A strategic point of view, the high bluffs just north of Port Townsend, WA, are occupied by Fort Worden State Park and Point Wilson Lighthouse and have served as both lookout and safe harbor for indigenous cultures and wartime sailors over the millennia.
Now serving the people as one of the best Washington state parks and campgrounds, this gateway to the Puget Sound was home to the Salish-speaking S’Klallam people for countless centuries before Spanish and British explorers began arriving in the late 18th century. By the mid-19th century, the area was under U.S. control and functioning as a military fortification. There it stayed, throughout multiple wartime efforts until permanently decommissioned in 1953 and transferred to the state parks 20 years later.
Today, Fort Worden is a hub of activity on a daily basis. Though only 90 of the original 400 structures remain, through a combined effort of local and state governments working in partnership with private industry, just about every building on site has been renovated and repurposed into trade schools, art performance halls, recording studios, printing presses, satellite college campuses, and guest accommodations, amongst others.
Not officially part of the Washington state parks, Point Wilson Lighthouse sits just down the hill on a flat, sandy spit. Tidal convergences between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Admiralty Inlet leave the beach scattered with driftwood, great for some fort-building of your own.
A mix of history and nature locked in a time warp, this artist enclave is a 2-3 hour journey from the tourist hubs of Seattle and Tacoma. Join me as I see just how much I can see with one day at Fort Worden.
Located on the Northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula at 200 Battery Way, Port Townsend, WA 98368, the park is accessible by car, via Hwy 3 and the Hood Canal Bridge, or Northbound US Route 101 from Olympia. Check with Washington State Ferries at wsdot.wa.gov for westbound ferry crossings up and down the Puget Sound linking you up with the Olympic Peninsula. The ferry from Coupeville, Whidbey Island, docks in Port Townsend, a 10-minute drive from Fort Worden.
I arrived at opening time, 8:30 am, on a Sunday and had no problems finding parking. If the park is hosting an event, parking can get tight. Check-in at fortworden.org for a calendar of events. A Discovery Pass or a one-day parking permit is required for all visitor parking. Passes are available for purchase in the main administrative building.
A Beacon of Light
With the fort still waking up and not many unlocked doors available yet, I take a stroll down the hill to the historically registered lighthouse and the shoreline from which it’s been casting its light since 1879, warning incoming vessels of the narrowing inlet.
The light once sat atop the lightkeepers house, moving in 1913, to the current lighthouse still in use today. Inbound cargo ships still look for it off their starboard side as they enter the Puget Sound.
Walk to the end of the point and check out the views of Vancouver Island to the north and Mount Rainier to the southeast. Keep your eyes peeled for river otters, seals, sea lions, varieties of marine birds, and both orca and humpback whales feeding in the strait.
Experience it under the stars at the beachside campground and shelter. With up to 80 campsites, all within a 5-minute walk of the beach, enjoy a campfire while you listen to the waves roll onto the shore. Visit parks.wa.gov for campsite reservations.
Port Townsend Marine Science Center
With 2 miles of shoreline surrounding the fort, the park and the sea both rely on each other and impact each other. At the forefront of conservation efforts is the Port Townsend Marine Science Center. Split into two buildings, the center has a science based museum just back from the campground and a learning aquarium located out on the pier.
Stepping into the museum building, first I speak with Linda and Nancy. Two employees of the center and concerned citizens of earth showed me around the open hall and talk about the health of the Salish Sea. Linda tells me about the free sciences classes they put on for schools throughout the area. Her face brightens with pride when she talks about Water World, a week-long camp of marine sciences and self-expression. Kids learn about underwater ecosystems and then share their experiences through artful interpretation.
Visiting the Aquarium
Check out the full-size female orca skeleton hanging from the ceiling and learn the story of her prideful son that refused to abandon her after she had beached herself.
Over at the aquarium, learn what creeps and crawls along the bottom of the sound. Go hands-on with sea anemones, sea stars, and other native species. Then head out to the pier to see what’s swimming below you. Sign up for a viewing cruise to Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge. Sitting just offshore from Discovery Bay, it’s home to Washington State’s only puffin colony. Visit PTMSC.Org for hours and details.
Full of hope for the sea but nothing in my stomach, I go in search of nourishment. I find Taps at the Guardhouse Pub & Eatery. For the soldier lacking discipline, this old guardhouse once contained 21 iron cells for a little, sobering self-reflection time.
Nowadays things are a bit more customer-friendly. A wide selection of local ciders, beers, and small plate dishes make it a good choice for a fun time. There are fire pits outside, live music on Fridays and according to one bartender, a few ghosts in the basement.
Another option is Reveille, a more traditional, sit-down restaurant, with a full menu of French-inspired cuisine inside The Commons building.
Stretching from the sea to the high banks of Artillery Hill, muted shades of gray and green-colored concrete bunkers seem to grow up from the soil. In a labyrinth of staircases and subterranean passageways, WWII coastal artillery defense fortifications snake like a web through the hillsides. I explore and wander each battery, named posthumously, in honor of soldiers that made the ultimate sacrifice in battle, and their connecting breezeways. Sounds of heavy iron doors opening and closing reverberate through the eerie chambers. It’s easy to imagine the sounds of shuffling footsteps and idle conversation, as prideful soldiers weigh the prospects of war. A cool breeze circulates the stale air from the darkness as I return to the topside of Artillery Hill.
Looking to learn a little bit more about the history of the grounds I step inside the Coastal Artillery Museum for an in-depth look. With artifacts and timelines of the fort, the museum is well worth a peak.
Mind, Body, and Soul
As if traversing the 12 miles of walking paths through forested grounds under a canopy of autumn colors while the resident deer snack on fallen apples wasn’t calming enough, you can take a meditation class, learn yoga or get a massage at Madrona Mindbody Institute.
Want to learn a trade? Get hands-on instructions from local craftspeople at the CedarRoot Folk School.
Burn off some stress while you carve into some red cedar planks at the Port Townsend Woodworking School.
Attend a dance class with Centrum or try out your artistic side with some classes from the Port Townsend School of the Arts.
There are plenty of activities and music festivals throughout the year make Fort Worden State Park an all-seasons destination.
Stay at Fort Worden
If you’re in town for a multi-day jazz festival or just need another day to see it all, stay in one of the park’s historic residences and vacation rentals. Updated to accommodate current regulations and with some creature comforts in mind, these Edwardian era structures look just like the postcards in the gift shop. Shiplap siding and stained glass windows decorate the homes of Officer’s Row.
From the 1 room dormitories to the 6 bedroom Commander’s House, there is room for all group sizes. Kick back on your private porch and watch the deer graze on the Parade Grounds from Officer’s Row.
Or perhaps you’d like to spend the night in Alexander’s Castle. Built by a local preacher on private property in 1893, this masonry 2-story castle was intended to be his private home until his fiancé’ found another suitor while Alexander was away on business. Alexander would eventually return, alone, to his native England and his property was acquired by the federal government in 1897 to become the future Fort Worden.
A total of 396 beds in 40 different structures spread throughout the 400-acre compound, giving a sense of privacy and space between neighbors.
Fort Worden Military Cemetery
With daylight fading fast and a haze in the air, I walked west past the concert pavilion to the Fort Worden Military Cemetery. A thick-gauge wrought iron fence painted jet black surrounds an acre of manicured lawn with rows of distinctive white markers. A large fixed gun from the fort and the National Colors stand watch over 445 souls. After quiet observation, I head back to the beach to watch the sun fade over these Salish waters.
Fort Worden Sunset
As much as I’d love to have this moment to myself, I don’t. It’s crowded, but the vibe is silent and calm. Looking out over the Strait of Juan de Fuca towards Vancouver Island as the sky melts with shades of orange and red, it’s hard not to feel a sense of connection to the countless generations that lived in harmony with these blue waters. I can imagine the tall ships of early European explorations fighting the tides, seeking fortune, and claiming new worlds.
As the sun disappears, the crowd slowly follows. The park closes to daytime visitors at dusk, but no one is rushing to leave tonight. The setting sun brings a cold wind off the water, but it’s time to head for home.
For a thought-provoking experience in a timeless paradise, grab your hiking boots, creative spirit, and thirst for knowledge and spend a day at Fort Worden.