Bike Touring Orcas Island

We were warned about Orcas Island. Per the Cycling Sojourner guide, Orcas is “the most challenging for cycling. Prepare for lots of hills, dramatic coastline, and picturesque harbors.” Lots of hills. With that threat and more rain on the way, we made an executive decision to get a hotel room.

Fake blue skies

Fake blue skies

Orcas Hotel is charming and historic. We picked the cheapest room, but the check-in clerk said she didn’t like that room and because it was a Wednesday and the hotel was basically empty, she upgraded us. Harbor view and candy-striped peach wallpaper? We’re in!

While splurging, we also rented a car for four hours (small island-style) from the local gift shop owner. After several days of bike travel, driving feels like flying. We were excited to scout out the bike route and find the Country Corner laundry mat. Because priorities. Once laundry was finished we had just enough time to drive to Mt Constitution, the highest point in the San Juan Islands (2398′) and reputed as one of the best maritime views in the USA.

Not this day. And where are the birds you ask? I asked that too. All I could come up with was Dark-eyed Junco and Red Crossbill, and poor photos. We returned to the hotel, grateful we hadn’t biked the 2300′ of elevation gain in under 5 miles. Maybe on a clear day.

The next day was rainier than expected, but rested and refueled, we were ready to climb back on the saddle.

Orcas

While driving we learned that the main road (Orcas Rd) is narrow and has heavy traffic. And like all the islands we figured out, the heaviest traffic coincides with ferry arrivals and departures. But because Tomas is super resourceful he found an alternate bike route with less traffic along Dolphin Bay Rd.

I love this road.

Dolphin Bay Rd

Yes, there were hills. Even gravel hills.

Dolphin Bay Rd.

But it was quiet with very little traffic. We had the best silliest time.

Dolphin Bay Rd.

I birded along the way, hearing typical NW forest birds, Pacific Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Song Sparrow, and Kinglets. The best I got during the ride was an Osprey. Once we linked back up with the main road we were back to traffic and a pink flamingo farm? Weird.

Flamingos

We made it to East Sound and checked out the bike shop, the local brewery, and indulged heavily in pastries and the best chai tea I’ve ever had at Brown Bear Baking. Seriously, that place is good.

Just after East Sound we passed Crescent Beach, where I found the most birds on this Island.

Shoreline Preserve

There were Mew Gulls and Canada Geese.

Canada Goose

White-Crowned Sparrow and Northern Pintail.

Northern Pintail

Bottoms up

Bottoms up

Biking the 5 miles from East Sound to Moran State Park was the most challenging part of the whole trip. But eventually we made it.

Moran State Park

And we were rewarded with some of the nicest hiker-biker sites I’ve ever experienced. Far from car-camping and roads, lots of privacy, and plenty of hammock trees.

Moran State Park

And when it poured rain, we set up under the nice pavilion. Not a bad plan B.

Moran State Park

The rains came and went, the birds were pretty quiet, and the deer were abundant.

Black-tailed Deer

One last island to go.

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Island

Lopez Island was a good warm-up for San Juan, because our next camping destination, San Juan County Park, is a very hilly 10 miles from the ferry drop-off at Friday Harbor. There was also heavier traffic, but the strawberry house along the way made up for any hardship.

Strawberry House

We eventually made it to the campground and set up.

Hiker Biker

The views are incredible. The shared campsites on the other hand are pretty tight with zero privacy and no hammock trees. Two things I normally look for in a campsite.

But the whales made up for any discomfort.

Orcas

Orcas

That was amazing. We watched at least four Orca pods breach, splash, and swim by just as the sun set. I could have gone home happy then. But it was only day 3.

There were other perks at the park, including a small island reserve just off-shore with Black Oystercatchers.

Black Oystercatcher

And the noisy Pileated Woodpecker in the old apple tree.

Pileated Woodpecker

While on this island, we also made a point to bike to Lime Kiln State Park because it is “considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from a land-based facility.” Even though that meant riding 6 more miles of hills.

We found a lighthouse and White-crowned Sparrows, but no whales this time.

Lighthouse

White-crowned Sparrow

I refused to bike back over the hills, so instead we went 11 miles farther south toward San Juan Island National Historical Park and South Beach.

Leaving Lime Kiln

It was a pretty pleasant bike ride.

Road to South Beach

Plus, we saw more whales from South Beach, and a lovely trio of Harlequin Duck.

Harlequin Duck

At this point, I figured we may as well bike another 8 miles to Friday Harbor. Easy peasy. Because then in Friday Harbor, we can take the bus (!) with our bikes back to Roche Harbor, check out the Sculpture Park and come full circle. Gotta love public transit.

Bus

Roche Harbor has great shops and ice cream, but the best thing about this fancy marina destination is the public showers. No joke. Private, clean (cost a handful of quarters). And after 3 days of bike-camping we really needed one. It was rejuvenating as we mentally prepared to bike the 7.5 miles back to San Juan County Park.

On the way out we visited the sculpture park where I learned something new about Hooded Mergansers.

Hooded Merganser

Immature males have all black bills and bold yellow eyes.

Hooded Merganser

Female on the right below for comparison (yellow bill, dark eyes).

Hooded Merganser

It gave me food for thought as we meandered our way back to the campground. No whale sightings that final night, but I did get a terribly backlit view of a bird I’d hoped to see at some point on the trip, a Rhinoceros Auklet! Trust me.

Rhinoceros Auklet

Later that night the skies opened up and it poured rain through morning. With no bus until noon and an early ferry to catch, we hesitantly packed up a wet camp then slogged through the 10 miles back to Friday Harbor.

We had another island to get to and hopefully more birds to see on Orcas Island!

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey

Bike Touring San Juan Islands- Lopez Island

This summer I finally conquered a trip that had been on my bucket list for a decade: Bike Touring San Juan Islands. Sounds exotic, right?

Ferry Time

It was actually way easier and more familiar than I thought it would be. Though traveling by ferry was different, the ferry schedule was easy to follow. Like a bus on water, the trips between islands are short (about an hour), on schedule, and free after the first ticket purchase (a very reasonable $13.25/person + $2/bike). The most difficult part was awkwardly tying the loaded bikes in the slanted and sometimes crowded cargo area.

Go by Ferry

Tomas and I planned two nights on each island Lopez, San Juan, Orcas, and Shaw.

Lopez starts steep, but then levels out into one of the most bike-friendly of islands. Spencer Spit State Park with excellent bike-camping sites is only 4.5 miles from the ferry dock. And Lopez Village, full of supplies, beer, and ice-cream is 3 miles west of the park.

Spencer Spit State Park

Spencer Spit also has one of the best public beaches on the islands. And beaches bring birds. Gulls of course.

California Gull

California Gull – dark eye, long strait narrow bill with red/black gonys spot

Mew Gull - dark eye, small round "pigeon" head with petit bill

Mew Gull – small round “pigeon” head, yellow legs, petite bill

But there were a couple of small surprises. Like Least Sandpipers. They have greenish-yellow legs (poor light in this photo), and small slightly drooping bills.

Least Sandpiper

And they are usually seen in smaller numbers as compared to other peeps, like Western Sandpipers. Which were also present in larger flock style.

Western Sandpiper

They settled briefly and I could see the differences from the least. Westerns have black legs and a somewhat stouter slightly longer drooping bill.

Western Sandpiper

Practicing peeps. I need to remember to look at the legs. About this point it started raining. But before it started pouring I saw a pretty little Savannah Sparrow in the driftwood.

Savannah Sparrow

And its giant adopted relative, Brown-headed Cowbird.

Cowbird and savannah

Then it poured and I saw two Caspian Terns, but I didn’t stay long to watch them before running for cover from the rain. And that is when I met the wettest chickadee ever.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

It cracked me up.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

So much so that I laughed out loud on the trail and a little girl came up to ask what I was looking at. I pointed out the chickadee and asked, “Do you see him?” She laughed and said, “Yes, or her.” Good point.

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Also in the flock were Golden-crowned and Ruby-crowned Kinglets, an Orange-crowned and Yellow Warbler, Bewick’s Wren, and Brown Creeper. None of which I got great photos of. So here’s a picture of bunnies by the bike lane.

Bunnies

So many rabbits on Lopez Island.

Rabbit sea

They’re cute, but the introduced European Rabbits wreck havoc on native grassland habitat for meadowlarks, voles, and butterflies. Especially on small island ecosystems. They’ve been a major problem on San Juan Island too, but controlling them is controversial because they are “charismatic cuddly fauna.” From this 2012 article:

“For years, nearly 500 toothy, grass-guzzling, invasive rabbits transformed San Juan Island’s American Camp prairie into what the National Park Service dubbed ‘a moonscape. But the agency two years ago backed off plans to shoot and trap the animals after a public outcry. The Park Service is conducting a more detailed environmental analysis.”

I wonder if we’ll ever learn. Here’s Rabbit Tales, an interesting read on the history of rabbits on San Juan Island.

Tomas and I made it to Shark Reef Sanctuary, a short hike along the coast, hoping for a whale or good pelagic bird sighting, but there were only harbor seals, an angry bee, and a nice view of our next island destination.

Shark Reef Sanctuary

Leaving Lopez the next day, I stopped at several ponds and waterways on the way and found Green-winged Teal, Belted Kingfisher, Northern Pintail, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Goldfinch, Lincoln’s, Song, and Golden-crowned Sparrow, Common Yellowthroat, and a Black-headed Grosbeak which was the most unexpected sighting.

Black-headed Grosbeak

Lopez was a great start to our island adventure! I couldn’t wait to explore San Juan Island next.

Birding Lopez

Tweets and chirps,

Audrey