Cycling Orcas Island’s Mt. Constitution

by Eric Shalit on July 26, 2010

Katrien, Michel, and I atop Mt. Constitution. Katrien and Michel are visiting from Belgium and have spent the last 4 months cycling around the western US. They travel 100% self-supported, camping and cooking their own food.

I just returned from 3 days cycling Orcas Island and Lopez Island in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. My son Gabe and I headed out for some father & son bonding and bike camping. Having been to Lopez Island several times before, we chose to explore Orcas Island. While Orcas is still very beautiful, it was crowded with cars, weekend tourists, and car campers. Orcas hills are significantly steeper than Lopez.

The summit of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island is the highest point in the San Juan Islands (elevation 2409 feet). The ride from base to summit is 5.3 miles with about 2,000 feet of elevation gain. I rode to the top with our new friends from Belgium, Michel and Katrien, who were on a 4-month bicycle camping journey around the US. Though the climb is consistently steep we had no trouble getting to the top.

Because I don’t enjoy high speed descent, my brakes overheated the rims on the way down and blew out a tube. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before. I hitched a ride to the bottom with a couple gals in a new Lexus SUV. As she also didn’t like high speed descent, her car brakes started to burn on the way down. I suppose this is evidence that the road to the summit of Mt. Constitution is in fact long and steep.

One of the pleasures I get from cycling is getting away from car culture. Many Orcas roads were congested with cars at all times and there was not much if any separate shoulder for cycling. Typical of what I saw was a young man sitting in an SUV for 1/2 an hour outside the supermarket, with his windows up and engine running, staring at us while we sat eating breakfast at an adjacent picnic table during a very cool time of day. Clearly, gasoline is too cheap if it can be so mindlessly wasted.

I wondered at times if we as cyclists were just part of the quaint scenery, like the Amish with their horses & buggies. For cycling, aside from Mt. Constitution, I give Orcas a 3 out of 5 stars, with Lopez easily winning 5 stars.

After a night camping at the crowded Moran State Park on seriously off-kilter ground, we bid adieu to Orcas and headed to our beloved Lopez. We spent the next 2 days in bicycle paradise, exploring the island with Michel and Katrien. They have traveled by bicycle around many parts of the world including, Thailand, South America, Iceland, Turkey, Italy, and the US. They loved Lopez. I think that’s a pretty good endorsement. I hesitate to share this because the park ranger told us that 2 weeks ago was the first time the bicycle camping area had filled up in the 12 years she’s worked there.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Elias July 26, 2010 at 3:15 pm

The San Juans are excellent in the spring and fall, and even winter, when the off season drives most people away. Lopez, and Shaw, there’s not much for tourists to go see so it tends to be pretty great cycling all year long. You also get more props from the locals, it seems.

I have done the ride down Mt. Constitution and didn’t remember blowing out a tube. But I do remember at the time (10+ years ago), there was a bus of kids (plus a trailer) that took kids up the mountain and they got to ride down, and as a teenager seemed both unfair and even a bit irresponsible. I don’t think the road was as good as it is now, even.

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Eric Shalit July 26, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Elias: I have yet to ride and camp on Shaw. What’s that like?

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louise July 26, 2010 at 3:49 pm

Funny how life has unexpected contradictions. You were trying to get away from cars, but you hitched a ride with an SUV on the way down. Those gas-guzzlers can be handy sometimes.

When I camped on Lopez, everyone was in the crowded beach sites and I was on my own in the woods in the bike sites, feeling like a true adventurer.

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Eric Shalit July 26, 2010 at 3:56 pm

I just wanted to see what it was like and smell the Corinthian Leather.

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Elias July 28, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Eric: Shaw from what I remember is just a little island with some very quiet roads and lots of hills. There’s a park or two but the rest is quite private. It does feel like you only really get the views over people’s property.

Which reminds me of a particular observation: Shoreline and tidelands in Washington state were sold at some point, so there’s a lot of private beach and not entirely a lot of access to even the public shoreline. And good luck finding which is which! Some public shoreline has signs saying it is private.

Having been to Hawaii where this is not the case, there’s something anti-social about owning (and worse fencing) a beach.

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Eric Shalit July 29, 2010 at 8:30 am

Private shoreline is a big mistake in my opinion.

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Katrina August 6, 2010 at 12:01 am

The first time I bike toured and camped on Lopez at Spencer Spit State Park, we saw The Northern Lights! Pure Magic!!

Also, my experience biking up Mt. Constitution began with just having been stung in the arm by a giant hornet!! Ouch….
Since I was touring with a friend from NZ, we did an illegalthing. Should I dare say?? We camped out on top of Mt. Constitution, and were woken up by the the grazing deer and a glorious sunrise.

Glad you had a great time.

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Erika April 12, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I enjoyed reading your description of cycling Lopez and Orcas. I am headed to the San Juans on my honeymoon in August. We are staying/cycling on Lopez and will explore the other islands on day trips, also on our bikes. Thanks for your insight and would love any insider lodging tips?

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Eric Shalit April 12, 2011 at 8:25 pm

Our friend Louise writes:
There are two places I like, but have stayed in neither. Both are self-contained (nice for honeymooners): Garden Cottages are in the village and Channel View Farm Guest House is nearby, on Hummel Lake Rd.

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