While on Orcas Island, WA, CrtrGrl and I spent two days exploring Moran State Park. Moran State Park is the fourth largest state park in Washington and includes Mt Constitution, the highest elevation in the San Juan Islands. It covers a wide swath of Orcas Island and includes lakes, mountains, creeks and of course, lush forests. Activities in the park include hiking, biking, camping, kayaking, and swimming.
Exploring Mt Constitution, Moran State Park
On our first full day on Orcas Island, we took a drive up to the top of Mt Constitution. The drive to the top follows a twisty, winding and forested two lane mountain road. The small parking lot at the top was busy, even in the shoulder month of May. Alternatively, there is a hiking loop that climbs nearly 1900 feet from Mountain Lake to the top of Mt Constitution and back. We decided to take the easy route for once. At the top, there is a gift shop for the state park and a small path up to the peak with a 53 foot tall lookout tower.
The view from the top of Mt Constitution is really amazing. On the day we visited, the weather was perfect with blue sky and patchy clouds. We could see the surrounding San Juan Islands. On a really clear day, you can see all the way to Mt Baker and Mt Rainier. The puffy clouds were streaming by in the breeze, creating shaded patches moving across the forest and sea. From our vantage point, you could easily look down on Twin Lakes, surrounded by forest. Sail boats navigated the channel between the islands, while the tidal currents created eddies and other interesting patterns.
The tower on the top of Mt Constitution adds another 53 feet of elevation to the view and some history. It’s fashioned after a medieval watchtower and has three levels of viewing platforms. Inside the tower, each level has rooms containing photos with the history of Moran State Park and Mt Constitution. We climbed to the top and could look out over the trees in all directions.
Exploring Cascade Creek & Falls, Moran State Park
Cascade Creek was our second stop exploring while Moran State Park. Cascade Creek has one large waterfall and numerous small cascades. A small gorge has been carved by the creek through a lush, dense forest. Cascade Creek runs from the south end of Mountain Lake to Olga Road, then follows Olga Road down to the sea, coming out into Buck Bay. Being drawn to moving water, it was my favorite part of exploring Moran State Park. The day we chose also had perfect weather, this time overcast with a little rain. As a result, it was perfect for photographing waterfalls.
We started the hike to Cascade Falls at Olga Road. We crossed into Moran State Park from the south end and parked at the dirt road turnoff for the park ranger’s residence. We were a little concerned about parking there since there was no one else around, but it turned out OK – no tickets. From there, we hiked south a few hundred yards down Olga Road and turned east onto the Cascade Creek trail. As the trail approached the creek, we passed a collection pipe with a sign reading “Public Water Supply, Keep Out”. CrtrGrl found a banana slug, said “Hi!” and then we continued on. Soon we started to hear the roaring sounds of a waterfall and came to a branch in the trail. One path continued up stream and another path meandered down the hill to Cascade Falls.
Cascade Falls is the largest waterfall on Orcas Island at 40 feet tall. There are a couple of fallen trees that cross the valley floor below the falls, so options for photographing it are challenging. Unfortunately, someone decided to paint words (graffiti?) on part of the fallen tree, so any photos showing them will have the mark of humans. It’s really sad that some people come to a place with such natural beauty and have to mark it up. My favorite composition was from the embankment on the left side of the falls, looking down, with the falls framed between ferns and tree branches. The other angle I liked was directly below the falls, looking up at it. The mist and spray coming off the falls makes this spot difficult keeping the lens clear of moisture. It is a beautiful spot, so I’m sure there are many other angles that show off the magic of the temperate forest.
After spending time at the falls, we headed off trail a few hundred yards to sit and have lunch. We spotted a couple of vole (small mammals resembling mice) as they darted under a fallen tree and then into a hole. CrtrGrl spent some time trying to quietly find them again, but they were gone, disappearing into the underbrush. We ate our packed lunches, lounging on a fallen log, keeping both eyes peeled for deer or other wildlife. After lunch, we returned to the trail to check out the upper part of the falls. Above the falls, CrtrGrl found the mother lode of banana slugs. She’s going to do her own write-up with photos and videos, so keep an eye out for it!
All of the hikers we ran into were very respectful and considerate. While photographing Cascade Falls, the other photographer stayed off to the side while I was shooting and we both managed to find compositions without getting in each others shots. While up stream from the waterfall, shooting a small 3 part cascade in the creek, a hiker actually apologized for hiking through my shot. Then he asked me if he was going to be famous. I was impressed with how courteous everyone was.
Overall, we hiked about 2 miles from the car to above Cascade Falls and back. It was an easy hike with just a little bit of elevation gain.
Exploring Mountain Lake, Moran State Park
Finally, we hiked the Mountain Lake Loop. Mountain Lake loop is a 4 mile hike on mostly flat terrain. We did this hike the same day we explored Cascade Creek. It was an easy stroll around the large and beautiful lake. Near the beginning of the hike, there is a small boat ramp for launching human powered boats and a camping area. The day we were there, we didn’t see anyone out on the lake and only crossed paths with a couple of other hikers on the trail.
The lake is beautiful and deep. The water is a clear blue-green color with many logs and fallen trees visible from the waters edge. Some of the partially submerged trees had seedlings growing out of them. Surrounding the lake is a lush, green forest. At the northern end of the lake, the trail splits to climb Mt Constitution or continue around back to the beginning. At the southern end of the lake, there is a spillway that feeds into Cascade Creek. We saw many small birds swooping, diving, catching either fish or insects above the lake at the spillway. We also witnessed small fish eating insects flying above the surface of the water.
In conclusion, CrtrGrl and I loved our two days exploring Moran State Park. The weather, other explorers, critters and landscapes were all perfect. I’m partial to forest creeks and waterfalls, hence Cascade Creek was my favorite. Anyone coming to Orcas Island should allocate at least a full day to seeing all that Moran State Park has to offer.
Photos from Moran State Park by Scott McGee and CrtrGrl: