If it were just Friday Harbor in question, this place would barely rate a mention in any tourist's book. The fact is, there really isn't that much to this little town. The thing that makes it so popular for tourists is the close proximity to so many other activities and beautiful places all over the San Juan Islands, but on San Juan Island itself in particular.
These are located on the other islands, or on San Juan Island.
It is an interesting quandary when you think of it: Friday Harbor is on the east side of San Juan Island. Almost all of the really attractive scenic tourist locations are on the west side of San Juan Island. They are far enough away that they are a decent bike ride, too far to walk really, but some are served by the seasonal bus service. There is also of course driving - and if the weather isn't wet you might consider renting a Scootcoope or a moped from Suzie's Mopeds (they also have cars to rent as well).
The distinction between "Nearby Attractions" and "In Friday Harbor" is a little difficult in this case, as pretty much EVERYTHING on San Juan Island has a Friday Harbor mailing address. However, there are places that are well outside Friday Harbor that are really not part of the same community, though they are part of what attracts people to the community:
Roche Harbor was once a privately owned mining town, but when mining shut down it became a resort community. Much of the community is open to exploration by the public, including two sculpture gardens.
Lime Kiln Point State Park is famous for being a place for the occasional Orca Whale sighting from land. It is also the home of a whale research organization, a few hiking trails, and a small beach. Remains of the lime mining operation are also located here.
San Juan Island National Historical Park is the historic sights of the former military occupation of the island during the time it was disputed land between British North America (Canada) and the USA. The park is actually split into two locations: English Camp is located near Roche Harbor and American Camp is located at the far southeastern point of the island.
For things such as the Whale Watch Trips and the Kayak Trips, many of the groups depart from Friday Harbor and take you to the other side of the island in their own transportation - by road if a kayak trip or by water if it is a Whale Watch / Marine Life Viewing trip.
Other places you may be interested in examining include:
Pelindaba Lavender Farm (served by the seasonal bus service)
Krystal Acres Alpaca Farm
Finding things to do in the San Juan Islands can be an interesting experience, and not necessarily easy for those who are used to finding out about everything online.
Here in the San Juan Islands, news tends to travel along traditional routes - word of mouth and public posters are still commonplace.
If you want to find out what is going on around the islands, check the local bulletin boards. In the main photo from this tip, you will see the densely packed bulletin board of events, services, guides, people and other items posted on the public bulletin board at the corner of the hardware store (there is only one) in Friday Harbor. However, various other public posting locations are available all over town. This includes store windows (as seen in photo 2), hidden corner spots in restaurants, and dozens of other locations.
Available in hotel lobbies, as well as public literature racks on the ferries and in various other locations, you will find freely available travel guides. These include the San Juanderer and the Springtide. Both have useful information, but the Springtide is a more complete guide to the Islands at 44 or so pages, while the San Juanderer has a bit more about Anacortes and surrounding areas and isn't as extensive at only about 26 pages. However, both are quite useful.
Free tourist maps are also available of San Juan Island and Friday Harbor in hotels and a number of other locations. These maps include various services offered by the paid advertisers (as is typical of the free tourist maps). However, the maps are reasonably complete and decent enough guides to the islands. The San Juan Island map includes a very detailed view of Friday Harbor (see photo 5 on the left) which even though it is only schematic in nature at least shows you many useful things in the town.
The frustrating thing is that there is no general clearinghouse of central information - at least I was unable to find one. No one public bulletin board location seems to outshine the rest as being a central location of events. Restaurant employees or the San Juan Transit bus drivers or some of the hotel employees are also good sources of information about what is going on around the islands, but generally their knowledge only goes as far as the island on which they live. Despite all the bulletin boards all over town, it was a fellow hotel guest that told me about the Free Wednesday evening concerts in the summer months.
I mention this because, though I did not rent a boat here, there was a question on the Lopez Island forum not too long ago (written in August of 2013) about renting a sailboat on that island.
While I am not sure what is available on Lopez Island (it doesn't have as much as San Juan Island or Friday Harbor), Friday Harbor does have at least one place that does boats, including a sailboat. The person behind the counter did tell me that they won't rent such a boat to just anyone - the person doing the renting have to know what they are doing when it comes to renting a sailboat, and they reserve the right to refuse rental to anyone they feel will be a hazard to themselves and others.
Along with boat rentals, Friday Harbor Marine also rents Kayaks, stand-up Paddle Boards, and various other water equipment.
Their primary bread and butter business, however, is selling the parts and equipment to keep the various local boats in operating condition. Therefore, when you walk into their facility, don't be surprised to find yourself in a sea of boat parts. Peak tourist season only lasts two and a half short months here, and businesses need to keep in business all year.
However, I think you can also depend on Friday Harbor Marine to know what they are doing when it comes to boat rental. It isn't like car rental where the person behind the counter is just some salesman. Here, it would be a bit like renting a car from a place that does car repair and auto parts - far more technically oriented than just a simple sales job.
As I said above, I have not rented a boat from this place and I might never have the resources to do so, but from the looks of things here they are a very skilled operation and know what they are doing - and probably know how to recognize those who don't know what they are doing.
How to Get Here: Despite their position in one of the most prominent industries in Friday Harbor, they are very much a low visibility operation. They are located on the north side of a building, which is located on the north end of the Friday Harbor waterfront activity area on Front Street. Thus, not only is it in the furthest of the buildings along the water among the most active area, but it is located on the side that nobody actually sees from the primary waterfront activity area. From the Spring Street Wharf (the place where the Victoria Clipper ties up) go to the building on the north side of the wooden walkway. Continue to the north side of this building. On the bottom floor you will find Friday Harbor Marine.
Friday Harbor happens to be reasonably close to where the San Juan Island pod of orcas typically are found. Naturally, here you can find a few organizations doing whale watch trips. Finding a place that does whale watch trips isn't difficult at all (notice the little Orca greeting visitors to Friday Harbor as they drive off the ferry).
There are a dozen or so of different choices really, and those choices expand a lot when you include trips that go out of Victoria BC, Anacortes, Bellingham, Roche Harbor, and various other locations as well as Friday Harbor.
It is possible to obtain tickets for the Victoria Clipper whale watch trips as an independent trip, departing from Friday Harbor. However, I don't recommend this trip unless you are doing it as a day trip from Seattle, and/or you just want to go out on the water for a few hours. The problem is that this is a very short trip, and once the boat catches up with the whales you may only find they have time to be with them for half an hour or so. Also, they run their boats pretty full, and so you may not get a great view of the whales or anything else due to the sheer number of seats that are located far from the edge of the boat. See my Victoria Clipper Whale Watching Tip in the Seattle Things to Do section for photos and information on the trip I took. Take a close look especially at the photo of all the people on the deck (photo 3 of that tip) to see what I mean. Certainly, if you have no other choice because you need to be on a bigger boat or because you are coming and returning to Seattle in a day, that is what you have to do.
However, also available in Friday Harbor are trips on smaller boats that are not well known or publicized outside the San Juan Islands with perhaps a dozen or so operators, including those offered by Island Safaris (photo 1) as an example. This is an illustration of what you will find in Friday Harbor and only used as an example as there are perhaps a dozen or more whale watching tours operating out of Friday Harbor, and others that operate out of Roche Harbor and at least one operates out of Snug Harbor. They all compete with eachother, so they all offer about the same type of trip at about the same cost range, depending on the type of boat. They all communicate with each other so they all have the same information about where the whales are.
Unfortunately, this means the field of whale watch trips can become a bit circus like (see photo 4 of this tip - of a dozen or so boats from various places all following J pod on its way north).
So, when you arrive in Friday Harbor you will the whale watch trip offerings are everywhere so finding one isn't the issue. Selecting one from the herd that you would prefer to do is a different matter. Choices and needs are different among people so that will dictate what you want. Some operators have a boat or inflatable zodiac craft without a toilet or water or other services you might want. However, the zodiac experience can be fun as it is fast.
For my second Whale Watch Trip, I selected Western Prince which sort of happened by accident but actually turned out for the best as their boat is small enough to be an intimate environment and to allow for good views, but also big enough to have a restroom, a few snacks and other resources. The naturalist / guide provided a huge amount of wonderful information, and it was a really good experience. I do highly recommend them. See my Western Prince tip at
Various other trips operate out of Everett, Anacortes, and scattered other locations.
Generally, it isn't difficult to find Whale Watching trips here in the tourist season, but know what you are looking for and try to select a boat that has everything you want.
In 1894, there was no organized ferry service to the San Juan Islands, there were 550 residents in all of San Juan county scattered across the 170 or so named islands, and James King started to establish his 445 acre farm near Friday Harbor. By the 1960s much of this had been sold off, and the remaining acre was converted for use by the local historical society museum.
The main part of the museum is located in the old farmhouse. Here, preserved household artifacts from early San Juan Island have been put on display. A considerable portion of the house is as it was originally built (a bathroom with indoor plumbing was added quite late, and to the ground floor only as it was so much more convenient that the previous outdoor lack of plumbing!).
However, there are several buildings here including the preserved carriage house, the original San Juan County Jail (it remained in use as a jail into the early 1970s, when it was put out of service because it was by then one of the worst jails in the country) and a late example of early log cabin style construction. The log cabin towards the back of the property was long used as a hunting and fishing cabin on the south side of the island, but has been partly outfitted as a reproduction of one of the early school houses. One of the sheds has been adapted to house a number of the commercial and industrial artifacts, such as the early telephone exchange equipment.
In addition to the various displays, the facility has a number of picnic tables (see photo 3) for enjoying the outdoors. There are not a huge number of parks in the city and so if you pay admission to get into the museum you might want to enjoy the outdoors environment offered here as part of a picnic or other activity.
Admission is $5, and the operating hours and days vary by the season.
As there are several very different structures on the grounds of the museum, I have included a few sub-tips to show the extent of the grounds. With the price and main part of the museum being the farm house, it would be very easy for someone to just visit that part of the museum and not venture into the much larger part of the facility that includes so many other artifacts than the household material in the main building. The following links will not work if you are viewing this tip through a VirtualTourist Travel Guide but will work if you are viewing it through my personal VT pages for Friday Harbor:
The Antique Jail - It is a bit astounding that this old-west style jail, built in 1894, remained in use into the 1970s. It displays some of the law enforcement history of San Juan Island.
The Carriage House includes not just horse carriages but a few other transportation related artifacts, including the tools a family would require to maintain their carriages.
The Scribner Cabin is an example of a very late built log cabin, long after this method of building had been abandoned in towns and cities. Part of it has been organized to serve as an example of how the one-room community schoolhouse would have looked.
Two smaller sheds house smaller displays of various artifacts.
My previous experience with Whale Watching Trips was the Victoria Clipper (see my Seattle tip on that, as they operate a day trip out of Seattle). One of the problems with the Clipper, however, is that it is simply too big a boat for a whale watching trip, or really the wrong type of boat. The top open deck is nice because it is elevated and you can see better, but there are a huge number of people on this boat and when everyone is out on deck you can't see very well.
Therefore, I thought I would try something else.
The Western Prince II is, in my opinion, a perfect size boat for this. It is big enough to have a restroom on board, plus freedom to move around (unlike, say, the rubber raft crafts used by certain other whale watching trips operating in the area). There are snacks and drinks available for purchase, and they also have sea sickness medication available for purchase. For bad weather there are glass windows that can be folded over the aft deck. However, the boat is small enough that everyone has the opportunity to have a good view.
The boat is rated for 41 people, but they limit ticket sales to 32. This is still a bit crowded, but nothing like what it is like on the Victoria Clipper. However, trips operated during the weekdays seem to generally be less crowded so if possible I suggest trying to get one of those trips.
However, as they say on their web site, everyone wants a bit different experience. If you want a mostly indoor trip with some opportunity to walk outside, and prefer having tables and a more complete food service then the Victoria Clipper whale watch trip is more along the lines of what you should look for.
Their office is located on the top floor of a bright red building that is pretty much right on the waterfront, so it is easy to find. The whale watching trips run approximately $90 when you include taxes and assorted other markups.
Western Prince also contributes a percentage of their revenue to conservation efforts, which is an important piece of making sure that the whales are around for the future generations as well as keeping whale watch boats in business!
I found the naturalist / crew assistant / cabin attendant to be enthusiastic and well equipped with photos of identifying features of the various whales, and willing to share the various books that were available on board. Also, she had a very good telephoto lens and was willing to e-mail her photos to those of us who were on the trip.
Friday Harbor, unfortunately, doesn't have a huge amount in it in terms of excitement in the evening. So, while I was wandering through town looking for somewhere to eat dinner, I noticed a sign in front of Discovery Sea Kayaks saying that they do sunset trips. So, I walked in thinking that it would be possible to sign up for a sunset trip to keep my evening busy on Saturday night.
What I was told was that they didn't have enough people for a Saturday night trip, but I could put my name on the list in the event enough people signed up.
Or, I could go right then and there as their Sunset Trip for that night was going to happen for sure, as they had more than enough people.
Not that I happened to have the right shoes for the deal, or any other article of clothing really (remember I was headed to dinner not the ocean), but as they were leaving in half an hour I signed up and was soon on my way out to the west side of San Juan Island in order to get out on the water with a small group of other intrepid explorers.
You do of course need to sign the usual legal forms saying that indeed getting out on the water can be dangerous, and that I am fully aware that injury or death may result. The reality is that I found the kayaks to be extremely stable, and was told by the guides that they intentionally use some of the best on the market in order to make sure that people have to work pretty hard or be exposed to some pretty rough weather before they will flip over.
A brief lesson and introduction to the gear and the kayak were presented, and then we were out on the water.
You will notice that the name of the company is "Discovery Sea Kayaks". This is because they do in fact go out on the west side of the island, where the water can be fairly rough. Even so, the equipment provided kept everything I had very dry, even the one time when a wave washed over the kayak. Should you keep to the inner waters on the more calm side of the island, this is far less likely to happen (though boat wake and swells can happen anywhere).
The trip covered the west side of the island from the starting point in San Juan County Park south to a point where the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse was visible, and then north to a point where the sunset over Vancouver Island was a bit more visible. The clouds happened to be very well positioned in order to create a bit of interest for the sunset.
The sunset trip was an extremely good trip, and certainly beat anything available in Friday Harbor in terms of things to do in the evening. The trip even got back to Friday Harbor before all of the restaurants had closed (while many had).
I very much enjoyed the small group atmosphere of the trip, as well as how well the kayak guides (there were two of them and 5 of us beginners) looked after us and frequently checked to make sure that everything was going well.
Please note that as of mid-June, Discovery Sea Kayaks has moved to Spring Street. Anything you see that says they are still on First is probably out of date - but stores in Friday Harbor seem to shuffle the deck when more appealing store fronts become available. If you are reading this several years past 2013, you will want to confirm that the company is still at the address I have listed below.
The 2013 price for the several hour trip was in the $75 range, though this does not include the sales taxes that bring the price over $80. However, this seems to be pretty well in line with what everyone else doing similar kayak trips charges - though Discovery Sea Kayaks seems to be the only one that is offering a sunset trip.
These days perhaps it is a bit ironic that a location that has some of the most coveted views in Friday Harbor in fact is a museum building that has few windows at all, and only one tiny one that take advantage of the spectacular view their building must have otherwise.
However, be that as it may, the fact is that the location means that the whale museum is very easy to locate, as it can be seen from a wide assortment of locations, but especially from the water (and since 90% of the people who come here arrive on the water, it means it is easy to find for the majority of people who come here).
The Whale Museum has two floors. The Lower Level contains the gift shop where one purchases the tickets to go into the museum part of the facility, a presentation hall, and a rest room. Up the stair (there is no elevator) the main exhibit halls give a little bit of history into the local whale population. This includes some information about the local First Nations traditions regarding the whales, assorted bones that have washed up in the San Juan Islands over the years, and two complete skeletons (juvenile grey whale and nearly adult orca). Also included is a small room that is sort of a museum of the instruments used to record the whale movements and sounds (see photo 4). A small collection of the material is available as touch table items.
The museum opens at 9 on most days, and as most whale watching trips out of Friday Harbor leave around 11 it is probably a good idea to visit the Whale Museum before doing a whale watching trip, so that it is possible to have all the information about the local whales fresh in your mind before trying to see them.
If you like whale watching, then you will end up in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. San Juan Island is where the resident orcas are seen most of the summer. Sometimes they are near the island , but frequently they are not. The trip I was on they were off of Stuart Island. So even though people say you can see them from land, you could stand there days and still never see them. Anyway, my family and I had a great time, took some good photos, learned a lot and saw lots of birds, seals and some porpoise the day we went out. I would highly recommend whale watching and the company we went with San Juan Safaris.
Take the road to Limekiln State Park and be attentive on the way maybe you see wales even before you reach the park. That is what happened to us. We noticed a photographer on the cliffs so we pulled over and there they were jumping in the waters. The sound they make is amazing.. LImekiln Park has a nice walk with beautiful views to the Lighthouse.
I just got back from a phenomenal sea kayaking trip with Sea Quest, one of the many sea kayaking companies in this area. They totally stood out against the other outfitters though, they only have trained biologists with degrees as guides on their trips. I feel like I learned so much on my trip, from the peeling bark of the Madrona Trees to the difference between resident and transient orcas. I didn't even know that the residents don't eat large mammals like seals, which is what I've always pictured. This trip blew me out of the water by how informed my guide was and how much fun I had. If anyone is going sea kayaking around Friday Harbor, definitely choose Sea Quest!
This trip that I took my family on was fantastic! Sea Quest Expeditions had the lowest price that I could find, but had the most professional service. A great guide with plenty of experience and is a marine biologist as well! They take great pride in their work and in the comfort and fun of their clients! My kids were astonished to see all the whales and were quite eager to hear the many stories from our guide regarding the marine life.
A first rate experience that I heartily recommend for anyone!
I took a really expensive..and short trip with Crystal Seas. I take people on photographic trips and was taking a trip to look into good activities and thought despite the high price it must be worth it to be able to paddle out along the coast. We didn't...we paddled around the bay...sort of like a very, very expensive paddle boat ride in the local pond. The reason was the "currents". I saw many other trips out around the island that day. I called to express my concern and was told the manager would return my call. He never did and when I called again, I was told that he didn't think my call was worth returning. I would never use this company for any trip and will be vocal with those I share information with. Save your money...take a drive or a hike, you will see as much believe me.
Check into the company...there are some great trips and I see people taking full day trips with lunch for the same price I paid Crystal Seas for 21/2 hours...and we didn't go anywhere!
Just west of town is the Lavender farm. They have two dozen different types of lavender and hundreds of products made with lavender, including tea, bisquits, short bread, and other baked items. We had the tea and short bread. I wasn't impressed and felt like I had just bit into my grandmothers hankerchief. She used some lavender perfume. The varieties of plants were nice, but I'm not big on perfumes and cologne.
Across the island from Friday Harbor is the San Juan City Park. Like Lime Kiln Lighthouse, it is a great place for Sunsets and whale watching. Neither of which we stayed for while we were visiting. The park is also a kayak access to the water. We saw many groups of kaykers, not all of which were using the park for water access. Several had just stopped for lunch and were working their way around the island. For more pictures, see my San Juan City Park travelogue.