"Once Overlooked, but Now Growing Tourist Center" Top 5 Page for this destination Port Townsend by glabah

Port Townsend Travel Guide: 133 reviews and 369 photos

A Bit of History of the Historic City

When it first developed Port Townsend thought that it would naturally be the greatest port on the Pacific as it was right at the entrance to Puget Sound and the Straight of Juan de Fuca. However, no one wanted to build a railroad so far out onto the Olympic Peninsula and so the town never developed the way its founders thought it would. From 1853 into the 1890s a customs house was located here and it was required that all ships entering Puget Sound stop here for customs. Foreign consulates and embassies blossomed during that period but eventually those functions were moved to the major port cities, and Port Townsend started its long slide into a near-forgotten state.

Fort Worden was a reasonably good sized military outpost for a number of years, but after World War II was determined to be surplus to the military. Thus, one 60 year old large economic base for Port Townsend disappeared completely in the late 1950s.

The paper mill on the south side of town was a source of income for years, plus transportation connections. It never developed a major long distance railroad link, but Port Townsend was served by railroad connections to Port Angeles and logging operations further west. This connected with the mainland by way of a railroad "car float" that took freight cars from Port Townsend to Seattle by barge so at least Port Townsend was important for some transportation.

With this limited economic base Port Townsend survived, developed a few small museums, and became the typical Pacific Northwest coast community: almost forgotten except as a supply and housing center during the tourist season in the surrounding beaches and forest.

In the "hippie era" of the 1960s and 1970s, Port Townsend became a place for people with "alternative lifestyles" to live. This included forays into commune living, artists and craftsmen, and there is a reputation among some people in the Pacific Northwest that there is a reasonably large LGBT community living here (I don't know myself if this reputation is deserved, but I can tell you that Port Townsend has attracted a few eccentrics of all types.).

As time went on, some of the old historic buildings in downtown were restored. Downtown started to turn into a fairly charming community (though there are obvious scars where old buildings were torn down and replaced with much less attractive modern structures - the Bank of America building in the core of downtown being a prime example of such an eyesore). The artist community has developed into a series of art galleries and art stores including a Native American artwork store or two.

in the early 1980s the railroad between Port Townsend and Port Angeles was abandoned, except for a small section near the paper mill. Some years later even that short connection to the outside world went away. Tourist income started to look very important, though even today the paper mill continues to operate.

Naturally, like many coastal communities losing their old economic base, Port Townsend decided to turn to tourism and looked to what remained of its historic structures. The realization came that it really was a true gem for tourists. Added to the facilities at Fort Worden (now a state park and home to museums and cultural events as well as campgrounds and beaches) Port Townsend eventually realized it was still capable of great things.

In addition to these old structures that provide a unique thowback in time, there are various whale watching tours and other trips operating out of Port Townsend. The location is not ideal for ocean trips due to the distance from the Ocean, but there is a reasonably well monitored group of Orca Wales living in Puget Sound and the Straight of Juan de Fuca that may be visited. Attractions include several nearby state parks other than Fort Worden, a maritime center, resort communities south of the city, and some beaches.

Basic Town Structure

As an 1880s town, Port Townsend isn't oriented around being driven through in your car, and the best way to see what Port Townsend has to offer is to get out of your car and walk. (If you do so downtown, be careful where you park.

Despite becoming a tourist town, Port Townsend seemed to be mostly overlooked by tourists for many years, and is still somewhat bypassed by them. It isn't on the way to the Olympic Mountains from Seattle or anywhere else except the ferry route from Whidbey Island, and the city itself wasn't really oriented about water and beach tourism, and the beaches are fairly narrow and rocky anyway.

Port Townsend sits on the Quimper Peninsula, which juts out into Admiralty Inlet away from the Olympic Peninsula. From the town it is possible to see the wide swath of water that forms the entrance to Puget Sound, and the huge amount of ship traffic entering and leaving here. The peninsula curves to the northeast, and splits into two short sections. Port Townsend downtown sits on the southern part of the southern split, and comes to a point at a marina. North of the marina the land curves gradually to the northeast, and from the marina entrance north the waterfront is all preserved beach. The point at the far end of the peninsula is Point Wilson and is located in Fort Worden State Park.

The basic part of downtown faces south so sunny days are fully enjoyed here. The water is also fairly sheltered compared to the much more violent wave action seen on the Straight of Juan de Fuca proper, on the north side of this small peninsula.

The core of downtown is fairly small: perhaps 10 blocks or so long, and two or three blocks deep (away from the water edge). The uptown district, naturally, sits on top of the bluff overlooking downtown, where the view is best. This is the home to Port Townsend's most historic houses (including one preserved as the Rothschild House museum), several historic bed and breakfast facilities, and the Bell Tower.

The quite small size of downtown means that you can pretty much get anywhere within the downtown or its immediate surroundings by walking. In fact, for various reasons Port Townsend is Best Experienced on Foot! If you need to go further it is possible to bike, though some of the hills are fairly steep. Jefferson Transit also operates a fair number of bus routes linking Port Townsend to the surrounding residential areas as well as Sequim and Port Angeles. Several times a day buses operate to Poulsbo and other cities outside Jefferson County (including transit links to Olympia and Forks), so that it is possible to get to Port Townsend without a car so long as your arrival and departure times are well thought out.

During the peak tourist season parking in downtown Port Townsend can be hard to find, and you really don't need a car there to get around. Therefore, it should also be noted that a free park and ride lot exists on the south side of downtown Port Townsend, behind the parking lot of a grocery store. You can follow the signs from highway 20, and for $1.50 you can ride the bus system all day. The "shuttle" route running the loop from the park and ride lot through downtown Port Townsend operates every 1/2 hour on the hour, making it very easy to remember the schedules.

Various Attractions and Activities

Downtown Port Townsend is a gem of local businesses and restaurants, and other than the ugly Bank of America building that is right in the middle of town there are no national companies with a francise in the downtown core: it is all local business in hotels, restaurants, and shops. You can find some unusual things here, but all of that is reasonably well documented by the Port Townsend visitor's guides available anywhere.

Fort Worden State Park was created out of the old fortress and includes a number of attractions. Some of these include:

+ Ruins of the Past Fortifications

+ Marine Science Center

+ Point Wilson Light - not open to the public, except for occasional tours, maybe. (It wasn't when I visited, but there are indications that tours do happen)

+ Fortress Ruins

+ Commanding Officer's House Museum

+ Centrum is an artists organization that has various events at the park, and to a lesser extent throughout Port Townsend

+ Wildlife viewing is decent here, including deer that wander through the park in plain sight and an entire wetlands area called Chinese Gardens where wildlife may be found. For birding, see my Birding in Port Townsend Tip. "Chinese Gardens" was named this because the area was where many of the early Chinese immigrants grew various foods for sale in town. There is virtually nothing that remains of this today, having been replaced by suburban development, with a small area remaining in the state park.

+ Other activities here include hiking the trails through the forest (and occasionally running across odd art artifacts hidden there such as Memory's Vault and the beaches.

Downtown Port Townsend also has its own historical society museum, located in the old city hall. I haven't had a chance to visit it yet.

The railroad that connected Port Townsend to Port Angeles and the logging railroads further west has been gone for a while now, but there has been a mostly successful campaign to put a receational path in place on the old right of way. Outside of Port Townsend this trail is known as the "Olympic Discovery Trail" and inside Port Townsend the trail is the Larry Scott Memorial Trail. Certain obstacles prevent the trail from going all the way between the two cities at this time, but the combined trails reach almost all the way.

Wildlife watching is fairly easy here: bird life includes bald eagles that occasionally fly over downtown (but are usually in more forested areas) and deer that wander through the uptown area - two blocks from the core of downtown Port Townsend. The whale watching trips operated out of Port Townsend visit a known Puget Sound pod of ocra whales, and if you take the ferry to Fort Casey there is a strong current pool along the ferry route. This is where the tidal currents of Puget Sound and the Straigt of Juan de Fuca mix, and the colliding waters makes the fish confused. Porpoises and sea lions are among those that come to these waters to eat the fish.

Speaking of Fort Casey: it might also be an interesting day trip for you. However, I have covered it in my Fort Casey pages as it is located on the other side of Admiralty Inlet.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Historic city with many preserved structures, beautiful spot. Lots of art and unique look.
  • Cons:Heavy traffic (and expensive lodging) during tourist season, public transit connections to outside world only occasional, no big museums, theatres or major night life action.
  • In a nutshell:Great small town and base camp for parts of Olympic Peninsula, but also has small town limits.
  • Last visit to Port Townsend: Oct 2010
  • Intro Updated Feb 3, 2012
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Reviews (58)

Comments (4)

  • Feb 25, 2012 at 8:58 PM

    You make it sound like the Bank of America building completely ruins downtown PT. Really, it is only one building!

  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo
    Jul 4, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    You are correct. This looks like a nice place to see old buildings, outdoors and hike a bit. YOur comments are fabulous and great detail of the history.

  • mtncorg's Profile Photo
    Oct 8, 2010 at 3:12 PM

    PT is in the rain shadow of the Olympics. Great place to hang out!

  • Ekaterinburg's Profile Photo
    Oct 8, 2010 at 2:56 PM

    Sounds like a great day out though probably a bit tiring. Well done on keeping all those connection times straight in your head !


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