterfalls,” says James Varner, a Pacific Northwest trail-running icon who directs over a dozen area races under the moniker Rainshadow Running. Among those are 25K and 50K races on Orcas.
Much like Gaylord, it only took one visit for Varner to grow enamored with the island’s trails: “I went there to visit my sister who was working at the Rosario Resort for a week. I went for a different five-to-10-mile run every day and was blown away by how fun, hard and scenic the trails were. … I just couldn’t believe a place as cool as Orcas didn’t already have a trail race.”