8 Fun Ways To Explore History In The Islands

With three island historical museums, the San Juan Island National Historical Park and 18 National Historic Registry sites, there are dozens of attractions for the history buff or the merely curious to explore. The month of May is a great time to plan a visit, during History Lives Here: National Historic Preservation Month.

1. Visit the Lopez Island Historical Museum

Learn how Lopez Island’s relatively flat landscape, abundant fishing, mild weather and fertile land was a draw for coastal tribes for thousands of years. The first non-Native settler came to Lopez around 1850 and settled what is now Lopez Village. In 1870, just 70 people lived on Lopez; by 1930, 134 farms were growing apples, cherries, apricots, plums and vegetables, as well as raising sheep and cattle. Today, a community of about 2,500 people call Lopez home. 

2. Get Artsy at Orcas Island Artworks

A treasured Orcas Island destination for visitors and locals alike, the co-op gallery in Olga represents forty-five Orcas Island artists and craftspeople, working in pottery, sculpture, jewelry, glass, wood, paintings, prints, wearable art, fiber and more. As the gallery is owned and operated by the artists themselves, there is the unique opportunity to meet one or more of them on any given day.

3. Learn about Coast Salish art

Enjoy the waterfront walk down to the Port of Friday Harbor, appreciating the dramatic Coast Salish house posts that stand in Jack Fairweather Park to welcome visitors and the many boats from around the world. The piece is titled "Interaction" and was created by Salish Coast artist Susan Point, a member of the Musqueum Tribe, as a symbol of friendship and an acknowledgement of the Native presence in the San Juan Islands. "Interaction" is also dedicated to welcoming all to work together in the stewardship of our precious marine ecosystem. Take a self-guided tour through Historic Friday Harbor.

4. Learn about pioneer life as the Orcas Island Historical Museum

The museum has a permanent collection of approximately 6,000 objects, paper documents and photographs. In the 1950s and 1960s, various island families donated six original homestead cabins, built during the 1870s and the 1890s, to the Society. Volunteers disassembled the structures at their original sites, then moved, reconstructed and linked the structures together to create the museum.

5. Step back in time at Lime Kiln Point State Park Lighthouse

This 36-acre park boasts an iconic lighthouse on the west side of San Juan Island and is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. The lighthouse was built in 1919 and still serves as a navigational beacon for ships in the Haro Strait. The park, which features a richly diverse environment, includes the remnants and landscapes of a history filled with change, along the rocky shoreline and through the wooded uplands. Interpretive programs, an interpretive center with gift shop and lighthouse tours are available during the summer months. And you won't be the only visitors there - pods of orca whales are known to swim by the lighthouse looking for food. That's why it's also called "Whale Watch Park!" Minke whales, porpoises, seals, sea lions, otters and more can also be spotted off shore.

6. Experience history at the San Juan Island Historical Society and Museum

About a mile up from the ferry terminal, on the grounds of the former 445-acre James King farm, the San Juan Islands Historical Society & Museum consists of eight buildings, four from the original farm: the 1894 farmhouse, carriage house, root cellar and milk house. The original San Juan County Jail, a barn, a log cabin and resource center round out the remaining structures. Stroll the grounds, enjoy a picnic and step back in time.

7. Check out the Lopez Island Library

The library began its life at the end of World War II, when Otis and Nan Perkins created Lopez Island Memorial Library in their home to honor their son, Warren, who died in the war. By the 1970s, it needed a new home. The Lopez Library League raised money and found a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse that was moved to its present location. The library opened its doors in 1986 and has been at the center of Lopez life ever since.

8. Enjoy the Whale Museum

Housed in an 1892 Odd Fellows Hall overlooking Friday Harbor, The Whale Museum is the local center for Salish Sea stewardship and research since 1979. Many early notable events took place at the Hall, including the year-long murder trial of Richard Straub, the only person ever executed in San Juan County.  Now you can see a young orca skeleton, watch free videos, and find treasures in the museum gift shop. Upstairs, visit the Gallery of Whales and learn how you can adopt an Orca!

Sleep In History

Historic hotels, quaint bed & breakfast inns, or what's-old-is-new-again glamping - you can find all sorts of options for fun accommodations on Orcas, Lopez and San Juan Islands.

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San Juan Islands Visitors Bureau
1-888-468-3701 | (360) 378-9551
P.O. Box 1330, Friday Harbor, Washington 98250
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