OLGA, Wash. — Ocean beauty, beaches and boating? You won’t even miss them at Washington’s Moran State Park.
The park is in the San Juan Islands, where saltwater recreation and views usually are the big visitor draws. Yet Moran, which covers a 5,252-acre, thickly forested swathe of Orcas Island, has no ocean access.
What it does have, and what has made it one of the most popular destinations in the San Juans, are freshwater lakes for swimming, fishing and low-key boating; dozens of miles of hiking and mountain-biking trails, from gentle to thigh-burning; excellent campsites; and an iconic mountaintop-observation tower with sweeping views.
What makes it a gem
This truly is a park for everyone.
Take a drive: People who can’t or don’t want to walk any distance can drive right to the shore of the park’s two main lakes or up to the top of 2,409-foot Mount Constitution (and its tower) to gaze at a tapestry of peaks, islands, shoreline and cities in Washington and British Columbia. From the summit, the highest point in the San Juans, ever-snowy Mount Baker looms. On a clear day you can see, if not forever, at least south to even snowier Mount Rainier.
Water play: Want to get out on the (fresh) water? Rent a paddleboat and go play in the park’s sparkling, roughly mile-long Cascade Lake. The rental dock is at the park’s main visitor area at Cascade Lake, which includes a swimming area, snack bar and picnic tables tucked among towering trees. Visitors can launch their canoes or other small boats at the lake (no internal-combustion engines permitted).
Take a hike: For more solitude, drive a few miles to the 1,000-foot-elevation Mountain Lake, the other main lake of the park’s five lakes. Simply enjoy the peacefulness. Better yet, take a family-friendly, gentle hike part way or all the way around Mountain Lake, a 4-mile loop on a broad, mostly level trail.
As I hiked around the lake on a sunny summer weekday, the loudest sounds were fish jumping and landing with a splash and a couple happily chattering as they paddled their canoe and fished for trout.
Want more of a hiking challenge? Veer off Mountain Lake Trail and take a steeper hike to the teardrop Twin Lakes, tucked deep in the woods and reached only by trail.
In all, 38 miles of trails wind through the park, some open to mountain bikers (although not in the busy summer season). Don’t miss the path to Cascade Falls, a family-friendly and easy quarter-mile walk from the road. The 75-foot waterfall tumbles over rocks in a sun-dappled forest grove; it’s most impressive in spring after winter’s rains.
Lakefront camping: Moran’s campgrounds are nestled among tall trees with some campsites directly on Cascade and Mountain lakes. Tent-campers abound since it’s expensive to bring an RV on the ferry to Orcas.
My favorite spot is the South-end Campground on Cascade Lake, with just 17 sites including some with their own little stretch of beach. The South-end Campground is farther from the main road and more peaceful than two other much bigger campgrounds along Cascade Lake. There’s also a small lakefront campground at Mountain Lake. Campsite reservations can and should be made (see secure.camis.com/WA/) since the campgrounds are very popular.
What you won’t find everywhere
Moran State Park has a lovely legacy of 21 structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The CCC, a Depression-era workforce created by the federal government, constructed park trails, roads and buildings around the nation. In Moran, the most notable is the tower at the top of Mount Constitution, built in 1936 in the trademark CCC style of stone, timbers and wrought iron.
Originally a fire lookout, the stone-block tower is modeled after the medieval watchtowers of the Caucasus Mountains of southeast Europe. Visitors can clamber up wood stairs inside the roughly 4-story-tall, castle-like tower, up to a small open-air viewing platform and glass-enclosed room.
Standing at the top of the tower, taking in the view from islands to snowy peaks, Moran park manager Jim Schuh said, “I’ve been here at the park for 17 years. This never gets old.
“I came up here once and I heard all this sobbing,” said Schuh. “The woman’s boyfriend had just proposed. It was tears of joy. There are a lot of wedding proposals up here.”
Schuh is in charge of the whole park these days with just two other rangers, due to state budget/staff cuts in recent years. They do everything from helping out visitors to keeping the peace in campgrounds; supervising roads, trails and building maintenance; and protecting wildlife.
Where to lay your head
In the park: Camp in the park campgrounds. Or rent the Camp Moran Vacation House, near Cascade Lake, which can sleep up to eight people. It’s simple, but has a full kitchen, living room and two bedrooms (bring your own bedding and towels). It costs about $144 a night in the summer peak season, dropping to about $107 a night later in the offseason. For big groups, Camp Moran Environmental Learning Center has dormitory-style cabins that sleep up to 144 people and a commercial-sized kitchen and dining area.
Around the island: Lots of choices from B & Bs to elegant country inns, waterfront cabins and the upscale Rosario Resort. See lodging listings at orcasislandchamber.com.
Just for fun
See and learn: At the top of Mount Constitution, drop into the small Summit Learning Center to learn about Moran’s natural and human history. A little history: The park opened in 1921, thanks to a 2,700-acre land donation by Robert Moran, a shipbuilder and former Seattle mayor.
The learning center is run by Friends of Moran, a nonprofit whose volunteers support the park, friendsofmoran.com. It’s open through Labor Day; the gift shop is open through September.
Go for a ride: Many park trails are closed to mountain biking from May 15 to Sept. 15, the busy hiking season, although 11 miles are open to bikes year round. Another 25 miles reopens to bikes after Sept. 15. Bikers will find well-maintained gentle trails and much steeper challenges (including a more than 2,000-foot climb up to Mount Constitution).
Go for a run: Hard-core runners can join a 50-kilometer race on park trails in February 2014 (there’s also a shorter 25K): orcas50k.blogspot.com/p/new-course.html.