Whether you are a hardy hiker or a Sunday stroller, Orcas Island has a hike for you. All hikes feature a lush, green forest with moss covered logs or rocks inviting you for a sit-down amid quiet serenity. Many offer phenomenal sweeping views of the islands or roaring waterfalls or reflective lakes.
Mountain Lake Loop – easy 3.9 mile
The Mountain Lake loop is what I like to call a “no-brainer” hike in that the trail is wide, well-marked and doesn’t have too many places which test your athleticism. There is decent parking at either trailhead. And, most importantly, there are “potties” near both trailheads!
You have a choice about the intensity of this hike when you start. If you start at the north trailhead toward Twin Lakes the route presents a few switchbacks with a fairly steep incline. If you start at the south trailhead toward the dam the route achieves the elevation gain along a long gentle incline.
Today I’m a wimp so let’s head south or counter-clockwise around the lake. Before we start let us take a moment to drink in the view from the parking lot. This view varies not only from day to day but hour to hour. Some mornings the fog shrouds the opposite shore giving you an eerie feeling as sounds are muted and the air feels heavy. Sometimes the sun shines on rippling water sending out flashes of silver. And some days the lake is so clear you can see the trout undulating in the shadows. What this means is, if you don’t like the view now, come back later as it is guaranteed to change.
The trail starts with a “little bit up”, levels out and then gives you a “a lot up” for a good warm-up to get you started on your hike. About the time you “warm-up” you’ll reach the dam. I like the photo ops from the dam area. It is usually a good place to catch the mirror effect from the lake and, depending on the season, there may be a waterfall photo op where the water spills over the dam.
When you round the bend to the east side of the lake you’ll pass a small cove with a number of fallen trees. Herons perch on these logs giving you another great photo op. Herons on the island are a little shy so you’ll need to be quiet and careful not to disturb them before you are ready to snap the photo.
After a long climb up a gentle incline, you reach the highest elevation gain of this hike. A gigantic moss-covered fallen tree crosses the trail overhead. No worries, it’s been there for ages so it is doubtful that it will chose to fall on you when you are under it. Even so, I don’t dawdle at this point. Just past this tree you’ll find an antique message board in the form of a log with twigs spelling out a message. My informal study finds that about 95% of the “posts” have the word “love” in them. How creative can your “post” be using a few twigs? Give it a whirl before heading down the switchbacks!
At the north-end you might find that heron you missed back at the dam. When you round the bend to the westside of the lake you will finally pass all the trees sticking out of the lake and another small cove with logs. If you don’t find one perched on a log at this point you have most likely passed any heron photo op. So sorry. Come back tomorrow. But do keep your eyes peeled for kingfishers, bald eagles and osprey. They love to fish for trout in the lake.
The trail along the westside twists through fir, hemlock and cedar. A tree came down in the winter storm of 2013 taking out a small portion of the trail. Energetic youths from the mainland cleared the tree and rebuilt the trail but it is still a bit rough for a short distance so I suggest you tread carefully. After that it is a fairly easy stroll to the north trailhead and boat launch.
There is almost always a photo op at the boat launch. Some misty mornings you can shoot the island as it rises through the mist. Other times the lake is so calm and the reflection of the opposite shore so clear it is difficult to find where the land ends and the lake begins.