Orcas Island in the Snow

Posted by: Jan Heine Category: Rides

Orcas Island in the Snow

The San Juan Islands are only a short distance north from Seattle. Why not go cyclotouring for a weekend? It was still dark when we took the 7:30 ferry from Anacortes.
As our boat headed toward the islands, the sun rose over Mount Baker. Ferry rides are always beautiful, but in January, we didn’t linger on deck for long. The temperature was below freezing!
The sun started to make a tentative appearance as we disembarked at the Orcas Island ferry landing. We cycled along empty backroads across the island. January cyclotouring has an advantage: There is almost no traffic.
Orcas Island is my favorite among the San Juans. The roads dive in and out of the many bays, offering beautiful views. Eastsound was a great place for breakfast and warming up at a café, before we continued our exploration of the island.
A week of unseasonably cold temperatures had frozen the roadside springs into beautiful ice sculptures.
I hadn’t ridden my old Alex Singer camping bike in quite a while. When I bought it almost 20 years ago, it was one of my first 650B bikes. Back then, it was a revelation, and it has had a pronounced influence on our bikes today. On this trip, it was fun to re-acquaint myself with the Singer, even though it was loaded far below its capacity.
Orcas Island has an added attraction for cyclists: Mount Constitution is one of the few mountain climbs in Washington that are not closed in winter – at least usually. A winding road leads from sea level to the top at 731 m (2400 ft). Up there is a great view across the islands and the Puget Sound, framed by the Cascades to the east, the Olympic Mountains to the south, and the Vancouver Island Range to the West.
Yet during our visit, even this relatively low road was covered with snow. We started the climb anyhow…
…testing the slipperiness of the surface from time to time, and walking our bikes when it got too icy.
Instead of pushing all the way to the top, we took the road to Mountain Lake, about half-way up the mountain. At the end of the road, we continued on frozen trails.
A good thermos is essential equipment for winter cyclotouring. Hot tea made our picnic by the frozen lake enjoyable and fun.
It was dark by the time we returned to the ferry landing, where we had booked a room at the quaint Orcas Hotel. Another advantage of winter cyclotouring: Last-minute reservations are no problem.
Rain was moving in the next day, as we cycled along the water to Westsound and onward to Deer Harbor. This beautiful road winds along the water, with beautiful views of the neighboring islands.
The quiet roads invited us to stop and explore. When there is no traffic requiring your attention, you suddenly notice the little things by the roadside…
The rain showers became more frequent, and we decided to return to the hotel, where we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon tea before taking the ferry back to the mainland. It was a wonderful way to start this year’s cycling season.
Further reading:

Photo credits: Natsuko Hirose (Photo 3, 5, 9)

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