It’s fall and we all want to get out to enjoy the vibrant colors of the season. No matter which area of the state you are in, you can find beautiful autumn colors to enjoy. Whether you prefer the comfort of your car or an afternoon out on the trail, this is the post for you!
If you live along the Wasatch Front you really can’t go wrong visiting any of the canyons that bisect the mountain range. To ensure best color, check out this interactive Fall Foliage Predictor Map. This post will list all areas starting at the north end of the state and then move progressively more south.
Logan Canyon (US-89)
Drive the 41 miles from Logan to Bear Lake to enjoy orange and red maples, and bright yellows of aspen clinging to the near vertical limestone cliffs. You can enjoy a picnic amid falling leaves at one of five picnic sites, Dewitt being one of my favorites. You can also stroll or bike on the river trail for a more leisurely pace. If hiking is more your speed, there are dozens to choose from. The most popular being Wind Caves (4 miles RT) and Crimson Trail (4.7 miles loop) with views of the canyon that will take your breath away, if the climb hasn’t already. Tony Grove has picnic sites nestled next to a lake ($10 day use fee) with a short one mile hike that circumnavigates the water.
Monte Cristo Highway (Highway 39)
Definitely one of the lesser known scenic highways. A drive through this 67 mile stretch you see the brilliant colors of aspens, oaks and maple. You’ll pass by Pineview reservoir nestled under the peaks of Powder Mountain and Snowbasin ski resorts, then continue the trek following the South Fork of the Ogden River. If you travel the road mid to late September make sure to take the short side trip to Causey Reservoir, probably the most scenic reservoir in the state. Hike the Skull Crack to see the kanokee salmon run.
Big Cottonwood Canyon over Guardsman Pass to Midway (Highway 190)
Ever since Guardsman Pass was paved in the fall of 2018, this drive has become an increasingly more popular trek to experience fall colors. The drive up the canyon is bursting with color. As you crest the pass, you are treated to views reaching as far as the Uinta mountain range and Wyoming on a clear day. The spectacular drive doesn’t end there, because you can continue your drive down towards Midway and Wasatch Mountain State Park. Big Cottonwood canyon is a mecca for hiking with its many trailheads. Some of the most popular trails are great choices for leaf peeping, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them. The Silver Lake trail (1 mile loop) is accessible for all abilities and has picnic sites and bathrooms. Other popular trails include Lake Blanche ( 7 miles RT – hard), Donut Falls (1.5 miles RT – easy), and Willow Lake (2.8 mile loop – moderate).
Pro tip: No dogs are allowed (even in your cars) in either Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon because of watershed. Nearby Millcreek canyon is a great choice to bring along your pup.
Alpine Loop and Cascade Springs (State Road 92)
This glacial carved canyon covering 27 miles from American Fork Canyon to Provo Canyon offers vibrant fall colors contrasting with evergreen trees nestled below the iconic Timpanogos Mountain. This is arguably the most popular scenic drive in Utah for fall colors and is definitely worth the hype. If you plan on driving through there is no fee, but if you plan to stop to picnic or hike there is a $6 fee or free with the America the Beautiful Pass. Also the road is very narrow with some tight turns, so vehicles over 30 feet are not recommended.
Some great stops along the way are Timpanogos Cave National Monument (reservations recommended), Cascade springs ( 7.5 mile detour) rated for all abilities, Sundance Ski Resort for lift rides and other activities, and Bridal Veil Falls which has an all accessible paved path (in Provo Canyon). The Alpine loop is a popular hiking destination with many trails. I recommend Stewart Falls (3.4 miles RT – moderate) and Primrose Overlook (3.6 miles RT – moderate).
Mirror Lake Highway (Highway 150)
This road bisects the Uinta mountain range from Kamas, UT to Evanston, WY, and is known for its many alpine lakes, many of which are accessible right off the main road. It may be chilly, but you can take a canoe or kayak out on the water to enjoy the aspens clinging to the sides of the surrounding peaks. A great scenic stop is the Provo River Falls, located about 23.5 miles from Kamas. Great easy walks include the signature Mirror Lake trail (1.5 miles around the lake) and the Crystal Lake trail (.3 miles). Looking for a little more challenge. Hike the short but steep trail to the summit of Bald Mountain (3 miles RT) for a birds-eye view of the area.
Mount Nebo Loop (Forest Road 015)
This scenic byway runs 38 miles around the Wasatch Front’s tallest peak. Witness the contrasting colors of oak with junipers and aspens along with spruce and fir. Take the time to enjoy the scenic pullouts and definitely don’t miss the Devil’s Kitchen scenic overlook, which is like a mini-Bryce Canyon. Also of note is the Gotto Falls hiking trail (.6 miles RT) and Payson Lakes.
State Highway 25 to Fish Lake
Home to the world’s largest organism, the aspen tree Pando. This colony of aspen trees originated from one seed and has over 40,000 trees with a shared root system. It makes for some amazing yellow and gold quaking leaves in autumn. Continue the drive to the lake and the overlooks to enjoy vistas of Thousand Lakes, Boulder, and the Henry Mountains.
Huntington Canyon (State Highway 31)
This canyon is mainly known for it’s fishing, camping and ATV trails. It’s real gem is the access to the Skyline drive, a dirt high clearance 4WD or ATV road that sits at 10,000 ft and affords 360 views for 80 miles! That’s a lot of fall colors. Best hike recommendation is the Gordon Falls trail (2.5 miles RT).
La Sal Mountains
Eight miles south of Moab take a left at the La Sal mountains scenic byway loop sign. You’ll travel a narrow, winding road for 60 miles (no RVs or trailers). Enjoy the yellow quaking aspens and the orange and reds of gambel oak. Take in the views on trails such as Squaw Springs trail (8.6 miles RT), Hazard County (6 miles RT), or the Warner to Oowah Lake (4 miles RT). As you descend down off the mountain make sure to stop at the desert overlook to take in the views of Canyonlands NP and Moab.
All American Road: Highway 12
Known as an all-American road and touted by many as the most scenic drive, fall colors is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about this drive. You can take in stellar shows of aspens driving over Boulder mountain and the showy cottonwoods down in some of the lower elevations of the drive. Calf Creek Falls (6 miles RT) has brilliant golds and Pine Creek Box Canyon near Escalante is a riparian oasis with reds, oranges and yellows (9 mile through hike).
Highway 14 From Cedar City to Long Valley
Drive this 41 miles of gold and yellow aspens contrasting with verdant green spruces and pines. Make sure to stop and have a picnic and with views at Navajo lake, Strawberry Point (which actually overlooks a red rocks amphitheater) or take a detour to Cedar Breaks National Monument. All afford incredible views and the changing colors of the high alpine forest.
So which scenic drives have you done and which ones would you like to try? Let me know in the comments.
This is your go-to guide for visiting Capitol Reef National Park. As a Utah local, I have been visiting Capitol Reef multiple times a year for over 15 years. It is my favorite Utah park. You can find slot canyons, arches, petroglyphs, towering sandstone spires and monoliths, epic views, and so much more. To this day, I am still discovering new places in the park and revisiting favorites all without the insane crowds of the more renown parks like Zion and Arches.
This park deserve so much more than the quick drive-through some tourists give it. In this post, you will find all you need to know to have an incredible first-time visit or discover new places if you are returning because you fell in love just like I did.
Sample 3 day itinerary for a first time visit
Where to eat and stay
Useful links and Practical Information
Located in south-central Utah just outside the town of Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park enjoys relative peace and quiet in comparison to the other Utah National Parks. Capitol Reef has something to do for every type of visitor. Whether you enjoy scenic drives, photography, canyoneering, and everything from short walks to multi-day backpacking trips you will conclude your visit with happy, tired smiles and pondering when you can return.
Tip: There is no fee to visit Capitol Reef except for the Scenic Drive. The fee is $20 or your America the Beautiful Pass. Use the self-pay tube at the entrance of the scenic drive.
The park is divided into three regions:
The Historic Fruita district is the main area of the park. It has heirloom fruit and nut tree orchards which have u-pick fruit and nuts summer through fall and beautiful blossoms in spring. The Gifford House, located near the Fruita Campground (reservations required), sells homemade ice cream and pies in addition to local artisan goods with pioneer roots. Enjoy hiking among the white and red sandstone canyon walls, domes, and arches along the many trails. After enjoying the orchards and hiking trails, drive down the scenic drive for more hiking and adventures through the narrows of Grand Wash and Capitol Gorge.
A visit to Cathedral Valley will treat you to towering spires and castle-like monoliths rising starkly out of the desert. This sixty mile loop is a photographer’s paradise. Enjoy the scenic backway route through the rock formations such as the Temples of the Sun and Moon, Factory Butte, and the Bentonite Hills with their rainbow colors. To visit this remote region of the park, high clearance is required and 4 x 4 is highly advised (No ATVs permitted). Visiting this area of the park requires a river-ford and in some places driving through deep sand. It is very remote and there is little to no cell service so always check with a ranger for current conditions.
Directions: Ford the Fremont river at Highway 24 and Hartnet Road then follow it until the Caineville Wash Road where you will circle back to Highway 24. Plan on 4 hours of drive time (more if you want to hike, take in the overlooks, and time for photography). There is backcountry camping at the Cathedral Valley Campground with 6 first-come, first-served sites.
The Waterpocket district is home to slot canyons, arches, and the stunning Strike Valley Overlook. In addition to hiking, one can drive the breath-taking “Loop the Fold” tour to take in the geology, scenic vistas, and history of the area. To Loop the Fold pick up the information brochure at the Visitor’s Center listing mile markers so you don’t miss any of the sights. The tour is 124 miles and takes 4-6 hours but I suggest taking a day so you can hike and enjoy the area. Part of the route is gravel or dirt roads and any passenger car can drive it if dry. Begin the loop clockwise so you can enjoy cooler hiking temperatures in the morning and enjoy the sunset from the overlooks on Boulder Mountain. Always check with the ranger for current conditions before venturing out. There are five slot canyons long this routes including the short and kid-friendly Surprise and Headquarters canyons.
There is primitive camping available at the Cedar Mesa Campground with 5 first come-first served spots that include fire grate and picnic tables but no water, so make sure to bring your own.
Sample 3 Day Itinerary
Day 1 – Fruita District
9:00 Arrive at Capitol Reef Visitors Center
9:30 Hike Hickman Bridge or Cohab Canyon
11:00 Petroglyphs, Picnic, and Pie (oh my!)
12:30 Scenic Drive and Hike Cassidy Arch or Grand Wash
3:00 Complete the Scenic Drive and stroll Capitol Gorge
5:00 Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook
7:00 Dinner in Torrey
9:00 Arrive at Visitors center. Enjoy the exhibits and get more information and brochures at the Visitors center. Make sure to pick up a Cathedral Wash and a Loop the Fold Brochure for Days 2 and 3.
9:30Hike Hickman Bridge (1.7 miles RT-roundtrip, with 416 ft gain). More avid hikers can continue on the Rim Overlook for 4 .7 miles or Cohab Canyon (3.2 miles RT with 794 ft. gain). If you are visiting Capitol Reef as part of a Utah National Parks tour, I recommend Cohab Canyon over Hickman Bridge because you’ll be seeing lots of Arches at Arches National Park and Cohab Canyon has some stellar overlooks over the park, hoodoos, and short side slot canyons.
11:00 Head back towards the visitor’s center and stop to check out the Petroglyphs. They are excellent examples of Fremont culture rock art. You can easily see them but bring binoculars if you have them for a closer encounter.
11:30 Picnic Lunch at the Gifford Homestead. You can enjoy your lunch surrounded by the picturesque orchards, barn and other historic buildings. Keep your eye out for the deer and wild turkeys that frequent the orchards. After lunch pop into the Gifford house for some handmade ice cream or pies. If time allows and in season, the park allows a u-pick harvest of the fruits and nuts (Bring your own food as there are no eateries in the park and no one wants to waste time heading back into town for lunch).
12:30 Head down the scenic drive (self-pay $20 or America the Beautiful Pass) to the Grand Wash. This drive is stunning as you drive through the narrow canyon with the sheer sandstone cliffs rising high above you on both sides (Never drive the road in a storm as you are driving in the wash). Hike to Cassidy Arch (3.3 miles RT with 666 ft gain). This hike is worth it, even with the steep climb up the switchbacks. The view from the top of the canyon walls is stunning and nothing beats standing on top of the arch for a photo. If you have reluctant hikers in your group, hike the mellow Grand wash to the narrows. I also recommend hiking into the narrows after Cassidy Arch, if you have the time and inclination.
3:00 If you have time, you can continue down the scenic drive to Capitol Gorge. If you opted to skip the afternoon hike, definitely make the time to finish the drive. Once at the Gorge you have the option for more hiking to some pioneer names carved in the sandstone and minor petroglyphs. This is a flat trail between tall canyon walls (1.5 miles RT minimal elevation change).
5:00 Sunset Point and Goosenecks Overlook. As the names indicate, you want to catch this area with the golden hour glow and sunset. Make sure to arrive about an hour before sunset, as much of the area falls into shadow right before the sun actually sets and you’ll miss the glowing red rock. So, if you’re visiting in the summer, have dinner in Torrey first, then head back to enjoy the sunset.
7:00 Dinner in Torrey. I recommend Slackersfor some of the best burgers in Utah. Rim Rockhas stunning views of the park, with lots of large picture windows. My personal Favorite in town is Hunt and Gather, with a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients.
Day 2 – Cathedral Valley
9:00 Leave Torrey for a day touring Cathedral Valley
Touring Cathedral Valley CAN be done in 4+ hours, but I recommend planning for a whole day in the area to assure you have plenty of time to hike, take pictures and explore the area. The cell service is almost non-existent in this area, so make sure you have plenty of gas, food, water and emergency supplies. Also, noteworthy, part of this route goes through BLM land where ATVs are permitted. HOWEVER, no ATVs are permitted in any part of the National Park itself.
9:30 Begin tour of Cathedral Valley
I won’t provide time stamps beyond this point so you can spend time at the different points of interest at your own pace.
Ford the Fremont River at the Hartnet Road, located at mile marker 91 off Highway 24. Always check with the park ranger for current water levels and road conditions. You can do this in person at the visitors center or by calling 435-425-3791. This is for your safety and to protect your pocketbook. No one wants to pay hundreds of dollars for a tow if you get stuck, or worse be forced to spend a night or two in the wilderness if you weren’t planning on it.
Bentonite Hills– These colorful banded hills are something out an alien landscape. If wet, they are impassable in any vehicle.
Lower South Desert Overlook – Enjoy views of Thousand Lake mountain, Jailhouse, and Temple Rocks after a 1/4 mile walk.
Upper South Desert Overlook – Another short hike/walk to the cliff edge for unobstructed valley views.
Cathedral Valley Campground. this is the halfway point of your tour. This is the only toilet (pit) available on the tour. The is no water at the campground.
Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook – Enjoy the monoliths, sandstone cliffs contrasting with the verdant P and J (piñon and juniper).
Gypsum Sinkhole – This massive wonder is 50 feet wide and 200 feet deep! Stay away from the edges.
Temples of the Sun and Moon – These monoliths are the quintessential monoliths of the tour. Many chose to camp in this area (this part is BLM land), so they can catch the sunset and sunrise on these beauties.
Glass Mountain – This landmark is made of selenite gypsum crystals
At this point, continue for 17 more miles to return to Highway 24.
Pro Tip: Make sure to stop and collect, or at least check out, the Devil’s Toenails are your way back into town before dinner. What are the Devil’s Toenails? These are fossilized oysters from the Triassic and Jurassic period. To find these, turn left on the OLD Notom Road (Not to be confused with the Notom-Bullfrog Road) and go .2 miles. Pull over and they are everywhere on the right side of the road. You may collect these as they are outside the park’s boundaries.
Day 3 – Loop the Fold
8:00 Start your tour from the Visitor Center. The center opens at 8:00 am, so you can pick up a brochure if you haven’t already. The tour takes 4-6 hours but you want to plan extra time for hiking or side trips. Start the tour clockwise so you can enjoy the hiking in the cooler hours of the day and enjoy the golden hour/sunset light from the overlooks on Boulder Mountain. As with Cathedral Valley, I will not include drive times so you can select to spend more time in the areas that most interest you. The brochure will include additional sites that I don’t include here. It is a great resource for the history, flora, and fauna and excludes the hikes which I will include. Make sure to pack a picnic lunch to enjoy out on the trail or at the overlook at the top of the Burr Trail switchbacks about half way.
From the visitors center on Hwy 24, at 9 miles, turn right (south) onto the Notom-Bullfrog road.
As you come up over the rise you will see one of my favorite views of the park. These rounded formations just fascinate me. You’re actually looking at the back of part of the scenic drive from day one.
At approximately 16.5 miles, you’ll approach the first of three of the more accessible but challenging slot canyons of the park, Burrow Wash. If you are an avid hiker, definitely choose one of these to be on today’s itinerary! It will be a highlight of the trip. If you’re new slot canyons or not interested in a longer hike, there are other slot canyons to explore further down the road that will be fun to explore without taking hours to visit.
Pro Tip: All three of these slot canyons have around a mile of hiking in a wash before reaching the canyons, but well worth the effort. As with all slot canyons, never enter if there is a chance of storms, even in the distance as there is a chance of flash floods. Always consult the weather report and the rangers for current conditions. I also advise checking on AllTrails in the comments for current trail conditions. Conditions in a slot canyon can change after each storm creating new obstacles to maneuver around and even deep pools that may require swimming in cold water.
At 16.7 miles is Burrow Wash (7.7 miles RT with 565 ft elevation gain).
At 18.1 miles is Cottonwood Wash (6.5 miles RT with 529 ft gain).
At 21.5 miles you arrive at the Sheets Gulch trailhead. This is the longest of the three slots, but I feel the most family friendly of the strenuous slots. Go as far as you desire (13.8 miles RT with 757 feet elevation gain).
At 25 miles the road turns to dirt.
At 31 miles you arrive the at the turn-off for the Cedar Mesa Campground and Red Canyon hike. This primitive campground has 5 first-come, first-served campsites. The Red Canyon trail is an easy trail that is 4.5 miles long with 440 feet elevation gain that ends in a beautiful box canyon. Although this hike is worth, I would choose one of the 5 slot canyons in this region of the park if you only have time for one hike.
From here, enjoy the scenic drive with excellent vistas of Entrada Sandstone, another Oyster shell reef like yesterday (no collecting this time because you’re in the National Park), and the Striped Morrison Formation of pink and gray banded clay hillsides until your reach the Burr Trail road junction at 41.5 miles. If you have already hiked a slot for today, turn right to head up the Burr Trail Road. If not, continue straight for some kid-friendly slots.
1 mile (from road junction) is the trailhead for Surprise Canyon (2.2 miles RT with 400 feet gain).
Headquarters Canyon is 2.4 miles from the junction (2.5 miles RT with 410 feet gain. This is the better of the two canyons so if you have to choose, do this one).
You can continue further down this road all the way to Lake Powell, but it requires high clearance 4WD and is not included in today’s tour. Return to the road junction, turn left to head up the Burr Trail road switchbacks where you climb over 800 feet in a 1/2 miles! It’s a fun ride. Make sure to stop at the top at the picnic area to get that epic picture! Enjoy lunch if you haven’t already.
At 45 miles, you can turn right on the spur road towards Upper Muley Twist Canyon and the Strike Valley Overlook. IF you have 4WD drive you can drive the three miles through the canyon to the Strike Valley Overlook and Upper Muley Twist Canyon Trailhead. I would also advise high clearance as we almost took the bumper off our Hyundai Sante Fe on our last excursion down this road.
If you haven’t done a hike yet, do the Upper Muley Twist (10 miles with 1,355 feet gain) and Strike Valley Overlook (1 mile RT with 400 ft from trailhead or 6.2 miles RT if you need to hike in from the Burr Trail road). The Strike Valley is just incredible, and you don’t want to miss it. As you come up the canyon, either by foot or car, watch out for the three arches. There are a few more arches along the Upper Muley Twist trail, and it eventually comes to a short slot section. Plan on about an hour plus RT for this side trip.
Back on the main, paved road, at 61 miles, you will come to a viewpoint of Long Canyon. At this point you are actually in Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. Take in the views of the Circle Cliff and the Henry Mountains in the distance. Just when you think the tour couldn’t deliver anymore wow factor, you enter the towering, red cliff walls of Long Canyon with huge arch alcoves and of course the iconic Singing Canyon at 66 miles. Make sure to pull over and do the short walk into this baby slot. Make sure to sing your favorite tune. You won’t be disappointed! As the road climbs out of the canyon, be sure to pull over once again to take in the views looking back into the canyon. Stunning!
Shortly after the road turns back to pavement, you reach Boulder Town at mile 78. This remote hamlet was one of the last places to have its mail delivered by horse. Enjoy the views of the bird sanctuary by the Boulder Mountain Lodge and Boulder’s bucolic fields and barns.
At the intersection of Highway 12 and the Burr Trail road, you will turn right to head back to Torrey. This intersection has a lovely little coffee/gift shop, the Burr Trail Outpost . This is not your typical tourist trap. You’ll find treasures and artwork from local artisans and artists. The Burr Trail Grill has excellent burgers, trout, and pie. This is NOT your typical greasy spoon. If time allows, so you won’t miss golden hour on Boulder Mountain, stop for dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill (named for the local dirt road Hell’s Backbone) for AMAZING food. This restaurant has won numerous awards, including the James Beard award for Excellence. Enjoy farm-to-table cuisine in its beautiful and laid-back setting. We have been known to drive 45 minutes multiple times in the same trip to eat there. It is that good!
At 75 miles,you’ll see theAnasazi State Park Museum. It has excellent indoor and outdoor exhibits and bathrooms ($10 day-use fee or Utah State Parks Pass).
Continue east on Highway 12 over Boulder Mountain. Take in the overlooks at Homestead Overlook at 91 miles and Larb Hollow at 100 miles. Larb Hollow is our favorite. The views stretch forever over Capitol Reef National Park, Brown’s Reservoir, the Henry Mountains, and the San Rafael Swell. Golden hour has the best light for photography as the desert topography of multicolor sandstone glows in the evening light.
After you’ve had your fill, continue down the mountain, heading east towards Torrey. If you haven’t had dinner, enjoy a meal at one of the restaurants listed for day one or the Pioneer Kitchen located at the Capitol Reef resort which has solid food.
Where to Eat and Stay
I only recommend places that I have personally dined or stayed at more than once to insure the quality of the establishment:
Pioneer Kitchen Country Southwestern cuisine in a laid back environment located at the Capitol Reef Resort. Great vegetarian options. Open year-round.
SlackersFast food joint with some of the best burgers in the state. The menu has expanded in recent years to include chicken and other sandwiches, salad, vegetarian options and of course their signature milkshakes.
Rim Rock This restaurant serves western fare with incredible views of Capitol Reef. They also have the Rim Rock Patio for more casual fare, like pizza. Both open March through October. Dinner only.
Hunt and Gather, Our personal favorite in town has a seasonal menu with locally sourced ingredients. Dinner only. Open March through mid-October.
There are many bed and breakfasts, airbnb/vrbos, lodges, and budget motels found in the area. I listed my favorites below:
The Lodge at Red River Ranch Luxury accommodations with 15 unique rooms decorated with antiques and art. We’ve been staying here for over 15 years. It’s one of the best lodges in the West. If you’re fortunate to book a room make sure to say hello to Dave and Charlene from me.
Capitol Reef Resort Many lodging options – rooms, suites, and cabins or choose the “glamp” in a teepee or conestoga wagon.
Airbnb We’ve stayed in three different airbnb’s in the area and were happy with all of them. Many different budget options available.
The best seasons to visit the park is spring and fall for ideal temperatures and dryer conditions. Winter is cold and sometimes snowy. A great time to visit for solitude, but some amenities in town are closed for the season. Summer is hot and is prone to flash flooding.
Are you inspired to travel to Capitol Reef National Park? You have everything you need to know for an incredible visit. What are you the most excited to see or do? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, please reach out with any questions. I would love to help you plan your adventure.
In this Itinerary, you will find all you need for the ultimate travel adventure in the San Juan Islands. I will cover our 5-day Itinerary, but you can easily customize it to fit your time constraints and adventure level.
Day 1: AM: Ferry to Orcas Island, Eastsound village shops, and farmer’s market
PM: Hike to Twin lakes and kayak on Mountain Lake
Day 2: AM: Whale Watching Tour
PM: Hike Turtleback Mountain and visit Orcas Island Pottery.
Day 3: AM: Kayak tour of Sucia Island State Park
PM: Hike Cascade Falls trail and Obstruction Pass State Park
Day 4: Ferry to San Juan Island and explore beaches, farms, and lighthouses by Ebike
Day 5: AM: Explore Cascade Lake and lagoon by kayak
PM: Summit Mount Constitution, Sunset and Full Moon Kayak tour of Salish Sea
Now for the details:
Day 1: Ferry to Orcas, Eastsound, and Moran State Park
Enjoying the ferry ride from Anacortes to Orcas Island is an adventure in and of itself. We chose to take one of the first ferry rides of the day so we could maximize our time on the Island. This had the added benefit of the beautiful early morning light over the Puget Sound. Get your camera out and head out to the decks for optimal picture-taking opportunities. You may even see harbor seals, eagles, or Mount Baker!
Make sure to check the ferry schedule and make a reservation well in advance so you can guarantee your spot if you are bringing a car. We opted to rent a car and bring it with us. You can also walk on the ferry and then rent a car on the island.
Once our Ferry arrived at Orcas Island, we headed over to Eastsound to explore the village with its quaint shops and restaurants and enjoyed the Saturday Framer’s Market. This little market is flush with farm-fresh produce, the most amazing flowers, and local goods.
Next, we headed over to what I consider the crown jewel of Orcas Island, Moran State Park. With almost 40 miles of hiking trails, 5 freshwater lakes, and 4 waterfalls, you could easily spend the entirety of your visit just at this state park. If you plan to spend more than one day visiting the park like we did, make sure to get Washington’s state parks pass called the Discovery Pass. It’s well worth every penny and is good for an entire year at any park in Washington state.
On this day, we hike around Mountain Lake to Twin Lakes. We traipsed through old-growth forest with moss, ferns, and foxglove wildflowers, then hiked up the easy grade to Twin Lakes to enjoy our lunch with a view of Mount Constitution and lily pads over the still waters.
After we enjoyed our lunch, we headed back down to Mountain Lake and set up our pack rafts. These are lightweight inflatable kayaks that you can travel and backpack with. However, Orcas Adventures at the Mountain Lake campground and Cascade lake rents canoes and kayaks. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the coves and islands on the lake.
Day 2: Whale Watching Tour, Hike Turtleback Mountain and Visit Orcas Island Pottery
Day two was probably my favorite day of the whole trip. Observing Orcas in the wild has been a bucket list item for as long as I could remember, and the Orcas sightings around the San Jauns are practically guaranteed. As a matter of fact, many companies do guarantee sightings, or you can book another trip for free. As luck would have it, we observed these magnificent creatures for an hour on our tour. You can watch a short video of our adventure here. There are many companies you can book for this adventure. We used Deer Harbor Charters.
After we grabbed a late lunch back at our cabin, we headed out to hike Turtleback Mountain. Some argue that the views from Turtleback Mountain are the best in all the San Juan Island as you have the best views of the island archipelago. There are two options for Turtleback Mountain. The North trailhead to Orcas Knob is a 6 mile out and back with a 1,322 ft gain. The hike from the south trailhead is a 6.6-mile loop (1,640 ft. gain)or 2.7-mile loop (859 ft. gain) if you just want to hike to Ship’s Peak. I recommend Ship’s Peak or Orcas Knob for the best views.
After we enjoyed our hike to stretch our sea legs, we head over to Orcas Island Pottery. This pottery studio is located on West Beach, just outside the village of Eastsound. To get to the studio, just follow the signs. Even the drive there is like entering a fairyland as you drive through old-growth cedars and Douglas firs. They sell pottery from 7 local artists in their beautiful gardens surrounded by the forest and overlooking the Salish Sea. It was enchanting. Learn more here.
Day 3: Kayak Tour of Sucia Island State Park, Cascade Falls and Obstruction Pass State Park
Today we took a Sea kayaking tour with Outer Islands Excursions to explore the waters and shores around Sucia Island. We met our guide on the dock and took a boat ride over to the island where we hopped into our sea kayaks to paddle around this beautiful place. We saw harbor seals (and their pups!), sea otters, eagles and explored remote beaches. I was pleasantly surprised that the paddling felt just like being on a lake. The water was that calm. While I know that they aren’t always as glassy as they were on this day, the waters of the Salish Sea are typically calm and easy to paddle. Although the outfitters we used did a great job, I feel like if I were to do this again, I would just rent the kayaks and do the self-guided tour. This would give us the freedom to take the time at the places we wanted to and even go a little faster than the group did so we could see explore more places around the island.
We returned to Orcas Island at three which left us enough time to boogie back over to Moran State Park to hike the Cascade Falls trail. Cascade Falls is the largest waterfall in all the San Juan Islands at 40 feet tall. This short hike is only 1.5 miles with minimal elevation change where you can see four waterfalls (Cascade, Hidden, Rustic, and Cavern falls) in the ravine surrounded by ferns, moss, and old-growth forest.
Finally, we headed over to Obstruction Pass State Park to hike the Obstruction Pass trail. This 1.4-mile loop takes you through the highland forest with intermittent balds (meadow-type areas covered with moss) to a rock-strewn beach. Here is where you can observe more wildlife and enjoy a picnic by the lapping water. Ironically, this is where we saw the Orcas just offshore during our whale watching tour just the day before.
Day 4: San Juan Island by Ebike
Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands and we feel has the most to offer in terms of outdoor adventures but on this day we planned to walk on the inter-island ferry (free!) to explore the most populous of the archipelago, San Juan, with its popular town of Friday Harbor. The ferry between Orcas and San Juan Island runs about every four hours. Make sure you consult the schedule to ensure you have as much time as you want to maximize your visit to San Juan.
After we arrived at Friday Harbor, we explored the town and shops by foot before grabbing a picnic from Spring street Deli and popping in next door at Gilligan’s Island Style Ebikes. This was definitely the way to go considering the size of the island, the hills, and the wind. We still got a great workout but were able to cover more of the island and have the energy to do some short hikes as well.
There are many different routes you can take to explore the island and Gilligan’s has maps with directions that come with your bikes so you can be confident in your exploration. I recommend either an island loop out to Lime Kiln State Park with its beautiful lighthouse and whale watching from the cliffs or the route to South Beach and Cattle Point with the beach, lighthouse, and wildlife. On both routes, you can plan on passing scenic farms (many with farm stands selling local produce and flowers), coastal views, and potential wildlife sightings.
We opted for Cattle Point which has a better shoulder and less traffic for riding. We loved enjoying the coastal views of the Olympic mountains and the waves crashing on the shore at South Beach as we enjoyed our picnic. After our picnic, we continued on to Cattle Point where we took the short hike out to the lighthouse. We saw foxes in the meadow and coastal birds soaring above the shore. On our return trip, we added on the short loop to Pear Point with its forested country roads and Jackson’s Beach.
After a full day riding, we hopped on the five o’clock ferry and got back to Eastsound in time for a lovely dinner at Kingfish overlooking West Sound watching the sunset. A positively dreamy end to our day.
Day 5: Summit Mount Constitution, Explore Cascade Lake and Lagoon by Kayak, Sunset and Full Moon Kayak Tour of Salish Sea
We had a final action packed day on the island. We began the morning by heading back to Moran State Park to kayak on Cascade Lake over to its freshwater lagoon. Cascade Lake has a small beach area, playground, picnic area, snack shop, and Orcas Adventures which has all you need to get out on the water for the day if you don’t have your own boat to paddle. Not only was Cascade lake a great place to paddle but there is a trail around the lake that many use to access the bridge between the lake and lagoon for bridge jumping. The lagoon’s still water made the perfect location for lily pads and all sorts of waterfowl to observe on the water.
After we had our fill of the lake we drove part way up Mount Constitution and began our hike at the Little Summit trailhead. This hike allows for views both at Little Summit and at the top of Mount Constitution. This hike is 5.9 miles round trip with almost 1,000 feet of elevation gain. It’s a gorgeous hike through an old-growth forest with occasional breaks in the trees for views. Mount Constitution has a tower on the summit. Don’t miss the views from this point with the interpretive signs to tell you everything on the horizon.
We ended the day with a sunset and full moon kayak tour out of Deer Harbor with Shearwater Kayak Tours. I can’t think of a more perfect way to end our time on the island watching the golden sunset over the glassy waters and the full moon rise. We got to see a ton of harbor seals and their pups on the shores of some of the tiny islands we paddled around, in addition to the sunset. Watch a short video here. This was the dreamiest, so if you are fortunate enough to time your visit with the full moon run, don’t walk, to make a reservation. I promise you won’t regret it.
Are you ready to book your trip to Orcas Island? Hopefully, you have all you need to plan your perfect adventure. Feel free to reach out in the comments or by sending me a message. I’m always happy to help craft your perfect itinerary!