How do you plan for a trip somewhere you’ve never been before? If you were going to New York, you’d probably aim for NYC. If you were headed to California you might want to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles. Looking to anchor your excursion in a place you know has plenty of action makes a lot of sense. But maybe you want to see something different and not be surrounded by tourists. There are lots of things to see and discover off the beaten track.
One such place is the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. You might think that Seattle is the only place in Washington worth visiting but there is so, so much more to explore outside of the city. On a recent trip to Washington we were able to visit several places with a ton of charm just across Puget Sound from Seattle.
There are two options for getting across the sound – drive the highway that goes through Tacoma or take the ferry. I highly recommend using the ferry not only because you cut your travel time in half, but how often do you get to ride on a ferry? Your car gets parked on the bottom level and you can relax on the top deck and enjoy the views along the way to your destination. Since we were staying with friends in Silverdale, we took the ferry from Seattle to Bremerton and then drove up the peninsula. There’s also an option to take the ferry to Bainbridge Island (the island across from Seattle and in front of Silverdale). I stayed with friends in Silverdale and didn’t have time to see the island, but I’ve heard The Blodel Reserve, a 150 acre forest garden, is beautiful and might be an excellent addition to a Washington road trip.
In the late 1800s Scandinavian settlers moved into this area and built a town rich with viking charm. Thus Poulsbo was born and its adorable small town feeling has existed well into the twenty-first century. The reason why I think Poulsbo is a fun tourist attraction rather than a tourist trap is because it’s not something that was created for the express purpose of attracting tourists. The town is actually home to a lot of people (for Washington) and, being nestled in the crook of Liberty Bay it has a really fun seaside resort feeling, even in less than ideal conditions. Walking down Front Street you’ll find all kinds of shopping, from clothing boutiques to antique shops to art galleries. Not to be missed is Sluys Bakery, where they sell homemade breads as well as fresh baked pastries and cookies. On my first trip to Silverdale many, many moons ago, my friend brought me to Poulsbo specifically to get bread. Sluys bread became so popular the recipe was eventually sold to bigger bread manufacturers to distribute “Poulsbo Bread” in supermarkets across the country. I’m sure you were probably sitting there wishing this post would turn into a lesson on the history of bread, so you’re welcome.
I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of an entire town being on the historic register, but this one is. And once you drive into it, you’ll understand why. The Pope and Talbot sawmill was set up on the banks of Gamble Bay all the way back in 1853. The town was built for and lived in by the mill workers and their families. Because they mostly came from the East Coast, they built their houses in the same Victorian style they were used to. Amazingly, the mill stayed open for over 100 years, finally closing in 1995. From that point, a lot of effort was put into restoring the buildings to their former glory. Luckily, since it was owned by the company, the town didn’t expand much (the houses were built specifically for the workers) and the style was never interfered with.
The main part of the town is really small, so it’s easy see everything on foot. The houses on Rainer Street are occupied by artsy shops and outdoor equipment rentals now but most of them have an informative sign out front explaining who previously lived there. One of my favorite bits was the Port Gamble Historic Museum underneath the General Store. Probably one of my favorite museums ever, the history of the town is laid out very visually with great exhibits that really help you understand what Port Gamble was like in it’s heyday. There are life-sized vignettes of the mill’s management office and lounge and bedroom of the hotel that used to be there, photographs and drawings of the old town and mill operation, even the original bank vault, now filled with Americana memorabilia over the many years the mill was open. And at $4 for admission, it’s a perfect thrifty choice.
In the upper levels of the General Store you will find a shop selling cute coastal trinkets and souvenirs plus a cafe in case you’re hungry from all your sightseeing. There’s also a neat museum/collection of shells in the loft above the main level.
If you’re like me and love old cemeteries, check out the one here before heading out of town. Most of the grave stones are from the turn of the 19th century including that of Gustave Engelbrecht, who died during the Battle of Port Gamble.
There’s a lot to love about this Victorian port town nestled up at the northeastern most point of the Olympic Peninsula. For one thing many of the original buildings are still standing and being used. The Jefferson County Courthouse, the Old Consulate Inn, most of Water Street, plus hundreds of homes throughout make for a great architectural tour.
Fort Worden State Park was originally an Army base but was decommissioned after the First World War. Quarters were built for the soldiers and bunkers installed along the coastline to protect the shore from an attack that never came. They may have taken the guns out but the bunkers are still there, ready to be explored. Plus there are ready made “hotels” to stay in if you’re staying for the weekend. Historical sleepover! Or if you’re more the bring-your-own-bed type there is a campground too.
If you drive all the way to the end of the road, you’ll find the Point Wilson Light. It was built way before the Army moved in and is now run by the Coast Guard Auxiliary. Originally the light was in a wooden tower atop a two story house but was later moved when a new concrete building was built in front of the old one. Once we got to the top of the tower we got a great view of the sound and could even see Canada across the water. The Auxiliary told us all about how the lighthouse was run back in the day, how the gears that moved the light had to be wound all the time and how the original gas light shone even farther into the night than the electric one now. Did you know that each light house has a different light pattern? Point Wilson has a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which you can get an up close look at when you go on the tour.
Coming from California, I have to tell you how much I love cold weather beaches. It’s such a different experience being on a beach that is rimmed by forest. We visited in May and there were yellow lupine in full bloom all over the beach. It was almost a magical feeling of isolation there, quiet and rainy and not overrun by people. I have no doubt that it is much busier in the summer months, but I enjoyed the peaceful time we had there.
The abandoned bunkers you can explore and a picture perfect view of the lighthouse
There is so much more of Washington to see so another trip will definitely be planned soon. Thanks to my friends, 2TravelDads for suggesting Ports Gamble and Townsend!
See my post about Seattle for more Washington vacation planning tips.
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