Location: 48.677577, -122.831175 Summit Elevation: 2,407′ Lookout Type: 53′ stone tower Site Established: 1930s Current Structure Built: 1935-1936 Dates Visited: 2002, 2007, 2016
This unique, medieval-style stone fire lookout tower on Mount Constitution is the highest point on the San Juan Islands with over 2,000′ of prominence and a beautiful view of the San Juan Islands, Rosario Strait, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier, and Canada.
Photos sourced from friends since I unfortunately lost most photos from prior visits.
The stone fire lookout tower on Mount Constitution might very well be the most impressive structure ever built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Washington State Park system. Moran State Park was also one of the first major parks in the State Park system, containing one of the largest undisturbed lowland Western Hemlock forests in Washington State. The reason we all have beautiful Moran State Park? We can thank former Seattle shipbuilder and mayor Robert Moran (1857-1943). After retiring in 1906 and moving to Orcas Island, he eventually acquired 7,800 acres of land that he tried repeatedly to donate to the state but at the time, there was no state body that could accept or operate a park structure.
In 1921, the newly formed State Park Commission was finally able to accept a donation of Moran’s land but had no funding to develop it. Moran spent his own money to build the existing infrastructure of roads, trails, and concrete entrance structures for the park, completed by the Camp Moran Civilian Conservation Corps from 1933-1941. The remainder of his land and mansion, named Rosario, remain privately operated as Rosario Resort and Spa.
The architectural inspiration for Mount Constitution’s impressive stone structure came from the ancient watch towers of the Caucasus Mountains in Europe. Designed by well known Seattle architect Ellsworth Storey (1879-1960), construction began in August 1935. Work was carried out by 28 men from the 4768th Company of the Civilian Conservation Corps, hailing mostly from Fort Snelling, Minnesota. Native sandstone was cut from a quarry on the northern shore of Orcas Island and stone and iron work was all completed by hand.
There was a brief lull in construction during extreme cold and winds in January of 1936, then on July 7, 1936, a final beam was placed at the tower’s highest point. Construction ended in the late summer of 1936. The lookout was staffed by the Division of Forestry (now DNR) until 1967, when the more than 10,000 annual visitors forced the construction of a second more isolated lookout tower used solely for detection. The replacement tower is now gone, and the stone tower is maintained by the State Parks Commission.
In 1974, the tower was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, but was poorly maintained in its first 40 years. A small project to replace deteriorated wood components and some stone was done in 1976, then a more involved restoration project was completed in 2003 and 2004. Some of the original members of the CCC construction team were on hand in 2004 for the rededication and thanks to these careful restoration efforts, the lookout retains a high level of original integrity.
The tower is 53′ high and made of reinforced concrete and sandstone with wrought iron interior features and cedar log accents.
My visits over the years.
My very first visit to Mount Constitution was back in 2002 with an old boyfriend Jason. I was absolutely enamored with this impressive medieval tower! When my dad and stepmom came for a visit in 2007, we took a trip over to Orcas so I could show off the tower and we all enjoyed a relaxing weekend of island life.
In 2016, I returned again to Orcas Island for my 40th birthday and ran the Orcas Island 25k trail race, which looped through Moran State Park and along the base of the lookout tower. My birthday surprise? Snow! Unfortunately I lost most of the photos of the tower from past visits. I’m certainly due for a return trip soon!
While it’s certainly possible to drive all the way to Mount Constitution’s summit, I would highly recommend either biking or hiking to the summit to really enjoy the beauty of Moran State Park. Below I’ve outlined a few different routes to Mount Constitution, including by bicycle.
Loop Hike via Mountain Lake
Distance (RT): 6.3 miles Elevation Gain: 1,700′
Consider a lovely loop hike to Mount Constitution, starting from a parking area near Mountain Lake. The route can be done either way, but many climb first up to Little Summit, enjoying the views, before continuing along the ridge trail to Mount Constitution. There’s an option to also From there, descend back down along the shore of Mountain Lake and return to the start.
Orcas Island is a beautiful place to bicycle and oftentimes more flexible and logistically easier than ferry reservations during busy summer months.
I would recommend boarding an early ferry out of Anacortes to give yourself ample time on the island. Once at Orcas, I would also wait for ferry traffic to exit and clear the road and consider detouring west on the Crow Valley Road near Westsound. It will eventually meet back up on the main road near Eastsound and will be a much quieter road to bicycle with less traffic.
Biking all the way to the summit of Mount Constitution does require a stout climbing effort but it’s well worth it and there are multiple places to stop along the way and take breaks.
General biking route to Mount Constitution from the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal.
Getting to Mount Constitution from the mainland requires a ferry ride to Orcas Island from Anacortes, approximately 2 hours north of Seattle. Reservations are highly recommended during busy summer months. Alternatively, you can park a vehicle in Anacortes and take your bicycle, which I’ve done twice. It’s a much cheaper fare and doesn’t require reservations during the busy summer season. Orcas is a beautiful place to ride and the ferry system provides detailed instructions for bicyclists.
Mount Constitution is about a 45 minute drive from the Orcas ferry terminal. Follow the main Horseshoe Highway (Orcas Rd) 8 miles north to Eastsound. The road changes to Olga Rd and turns south 9 miles to Moran State Park. Pass Cascade Lake, then take a left on Mount Constitution Road and follow 4.5 miles to the summit parking lot at Mount Constitution.