If you arrive by car, you’ll first want to find a parking space, which can be difficult in the summer. Once on foot, take a stroll around Friday Harbor to admire the simple wood-frame shop buildings, constructed in the early 20th century. At that time, Friday Harbor was thought of as the southernmost port in Alaska, and was a busy little harbor. Schooners and steamships hauled the island’s fruit, livestock, and lime (for cement) off to more populous markets. Today such pursuits have all ceased, but reminders of the island’s rural roots linger on, and these memories have fueled San Juan’s new breadwinner: tourism.
Whale-watching is one of the most popular summer activities in the San Juans, and no one should visit the islands at this time of year without going out to see the area’s orca whales. Before you head out, stop by The Whale Museum, 62 First St. N. (tel. 360/378-4710; www.whale-museum.org), where you can see whale skeletons and models of whales and learn all about the area’s pods of orcas (also known as killer whales). The museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm (June and Sept 9am-6pm); admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for students and children 5 to 18.
If you’re interested in learning more about island history, stop by the San Juan Historical Museum, 441 Price St. (tel. 360/378-3949; www.sjmuseum.org), which is housed in an 1894 farmhouse and also includes several other historic buildings on its grounds. June to September the museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 3pm; October, April, and May the museum is open Saturday from noon to 3pm. Open by appointment in other months. Admission is $2 for adults, $1 for children ages 6 to 18, and free for children 5 and under.
Many of the town’s old buildings now house art galleries and interesting shops. At Waterworks Gallery, 315 Spring St. (tel. 360/378-3060; www.waterworksgallery.com), you’ll find fine art and contemporary crafts by local and regional artists. Arctic Raven Gallery, 130 S. First St. (tel. 888/378-3222 or 360/378-3433; www.arcticravengallery.com), specializes in contemporary Native American arts and crafts. Up at the top of Spring Street, behind an amazingly contorted Camperdown elm tree, you can also visit the little Island Museum of Art, 314 Spring St. (tel. 360/370-5050; www.wbay.org), which is affiliated with the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park. The museum, which highlights local and regional artists, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11am to 5pm. Admission is by donation.
The tasting room at Island Wine Company, 2 Cannery Landing (tel. 800/248-WINE or 360/378-3229; www.sanjuancellars.com), sells a wide variety of Washington wines and is the only place you can buy wine from the shop’s own San Juan Cellars. You’ll find the wine shop on the immediate left as you leave the ferry.
If you walk over to the other side of the ferry landing and then out on the pier that serves as the dock for passenger ferries, you can take a peek at the Spring Street Landing Aquarium, a modest tank full of local denizens of the deep. The tank is in a building at the end of the pier. Also keep an eye out for wildlife here; I’ve seen an otter swimming around by this pier.
Continuing along the waterfront toward the marina, you’ll come to Fairweather Park, where you’ll find artist Susan Point’s traditional Northwest Coast Indian house-post sculpture, which is similar to a totem pole. The sculpture represents the human-animal relationship and the marine ecosystem. Here in the park, you’ll also find some covered picnic tables.
Seeing the Rest of the Island
Most of the island’s main attractions can be seen on a long loop drive around the perimeter of San Juan. Start the drive by following Roche Harbor signs north out of Friday Harbor (take Spring St. to Second St. to Tucker Ave.).
In about 3 miles, you’ll come to San Juan Vineyards, 3136 Roche Harbor Rd. (tel. 360/378-9463; www.sanjuanvineyards.com), which makes wines both from grapes grown off the island and from its own estate-grown Siegerrebe and Madeline Angevine grapes. The tasting room is housed in an old schoolhouse built in 1896. It’s open daily from 11am to 5pm in summer (call for hours in other months).
A little farther north is Roche Harbor, once the site of large limestone quarries that supplied lime to much of the West Coast. Many of the quarries’ old structures are still visible, giving this area a decaying industrial look, but amid the abandoned machinery stands the historic Hotel de Haro, a simple whitewashed wooden building with verandas across its two floors. Stop to admire the old-fashioned marina and colorful gardens, and have a drink or a meal on the deck of the hotel’s lounge. In an old pasture on the edge of the resort property, you’ll find the Westcott Bay Sculpture Park (tel. 360/370-5050; www.wbay.org), a sculpture park that includes more than 100 works of art set in grassy fields and along the shores of a small pond. Admission to the sculpture park is a suggested $5 donation. Back in the woods near the resort is an unusual mausoleum, which was erected by the founder of the quarries and the Hotel de Haro.
South of Roche Harbor, on West Valley Road, you’ll come to the English Camp unit of San Juan Island National Historical Park (tel. 360/378-2902; www.nps.gov/sajh). This park commemorates the San Juan Island Pig War, one of North America’s most unusual and least remembered confrontations. Way back in 1859, San Juan Island nearly became the site of a battle between the British and the Americans. The two countries had not yet agreed upon the border between the United States and Canada when a British pig on San Juan Island decided to have dinner in an American garden. Not taking too kindly to this, the owner of the garden shot the pig. The Brits, instead of welcoming this succulent addition to their evening’s repast, demanded redress. In less time than it takes to smoke a ham, both sides were calling in reinforcements. Luckily, this pigheadedness was defused, and a more serious confrontation was avoided.
The English Camp unit of the historical park is set on picturesque Garrison Bay, and, with its huge old shade trees, wide lawns, and white wooden buildings, it’s the epitome of British civility. There’s even a formal garden surrounded by a white picket fence. You can look inside the reconstructed buildings and imagine the days when this was one of the most far-flung corners of the British Empire. If you’re full of energy, hike the 1.25-mile trail to the top of 650-foot Mount Young for a beautiful panorama of the island. An easier 1-mile hike hugs the shoreline out to the end of Bell Point. The grounds are open daily from dawn to 11pm, and the visitor center is open from early June through early September daily from 9am to 5pm. Throughout the summer, various living-history programs are held here on weekends.
South of English Camp, watch for the Mitchell Bay Road turnoff. This connects to the Westside Road, which leads down the island’s west coast. Along this road, you’ll find San Juan County Park, a great spot for a picnic. A little farther south is Lime Kiln Point State Park ([tel 360/378-2044; www.parks.wa.gov), the country’s first whale-watching park and a great place to spot these gentle giants in summer. This latter park is open daily from 8am to dusk. Flanking the state park are Deadman Bay Nature Preserve and Lime Kiln Nature Preserve, two properties acquired for public use by the San Juan County Land Bank. Together the state park and the two preserves have more than 3 miles of hiking trails, making this the best hiking area on the island.
As Westside Road moves inland, a left onto Wold Road will bring you to Pelindaba Lavender Farms, 33 Hawthorne Lane (tel. 866/819-1911 or 360/378-4248; www.pelindaba.com). The farm has roughly 5 acres of lavender plants, including a cutting field where visitors can cut their own lavender stems. May through September, it’s open daily from 10am to 5pm; in October, it’s open Friday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm; and in November and December, it’s open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 5pm. The gift shop is packed with lavender-scented products, as is the farm’s gift shop and cafe in the Friday Harbor Center shopping plaza, in downtown Friday Harbor. The farm has a Lavender Harvest Festival each year in mid-July.
At the far south end of the island is the wind-swept promontory on which American Camp stood during the Pig War. Here you’ll find two reconstructed buildings and a visitor center (early June to early Sept daily 8:30am-5pm; early Sept to early June Wed-Sun from 8:30am-4:30pm); before American Camp was built here, this was the site of a Hudson’s Bay Company farm. The meadows sweeping down to the sea were once grazed by sheep and cattle, but today you’ll see only rabbits browsing amid the high grasses and wildflowers (and the occasional red fox stalking the rabbits). Hiking trails here lead along the bluffs and down to the sea. My favorites are the Mount Finlayson Trail, which leads to the top of a grassy hill, and the Lagoon Trail, which passes through a dark forest of Douglas fir to Jackle’s Lagoon, a great spot for bird-watching. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, which are relatively plentiful around here. If you’d just like to picnic at a pleasant and secluded beach, head to the park’s Fourth of July Beach. During the summer months, American Camp holds weekend living-history programs.
Continuing past American Camp will bring you to Cattle Point, site of a lighthouse and the Cattle Point Interpretive Area, one of the best picnic spots on the island. In the 1920s, the Interpretive Area served as a Navy Radio Compass Station that helped ships navigate the nearby waters. Today there are rock outcrops, two tiny beaches, great views of Lopez Island, interpretive signs, and a few picnic tables. Cattle Point is also a good destination for a bike ride from Friday Harbor.