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Ports of Call: Deer Harbor

by Greg Van Belle

Deer Harbor, photo by Stuart Seeger

Situated on the west end of Orcas Island, Deer Harbor, Washington, has all the services of more popular destinations but with a slower pace and none of the crowds. As a destination, Deer Harbor is overlooked by many San Juan cruisers. Its proximity to Friday and Roche Harbors and location tucked behind the navigational hazard of the Wasp Islands makes it easy to motor right past en route to other locales.

Deer Harbor’s obscure location makes it the perfect getaway. The town retains the feel of a smaller, out-of-the-way port of call. It is more in tune with remote ports in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands than the busy harbors of the San Juans. With a relatively easy approach, a large and easy to navigate marina, wide docks, and a friendly community surrounding the marina, there is no reason not to visit.

Deer Harbor sits near the site of an ancient Lummi Indian encampment that was used as a fishing outpost. The otherwise peaceful life at the encampment was often disrupted by raids from other tribes, and the native history of this place is replete with stories of violence and suffering.



Deer Harbor Resort

The Resort at Deer Harbor is a modern condominium development with updated rooms, an outdoor pool, and a fitness center. Or fully acclimate to island time by resting your head at the historic Deer Harbor Inn. Orcas Island has dozens of small cottages and homes for rent, many near the Deer Harbor marina. To truly slow down and enjoy the island lifestyle, this is the way to go.

Place at Cayou Cove offers charming cottages with stunning views, beach access, and other amenities set very near to Deer Harbor. Getting a few nights on shore during a long cruise can be exactly what the crew ordered.

Around Deer Harbor

White settlers began arriving in 1852, at the tail end of the Fraser River gold rush. The bay had everything needed for settlement: a protected harbor, ample fresh water, and multiple sources of food. Soon after, the Hudson Bay Company sent deer hunters here in search of meat and pelts, and that’s how Deer Harbor earned its name.

Arriving by boat today requires attention to your charts and GPS. While relatively straightforward by San Juan standards, navigation can be confusing and the Wasp Islands act as a sentinel maze when approaching from the southwest. From this direction, approach through North Pass between the Wasp Islands and Orcas. Pole Pass separates Orcas from Crane Island and is the preferred approach from the southeast. Observe the 6-knot speed limit here and keep your wake to a minimum. Navigate the rocks and shoals along the Orcas shore with caution and keep to the center of the channel.



Deer Harbor Buck, Photo by Jon D. Anderson

Orcas Island is home to some of the San Juan Islands’ most spectacular trails for hiking, biking, and running. Nearest to Deer Harbor is the spectacular Turtleback Mountain Preserve, with over eight miles of trails winding through the island’s largest tract of undeveloped land. Farther away, but accessible by public transport from Deer Harbor, are the trails of Moran State Park, culminating with the best 360-degree views in the islands at the summit of Mt. Constitution. Several trail running and mountain biking events are held at Moran State Park every year, but with so much trail, there’s plenty to go around.

Once you’re in the open mouth of Deer Harbor, maneuvering is trouble-free.Anchoring south of the Deer Harbor Marina is possible, but be aware of any southerly winds in the forecast, as they will blow right into the bay. On a typical summer westerly or northwesterly wind, this is a fine anchorage with a flat mud bottom.

The Deer Harbor marina lies on the east side of the bay, unprotected by any breakwater or sea wall. Cayou Quay Marin, on the west side of Deer Harbor is for permanent moorage only.

Ports of Call - Deer Harbor

Read our full Deer Harbor Guide on Issuu

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