Orcas Island is an off-season paradise for mountain bikers

Orcas Island is an off-season paradise for mountain bikers

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Story by Jann Eberharter
Photos by Anne Cleary

When the Civilian Conservation Corps put in a road to the top of Mt. Constitution in the 1930s, they had no idea they were laying the groundwork for a mountain biker’s paradise. On the eastern side of Orcas Island, the summit is the highest point in the San Juan Islands, providing views of Mt. Baker and surrounding islands, and access to 2,000 vertical feet of singletrack.

Unlike most trails, those on Orcas have an open season — September 15 to May 15 — where it’s a singletrack free-for-all and mountain bikers have access to all the good stuff. They’re closed the rest of the year due to the island’s tourist season. Tourists flock to Orcas for the fresh ocean air, good views and island vibes during the warm months. Thankfully, none of these elements go away during the winter, so bikers are greeted with the exact same, plus tacky trails and less crowds, although there certainly can be some inclement weather in the winter.

The paved, two-lane road to the top is an anomaly for Washington’s bike trails, allowing riders to shuttle in groups and put their energy toward the downhill. However, as always, the hardcores ride to the top – an impressive feat as the road is steep enough that it’s only fun when you’re reliving it around the campfire later.

During the open season, bikers have access to 25 miles of singletrack, a considerable jump up from the 11 that are open year-round. Many of them double as hiking trails, which can mean tight switchbacks and minimal berms for riders, but with the astounding views of the archipelago and fun, technical sections, it can be hard to notice. Trails wind around all sides of the mountain, many leading directly back to Cascade Lake and Mountain Lake, which both have campsites and services.

One trail stands out above the rest for its  ample airtime and lack of hikers. Powerline Trail skirts around the western side of Mt. Constitution and winds down an old road beneath towering hunks of metal connected by high-voltage power lines. The combination of stepdowns, tabletops and gap jumps provide high-speed sections that take a few runs to learn, but are equally gripping and fun. The whole run feels like a secret – a trail with behemoth features deep in the woods, simultaneously providing a getaway from everyone else on the trails and creating stoke that is natural for mountain bikers to share.

And there’s plenty more. Nearly a century after the men of the Civilian Conservation Corps worked tirelessly to provide access to one of Washington’s most beautiful spots, the effort they put into the single route to the top has been matched by the many routes back to the bottom.

With access to the trails three-quarters of the year, it’s hard to think mountain bikers are getting the short end of the stick. Spring and fall provide the perfect conditions for bikers. And while winter might be harsh, it’s in the fun but slightly miserable way many bikers
secretly love.

Don’t miss these trails:

Power line: The island’s jump-specific trail with large stepdowns, gaps and high-speed berms.

Summit View to Cold Springs: Ride right off the summit of Mt. Constitution with amazing views of the San Juans and connect to narrow singletrack with steep switchbacks.

Cascade Falls to Twin Lakes: An out-and-back ride above Mountain Lake that is smooth, fast and flowy.

Learn more

Stop in at Wildlife Cycles in Eastsound to get current trail conditions, spare parts and directions to whichever trailhead you’re looking for.

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Originally from Boise, Idaho, Jann Eberharter came to the Northwest to pursue a degree in visual journalism at Western Washington University and stayed for the loamy trails.