Mount Constitution • Highpoint: San Juan County
• Range Highpoint: San Juan Islands Mountains
• Highpoint: Orcas Island


Mount Constitution as seen
from the ferry


Beth on the trail


Mountain Lake from
the summit ridge


The lookout tower


Beth and me at the top,
with Mt Baker in the
background

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Date: July 22, 2004 • Elevation: 2,407 feet • Prominence: 2,407 feet • Distance: 7 miles • Time: 4 hours (hike), 8 hours on the island • Gain: 1,500 feet • Conditions: Crystal clear • Teammates: Beth Cousland

Mount Constitution is the highest point on Orcas Island, one of the main islands of the San Juan Islands chain off the coast of Washington. Four of the big islands—Orcas, Shaw, Lopez and San Juan—along with hundreds of littler islets, rocks and shoals, are grouped together as San Juan County. Orcas Island also features a couple small villages. Not surprisingly, the whole region is gorgeous and homes here go for the millions.

Looking at a map, it would seem that these islands should be grouped with Vancouver Island, which belongs to Canada, but the international boundary makes a few turns in the waters separating the islands, placing these islands south of the line, and within the United States. The story behind the placement of the boundary is amusing, culminating in the short-lived "Pig War", starting in 1859.

It seems that up until then, the islands were inhabited by both American and British settlers, Canada not yet an official country at this time. A pig belonging to a Brit rooted through an American's garden, and the American shot the poor pig. This caused a stand-off of sorts, but no actual battles. The negotiations to establish the boundary went on until 1871, at which time the boundary was set to what it is today.

Beth and I were in the Pacific Northwest on a two-week driving, camping and hiking vacation, centered around a few days at the 2004 National Highpointer's Convention in Puyallup. Beth had lived in Seattle for seven years and was eager to return. I had not been back to this part of the country since my climb of Mount Rainier in 1997. We had landed in Reno, Nevada, and spent about a week making our way to Puyallup.

The Highpointers Club had organized a couple of county highpoint excursions, to Island and San Juan Counties. The one on Island County did not seem interesting at all. Beth had been there many times and said it's a brambly place with nettles. Instead, she proposed, and I agreed, to spend a whole day on Orcas Island, hiking Mount Constitution, plus enjoying the sights and not feeling rushed.

We spent a day in Seattle, then located ourselves in the town of Anacortes that night, location of the ferry that leads to Orcas. We were up early, hoping to catch the first ferry of the day, which we did, barely. We were the last car on the 5:30 a.m. ferry. The journey takes an hour, and soon, we were in Orcas.

Once in Orcas, we exited the ferry and drove to Moran State Park, passing through the village of East Sound where we got pastries and drinks. At the park, we paid the day-use fee and parked in a dirt pullout near Mountain Lake. The paved road actually goes all the way to the top, but we wanted a hike. Mountain Lake includes a tiny island, which means that it is an island on a lake on an island in the ocean.

We started at the Mountain Lake Trailhead, elevation 917 feet. The trail heads north along the lake and stays level for the first 1.4 miles, then comes to a junction where we turned left up towards Twin Lakes, 0.8 mile away and 200 feet higher (staying straight at this junction would have kept us circumnavigating the lake, which is apparently a popular hike itself). Because the route was flat, we covered the 2.2 miles to Twin Lakes in a half-hour. We were hiking in thick old-growth forest, and at one point along the trail we came upon a huge root-ball of a long-ago fallen tree. The root ball was about 10 feet in diameter and looked like a medusa-head of snaking root veins.

We took a break at Twin Lakes, then we continued, going left and following the signs (and the trail) to the top. The summit was just 1.5 mile ahead but almost 1,300 feet up. The trail was consistently steep—never too bad but never lenient either. We marched and took a couple of breaks, making good progress. The trail, which had stayed mostly on Mount Constitution's east face, swung north then west, meeting the paved road just below the summit. We walked the road the final few feet to the top, a broad, rocky bald area topped by a 30-foot tall stone lookout tower constructed in the 1930s.

From the summit, the dry air and cloudless skies allowed for unobstructed views in all directions: Mount Baker was visible to the east, while Mount Rainier's huge mass was visible on the southeast horizon, about 120 miles away. The Olympics were close enough to see detail of the ridges. We could see dozens of islands all around us. It had taken us about 90 minutes to get here.

We stayed for about an hour, and during that time a lot of people had driven up. Two little boys about 7 years old had squirmed their way past the rock wall at the viewpoint and were literally playing on the cliff's edge until I went over to tell them to get back from the edge (I was closest to them). Where were their folks? No idea. A group of girls about age 13 showed up and did some impromptu cheerleading. It was an interesting crowd. It was also nice to have restrooms and trash bins at the summit. We lightened our loads by tossing away our garbage rather than carry it all down.

Coming down, we decided to follow the Little Summit Trail that heads south of the summit and stays high on the ridge. In many areas, we had unobstructed views over the islands as we walked. The Little Summit trail runs for 2.2 miles to "Little Summit", but only loses about 200 feet, so it was mostly level. Actually, we left this trail about 0.1 mile before Little Summit and followed a steep trail directly south back to our car at the trailhead. This trail was not shown on the map and was rougher than the other trails, but it was easy to follow and descended fast.

In less than an half-hour, we'd dropped over a thousand feet, coming out to the camping area about a quarter-mile from our car. The loop hike covered 7 miles with just under 1,500 feet of net gain. We rested back at the car, then drove back out, driving to a restaurant in West Sound where we had an enjoyable lunch. At about 2 p.m., we parked our car in line for the 4 o'clock ferry back to Anacortes. We used those couple of hours to walk around the tiny community of Orcas and rest on the grassy slopes of a nearby park. We were back in Anacortes by 6 p.m.

I maintain the summitpost webpage for Mount Constitution. Click on this link for links to the ferry rates and schedules, and other links related to the San Juan Islands and Moran State Park.

(c) 2004, 2011, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.