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Daytripping in Washington’s Seaside Smithsonian: Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor, a town of 2,000 residents on San Juan Island, has become something of a seaside Smithsonian

Listen to an orca. Spend some time in a 1890s jail cell. Let artifacts and your imagination take you to major battlefields. Meet some pioneers of Northwest aviation. Get to know some of the best emerging Northwest Native artists.

All in one day.

Friday Harbor, a town of 2,000 residents on San Juan Island, has become something of a seaside Smithsonian, with six museums—all within walking distance—devoted to art, aviation, island history and industries, military history, and the marine environment. (Tip: Post-tour, rent a scoot car or buy a San Juan Transit pass and visit San Juan Island National Historical Park, with buildings and other features dating to the U.S.-British territory dispute of 1859-1872); the bustling seaside village of Roche Harbor, with buildings dating to 1886; San Juan Islands Sculpture Park, with more than 150 works by professional sculptors; and Lime Kiln State Park, where killer whales hug the shallow shoreline in pursuit of migrating salmon.)

But first, let’s take a walk in Friday Harbor.


From the ferry landing, walk one block to First Street and the Whale Museum, reportedly the first museum in the nation devoted to the stewardship of orcas and the environment that sustains them. The museum has exhibits related to the marine environment, including a whale skeleton, recordings of whale sounds, wildlife films, and information about the island’s resident orca pods. Visit the gift shop and help support whale research. (Tip 1: Admission is free on Thursdays. Tip 2: During summer, visit the Whale Museum’s research station at Lime Kiln State Park. Located in a 1914 lighthouse, researchers document the movements of orcas and monitor boater behavior in the presence of these endangered animals).

Friday Harbor, San Juan Islands Museum of Art

The San Juan Islands Museum of Art regularly features nationally known artists.

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A few doors down is the American Legion Post 163 Veterans Museum. San Juan County reportedly has the largest veteran population per capita in Washington, and many items on display were donated by local veterans. Artifacts include historical documents, a battlefield flag from the Civil War, enemy weapons seized by U.S. troops during World War II, and uniforms worn and donated by local veterans.

Friday Harbor, Roy Matsumoto

The late Roy Matsumoto was an Army Ranger during World War II whose intelligence gathering helped save the lives of U.S. troops in Burma. You’ll learn about him and other San Juan Island veterans at the American Legion Post 163 Veterans Museum.

On upper Spring Street is the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, an ambitious museum that is three years young but regularly features nationally and internationally known artists, among them: muralist Adonna Khare, photographer Susan Middleton, glass artist William Morris, Coast Salish carver Shaun Peterson, and sculptor Ai Weiwei. The museum presents rotating exhibitions in its three galleries, with as many as 10 exhibitions per year, as well as a lecture series titled Art as a Voice.

Friday Harbor, Friday Harbor Mural

A Coast Salish man carves a canoe in this mural, artist unknown, on the side of the Friday Harbor Drug building in downtown Friday Harbor.

Walk a couple more blocks north to Price Street and the San Juan Historical Museum. Visit the original farmhouse, carriage house, root cellar and milk house and get a feel for 1890s island farm life. Sit in a cell in the county’s first jail, which was originally located downtown near the courthouse. School may be in session in an 1891 log cabin, with a local actor portraying an early island teacher. The resource center features rotating exhibits and objects that help tell the story of the island’s First Peoples. Also on the site is the San Juan Island Museum of History and Industry, which has interactive exhibits on the industries that shaped and sustained San Juan Island for generations: Fishing, farming, logging and limestone quarrying and processing. The exhibits bring to life many pieces of the past. (Tip: Bring lunch from the farmers market or a local store or restaurant, and eat outside on the park-like museum grounds.)

Friday Harbor, Mary Jean Cahail, San Juan Historical Society

Mary Jean Cahail, president emeritus of the San Juan Historical Society, visits with guests at the San Juan Island Museum of History and Industry, July 4, 2016.

Next, walk across Spring Street to a walking trail leading to the San Juan Aviation Museum at Friday Harbor Airport. The island’s rich aviation history is told through exhibits on local pilots, historic images, logbooks, and other memorabilia. (Tip: Enjoy a meal at the airport’s Ernie’s Café, named for the late author and pilot Ernie Gann, who lived on the island. You’ll hear some great stories and see plenty of action; with more than 12,000 passengers a year, this airport is the 12th busiest in the state of Washington.)

Friday Harbor, Mike Vouri, San Juan Historical Museum

Author and historian Mike Vouri portrays Capt. George Pickett during the Fourth of July Pig War Picnic at the San Juan Historical Museum. Pickett was the leader of U.S. troops on San Juan Island during a dispute with Great Britain before leaving to join the Confederate Army.