For the American economy to thrive, so must its ports. Each day in communities large and small along the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf coasts, millions of tons of goods are being imported and exported, ready to be sent across the country and across the globe. For companies that do business internationally, ports are the lifeblood that keeps them going. Ports allow travelers to hop from place to place on a myriad of cruise lines and allow our military to strategically place its vessels in defense of our nation. The industry provides well-paying jobs and often is the major employer in seaside communities.
The port most of us living in the West are likely most familiar with is the Port of Seattle. With more than 1,500 acres of waterfront, the commerce that happens here is incredible. One of the most diverse ports in the U.S., it includes massive amounts of docking and container storage but also parks, waterfront shopping and dining, cruise-passenger pickup and drop off as well as ferry transportation. While a stroll through this port before a Mariners or Seahawks game shouldn’t be missed, there are also several other port cities in the area where you can experience a wide range of activities without traveling far. Fill up the tank, grab a few snacks and drinks, and get ready to hop from port to port.
Perhaps the next most well-known port in the Northwest is just south of Seattle—The Port of Tacoma. In a 2014 study done by Martin Associations, the company found that the Port of Tacoma directly and indirectly supports 29,000 jobs in the area, generates $3 billion in economic activities, and contributes $223 million in state and local taxes annually. These are just a few of the incredible bits of information you will learn by taking an up-close bus or boat tour offered several times each year.
Bus tours are offered February through August this year. Tours are free, but you must register in advance as space is extremely limited. You should plan on spending around 75 minutes shuttling around the port with various stops along the way at points of interest. Children 6 and older are welcome to join in, and anyone 17 or older will need to bring along identification as well.
The Port of Tacoma also offers up a special once-a-year tour during the Tacoma Maritime Fest which will take place July 16 and 17. Last year, about 1,200 people took part in these narrated tours that take you onto the boats and explain the port’s history, developments, businesses and customers. It’s a rare opportunity to board these incredible vessels that transport an astonishing amount of goods through the port. At the festival, you can also gain free admission to the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum, help paint the community mural and enjoy live music.
Now that you’ve seen the massive ports in the Puget Sound, it’s time to slow the pace and explore the quaint communities that fall under the name ‘port’ along the Kitsap and Olympic peninsulas. Take Highway 16 out of Tacoma and through Gig Harbor, Burley and Fernwood until you reach the Highway 166 exit toward Port Orchard. Despite being just a ferry ride from Seattle or Bremerton, Port Orchard has remained a relatively small community since its founding in the late 1890s. With less than 14,000 full-time residents, you’ll find a wide array of unique local shops and artists galleries to explore in an easily walkable downtown. The Port Orchard Public Market features daily, seasonal and permanent vendors and is a favorite for both visitors and locals alike. Stretch your legs along the Bay Street Pedestrian Path with great views of the Olympic Mountains and another important port, Naval Base Kitsap, the third-largest Naval base in the country, which is directly across Sinclair Inlet from Port Orchard. Local craft beer can be found at Slaughter County Brewing Company, and an array of restaurants dot the waterfront. All summer long you’ll find Saturday morning farmers markets, first Friday art walks, and free live music in the park on Thursday evenings.
Your port road trip continues roughly 30 miles north on Highway 3 until you reach the community of Port Gamble. Here you are surrounded by history as the town grew up around the one-time oldest continually operating mill in the country until its closure in 1995. Port Gamble and the Pope and Talbot Sawmill were founded in 1853, and the waterfront location allowed the mill to ship timber from the Northwest to San Francisco. The mill might be closed, but you’ll find beautifully restored churches and business buildings that transport you back to the mill’s heyday. The Port Gamble Historic Museum is open seven days a week, May through September, and is home to historical items that date back to when the mill was just getting going. Admission is just $4 and kids younger than 6 are free. The entire town is easily walkable, and you’ll find a local coffee roaster as well as several family friendly dining options. Despite being a quaint little town, many are surprised to learn of the Port Gamble Theater Company, now in its sixth year. The company is presenting “Little Women” during July and “Alice in Wonderland” starting in mid-September. If you are enjoying the tranquility of this small community, consider spending a night or two in the Port Gamble Guest Houses which can accommodate eight and 10 guests.
As you leave Port Gamble you will also be leaving the Kitsap Peninsula across the floating Hood Canal Bridge and entering the Olympic Peninsula. Shortly after crossing, you will encounter the Olympic Peninsula Gateway Visitor’s Center. This is a great pit stop to pick up information for future trips around the Peninsula or exploring Olympic National Park. When leaving the visitor’s center, head north on Highway 19 to the small town of Port Ludlow. While Port Gamble transports you back in time, Port Ludlow takes you into the modern era with high-end residences, restaurants and a championship golf course. The population of this waterfront community continues to increase as planned neighborhoods continue to be built up, and there are many obvious reasons many of the wealthier families in the area are moving here. The Port Ludlow Inn is popular with honeymooners and those looking to enjoy top-notch accommodation in a boutique setting. The inn offers 37 rooms, an award-winning restaurant and stay-and-play golf packages. The nearby Marina has 300 slips that can accommodate vessels up to 200-feet long. A quick peek and you’ll likely see some very impressive boats. Many use this community as a base for exploring the San Juan Islands, but there are also paddle-boarding opportunities in the bay and 26 miles of walking and biking trails that line the water and surrounding forest.
Port Townsend is next on the list, and if you haven’t been you are in for a treat. The Victorian-era homes and commercial buildings are evident from your arrival. The town has worked hard to keep these buildings preserved, which has in turn drawn many artists and creative types to the area. When they say it seems like something is always going on here, they mean it. There are 17 large celebrations planned for this summer alone; everything from the Port Townsend Film Festival, Wooden Boat Show, Acoustic Music Festival and the always-popular and one-of-a-kind Brass Screw Confederacy and Steampunk Hootenanny. Many choose to spend a long weekend here as there is so much to see, experience and explore. Just 2 miles from downtown is Fort Worden State Park. A turn-of-the-century Army base is now acres of public park to explore. The Marine Science Center lets kids touch sea creatures and learn about what’s offshore. You can launch your boat, play tennis, have a picnic and even take in a show at the theatre. One of the really unique tours is being able to step inside old artillery bunkers through a guided tour of the Artillery Hill trail. Once back in town, almost every evening is filled with live music, performing arts or visual arts on display. Local farmers provide fresh produce to many of the excellent restaurants which have garnered attention from national media outlets. As with our other port destinations, there is plenty to explore along the waterfront with great beaches and walkways.
The final stop on this particular Port Tour is Port Angeles. Many who don’t wish to camp inside Olympic National Park will utilize Port Angeles as their home base for day trips. Biking has become especially popular here with 60 miles of path along the Olympic Discovery Trail. Many will park the car for a couple days and split up the trail by staying at one of the several bed-and-breakfast options along the route. Kayakers also love it here, as there is fast-moving whitewater nearby as well as flat water lakes and open-water sea kayaking. Fishermen can enjoy the variety of species available from salt-water species and shellfish to casting a fly for trout or exploring mountain lakes for game fish. If you don’t have a boat of your own, consider hopping aboard the MV Coho Ferry which transports guests from Port Angeles to Victoria, Canada. The 90-minute ride offers spectacular views as you cross the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With multiple departures from each side daily, you can choose to spend a day, a night or a weekend across the border as the ferry drops you right in Downtown Victoria. There are whale-watching charters, or if you really want an incredible view, rides can be arranged by hot-air balloon.
While it might sound like you are traveling forever on this route, remarkably it’s only about 125 miles from Tacoma to Port Angeles. The Port cities are just a few of the incredible communities and unique places to explore in one of the most spectacular stretches in the Northwest. Ports are what created so many of these beautiful communities. Many got their start with just a few hundred brave residents transporting steel or timber to much bigger places. While today many of the ports cater more toward yachts and other pleasure craft, remnants of another time can be found in so many waterside communities along the peninsulas. While some communities maintain an historical resemblance to their early days, others are transforming into more modern time. What they all have in common is a close-knit relationship to the waters that surround them.
The summer road trip gets a bad rap, but for individuals, couples and families it really can’t be beat. Gas is cheaper than four plane tickets, and you can explore what you would like on your own schedule. Plan out your entire trip or just hop behind the wheel and stop when something looks interesting; there’s no wrong way to do it. With so many fun places to explore within a hundred-mile stretch, you’ll be spending far less time behind the wheel and far more time in the moment.