Don’t miss these community museums that are worth the drive
Washington state has no shortage of great regional museums, but some stand out as truly road trip-worthy destinations. Some Washington state museums offer exhibits that you won’t find anywhere else. Some collections have been painstakingly built over decades via donated objects from the families who live there.
Plus, all these Washington state museums are affordable: As of February, admission prices ranged from $12 to free for an adult ticket. And, aside from museums, there are other great places to visit along the way. So, make a weekend of it and enjoy the great work that these museums do.
Plan a road trip to one of these Washington state museums.
1. Yakima Valley Museum, Yakima
Horse-drawn carriages and antique cars, campaign buttons, period dresses and one of the biggest collections of Apple Box labels anywhere, Yakima Valley Museum has an eclectic mix of objects — making it well worth the trip. One of the neat things about this place is that most of its permanent collection — more than 48,000 objects in total, of which about 10% are on display at one time — was donated by the Yakima Valley residents, but in recent years the museum has also added several high-tech and interactive exhibits.
One fun exhibit is a live beehive encased in glass. The hive can be turned to view both sides, and you can see the bees going to and from the exhibit via a PVC pipe connected to the outdoors. Another recent not-to-miss exhibit is on Washington mountaineering. The museum produced a video of Mount Rainier’s summit that shows off its ridges and glaciers. Plus, there’s a kiosk where you can look at early 3D images of climbers, and an “augmented reality sandbox” where you can make changes to the topography in the sand, and the new landscape will be instantaneously projected on a colorized topographical map.
Looking ahead, the museum plans to open an exhibit this spring on the story of Japanese-Americans from Yakima Valley who were forcibly relocated to internment camps during World War II. In acknowledgment of the Valley’s large Hispanic population, the museum has also been collecting quinceañera dresses, videos and photos to celebrate this rite-of-passage in a 15-year-old girl’s life during a planned exhibit this spring.
Admission: adults, $8; seniors, $6; students and children 6-18, $5; children 5 and under, free; families, $18. Open Tuesday-Saturday.
2. The Central Washington Agricultural Museum, Union Gap
Roughly 10 minutes outside of Yakima proper in Union Gap you’ll find the largest agricultural museum in the Pacific Northwest. The star attraction is a huge collection of machinery housed in an open-air yard and storage buildings, with more than 150 tractors and 1,000 pieces of farm equipment dating back 100 years.
You’ll find a horse-drawn hearse from the late 1880s, and a collection of 3,000 restored hand tools. Plus, there is an exact replica of a 1908 homestead that was designed and furnished to the specifications of Margaret Keys, who was born in the original Terrace Heights cabin in 1911 (and lived just east of Yakima to the age of 105). Also, you’ll see a restored 1917 pioneer cabin originally located in Cowiche, Washington; and a real train boxcar that houses a replica of the Yakima Railroad Yards of the 1930s.
Admissions: Free (donations are appreciated). In-door exhibits are open Tuesday-Saturday April through October only (but people are free to walk around the grounds year-round during daylight hours). On-leash dogs are welcome (but please clean up any mess).
Notable sites in Yakima Valley
The Yakima Area Arboretum (butterfly gardens, wetland trails and a flowering fruit tree collection); Yakima Farmer’s Market (May-October open-air market); Capitol Theatre (musicals, ballets, symphonies and stand-up comedy); Yakama Nation Museum and Cultural Center (artifacts, art, photographs, a theatre and the Yakama Nation Library).
Travel tip: Yakima Valley produces more than half of Washington state’s wine grapes. So, not surprisingly, there are more than 90 wineries in a span of roughly 70 miles around Yakima, Zillah, Prosser and Red Mountain. If you hit the tasting rooms, though, don’t forget to plan a safe ride home.
Bonus: If you need to stop for gas, fill up at a Shell station. AAA Members who sign up for the Fuel Rewards® program get at least a 5 cents per gallon savings.
3. The SPARK Museum, Bellingham
Leyden jars, vacuum tubes, antique telephones, the SPARK Museum of Electrical Invention is truly a place to geek out. See the electrical tentacles sparkle inside a glowing plasma ball. Discover early, authentic radio, recording and telegraph equipment. The museum’s collection includes hundreds of significant objects, including a hand-made lightbulb by Thomas Edison used in the first-ever public lighting demonstration on New Year’s in 1879; and a telephone used on the first transcontinental call in 1915.
But the fun of this museum is in its hands-on experiments, like putting your hands on a literally hair raising Van De Graaff generator’s ball; or playing hands-free a replica of the world’s first ever electrical instrument, a Theremin. (The museum also has an original, 1929 Theremin, one of only 500 ever made by RCA.) Docents are on hand to make sure the hands-on “experiments” stay safe.
Plus, on weekends, the museum hosts an electrical show (admission is an additional $5 on a regular ticket). The finale involves a 9-foot-tall Tesla Coil “MegaZapper” that hurls sinewy, squealing Frankenstein-like bursts of lightning at “a cage of Doom” where those 18 and older can volunteer to sit and get zapped (if they dare). Kids can also take selfies inside the cage after the show.
Admissions: adult, $10; children ages 3-12, $6; children under 2, free. Open Wednesday-Saturday.
Notable sites around Bellingham
Whatcom Falls Park (woodlands, four waterfalls, hiking trails); Fairhaven Village (Victorian-era buildings, shops, restaurants, views of Bellingham Bay); Lake Padden Park (fishing, paddleboarding, picnicking); Larrabee State Park (hiking trails, views of Samish Bay and San Juan Island); Mount Baker Theater (shows and arts); Whatcom Museum (200,000 artifacts in three buildings); Lummi Island (art galleries and restaurants).
Travel Trip: Thirsty after hitting the museums and sites? Whatcom County is home to about 17 craft breweries, as well as an abundance of restaurants and eateries. (If you imbibe, don’t forget to plan a safe ride home.)
Bonus: Looking for a place to stay on your road trip? Check out one of AAA’s Washington’s many partner hotels. Members can save anywhere from 5% to 15%.
4. Maryhill Museum of Art, Goldendale
It may not be Paris, London or New York City, but Goldendale (pop. 3,500) in south-central Washington near the Columbia River has a world-class museum that rivals what you can see in major cities. You’ll find one of the largest collections of Auguste Rodin statues this side of the Rocky Mountains. Plus, the museum’s founder Sam Hill (a wealthy collector, early advocate for paved roads and person most responsible for The Peace Arch on the U.S.-Canada border), built a full-scale replica of England’s Stonehenge (located 3 miles east of the museum) as a memorial to people who perished in World War I.
The museum collection includes European and American paintings, Orthodox icons and furniture from the palaces of Queen Marie of Romania (one of Sam Hill’s friends), and chess sets. Outside there is a fantastic sculpture garden where you’ll find works by some of the Northwest’s best artists. Sculptures appear throughout its gardens and walkways that overlook the Columbia River Gorge.
Admissions: Adults, $12; seniors 65 and up, $10; college students, $9; youth 7-18, $5; children 6 and under, free. Open daily (March 15 to Nov. 15 only).
Sites in or near Goldendale
Goldendale Observatory (nation’s largest accessible public telescope, daily solar and evening shows); Maryhill State Park (Columbia River walks, swimming beach, picnicking); Beacon Rock State Park (hiking trails); Columbia Hills Historical State Park (trails, petroglyphs).
Travel Tip: You can reach Goldendale from the West via Route 14 on the Washington side or by Route 84 on the Oregon side and then, via U.S. Highway 97, crossing at the Biggs-Rapids-Sam Hill Bridge. Either way, you’ll see some pretty country (especially during the fall). On the Oregon side, there are several waterfalls in the area near the highway, including the popular Multnomah Falls. If you are coming from eastern Washington, head to Ellensburg and then take U.S. Highway 97. This is also a pretty drive.
Bonus: If you prefer a camping experience, why not go in style in a modern camper/van? AAA Washington members can save 20% on a Cabana rental.
San Juan Island
5. The Whale Museum, Friday Harbor
What could be more fitting than a whale museum on San Juan Island where, if you’re lucky, you can spot pods of Orcas swimming offshore in the wild? Located in Friday Harbor, the island’s largest town, this museum is one of those rare museums in the world dedicated to a living creature.
Most of the exhibits are found on the second floor of the building in the Gallery of Whales (don’t forget to check out the life-sized Orca head sculpture bursting out the wall as you head up the staircase). Upstairs, two whale models and a whale skeleton are suspended from the ceiling, and, under glass, you’ll find varied artifacts from the Salish Sea region, including the skeleton of conjoined seal pups. Plus, hear whale calls, or duck into a telephone booth and “call” different species.
And don’t miss the whale genealogy board that identifies with pictures and words each whale of the J, K and L Pods that live in the Salish Sea. You can also find the latest whale sightings on a white board at the museum.
Admissions: adults, $10; seniors, $6; students ages 6-18 and college students, $5; children 5 and under, free. Open daily.
Sites around San Juan Island
San Juan Islands Sculpture Park & Nature Reserve (sculptures, nature walk); Lake Kiln Point State Park (whale watching from shore); Lime Kiln Lighthouse (lighthouse, whale watching); Pelindaba Lavender Farm (tours of lavender fields); San Juan Historical Museum (San Juan Island artifacts); American Camp National Park (historic military camp.)
Travel Trip: Most people visit San Juan Island via the Washington State Ferry from Anacortes (80 miles north of Seattle). While on board, you can usually spot seals resting and sunning themselves on buoys and piers.
Bonus: Don’t pay full price for a car rental. Hertz, Dollar Rent a Car and Thrifty Car Rental all offer generous discounts to AAA members.
6. Fort Walla Walla Museum, Walla Walla
There are several interesting sites around the Tri-Cities but, if you’re in the area, don’t miss this museum. It is on the grounds of the last of six fur trading and military forts named Fort Walla Walla. One of the star exhibits (open from April through fall) is a 17-building pioneer settlement that includes an 1867 schoolhouse originally built near Dixie, Washington, a blacksmith’s shop and a doctor’s office (15 of these buildings are originals from the Tri-Cities region). All the buildings have been furnished to give visitors a sense of what life was like in Walla Walla around the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The museum’s inside exhibits are open year-round, housed in five cinderblock buildings. One building is entirely dedicated to a display of a 33-mule combine team used to harvest grain (the mules are made of fiberglass.) The museum also has two antique prison cells (with bunk beds, iron doors, steel walls and bucket toilets) from the old Washington State Territorial Prison. One of the cells is kept unlocked, so you can poke around in the cramped space.
Plus, the museum has rotating exhibits from its collection, such as the turn-of-the-century quilt show opening in February highlighting the museum’s rarely seen collection of 20 area quilts made from 1880 through the 1920s.
Admissions: adults, $10; seniors age 62 and up, $9; students, $9; children ages 6-12, $5; children ages 5 and under, free. Open daily.
7. REACH Museum, Richland
About 55 miles west of Walla Walla in Richland, REACH Museum is another must-stop on a visit to the Tri-Cities. The museum will be especially interesting to those fascinated by the dawn of the atomic age during World War II and the Cold War. An entire gallery is dedicated to the Manhattan Project B Reactor that produced plutonium for the first atomic bombs (located about a 40-minute drive north of Richland.)
The other permanent gallery focuses on the geologic record and the ecosystem of the area that forms the Hanford Reach National Monument, which includes a free-flowing, 51-mile section of the Columbia River, plus this area’s importance and connection to Indigenous tribes going back thousands of years. The museum presents this area’s evolution from the Ice Age to the present with several neat exhibits, including a mammoth tusk and baby mammoth fossil.
REACH also has a third gallery for rotating exhibits. In March, the museum will open a new show running to early September displaying 19th century engravings, chromolithographs and lithographs of 100 North American birds of the Trans-Mississippi West frontier. There are also several exhibits outside, including a refurbished 1954 GMC bus that transported Hanford nuclear plant workers, a river trail with steel cut-outs of 22 animals native to the region, and a trickling fountain created from an old fuel cell assembly.
Admissions: adults, $12; students/seniors/military, $6; children 5 and under, free. Open Tuesday-Saturday (also open Sunday from June through September.)
Sites around the Tri-Cities
Sacajawea State Park (public recreation, Lewis and Clark Expedition landmark); USS Triton Park (nuclear submarine relic); Franklin County Historical Museum (local history); Pasco Aviation Museum; Howard Aman Park (riverside park)
Travel Trip: The U.S. Department of Energy offers free tours of the Manhattan Project B Reactor at Hanford on select dates (typically May through November only). The 4-hour tour leaves by bus from the visitor center at 2000 Logston Boulevard in Richland. Check here for details.
—Written by Victor Whitman
—Top photo: Maryhillmuseum.org
Road Trip Tips
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