The Pacific Northwest is quintessentially known for its water. From majestic orca populations to huge salmon runs, tribal canoes to opening day regattas, there are a million things to explore by boat in both the saltwater and freshwater regions of this amazing location. This is particularly true in the inland Salish Sea region of Western Washington State, where the protection of two mountain ranges and deep glacial fjord like waters have created a boating paradise. Here are some of the top boating locales in the region, and the opportunities that they have to offer:
This is the main protected waterway in Washington State and stretches from Neah Bay to the capital city of Olympia. It is home to iconic wildlife like killer whales, excellent salmon and halibut fishing, and is a wonderful boating destination. Puget Sound represents one of the main North American shipping channels from Asia, is home to several naval bases, and is one of the West Coast headquarters for NOAA. It is also home to over a thousand miles of freshwater and saltwater coastline, hundreds of islands, dozens of parks and several large cities. The temperate weather in Puget Sound allows for year-round boating, though the winter means early darkness, temperatures in the high 40’s and blustery winds at times. However, there are still a number of boats enjoying the water on the sunny days of the winter, as well as during the rest of the year.
The city of Seattle is uniquely positioned on a long strip of land that stretches between a large freshwater lake and the saltwater Puget Sound. Marinas abound here, and there is every form of boat imaginable to be found in the water: from stand-up paddleboard rental to kayaks and canoes, open fishing skiffs to monohull and multihull sailboats, from multistory yachts to an immense fleet of commercial shipping, ferry and foot transport, naval, research and coast guard vessels. Because of this, there is much to discover here.
Pleasure boaters can enjoy the calm waters of lake Washington and the connected Lake Union by boat, and take the Ballard Locks through to Puget Sound if they prefer saltwater boating. Along the way, they will be treated to views of bald eagles, harbor seals, and salmon in the right seasons. Fishing is excellent in both locations, as is the weather for sailing. For those who like multiday trips, this city is a perfect departure point for trips to the Hood Canal, the San Juan Islands, up the Inside Passage to Alaska, or even down the Pacific coast to the Columbia River of Lewis and Clark fame.
Seattle in the first week of August brings you to Sea Fair, which is a chance to celebrate boats of all makes and models and take part in different activities. If you love football, consider heading to Lake Washington during home games for the Washington Huskies. There is a large group of fans who congregate along the edge of the stadium open to the water to watch and listen to the game by boat.
Though Tacoma is best known for its commercial waterfront, there is some excellent pleasure boating to be done here. Point Defiance, home to a combined zoo, park, aquarium and frontier fortress is a highlight stop for boaters, as are the many islands that can be found in the region. The Tacoma Narrows passage offers some good rapids that can be enjoyed by kayakers and gives views of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which has architectural fame as “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge that undulated so severely with the wind that you could catch it on video. Tacoma in April brings the Daffodil festival, where local boaters will bedeck their boats with daffodils and participate in the floating parade.
San Juan Islands
This archipelago is known for two things-- sun and whales. Rent a boat on Orcas Island or book a whale watching tour. The San Juans are the Pacific Northwest’s hot spot for orcas, though it is possible to see half a dozen other species of whale, dolphin or porpoise at the right time of year. These islands are also a major meetup point for many boat manufacturers like Bayliner, who hosts an annual gathering each summer on San Juan island. The area is a good combination of park-only islands, tourist villages and resorts, and residential. It is one of the most popular boating locations in the state for good reason. If you are looking to rent a boat on the mainland to head to the San Juans, the cities of Anacortes and Bellingham make good starting points nearby.
At 55 miles in length, Whidbey has the honor of being the longest island in the continental US. Stretching between the north end of Seattle and the beginning of the San Juans, this island offers a number of different things for boaters. On the outer side of the island is a number of high, exposed bluffs that point toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the channel that leads to the Pacific. The inside passage is home to calm waters, large shellfish farms and a lot of excellent fishing. Not every dock is public here, as there are both a number of military bases as well as a tribal reservation along the inside of the islands.
This large glacial fjord sits between the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas on the Western side of Puget Sound. It is a very popular fishing and boating locale, and the narrow body size makes it warmer than most of the other regional waters, and therefore popular for watersports. Both sides of the canal are clustered with homes, many of which have docks or mooring buoys. There are also several boat-in resorts and marinas available along the length of the canal. These waters stay well-sheltered and are excellent for watercrafts of all sizes. If you are sailing into the canal, be aware that there is a drawbridge that you may need to contact.
This town on the tip of Admiralty Inlet is well worth the trip. It is home to one of the world’s foremost wooden boatbuilding schools (and to an excellent wooden boat festival each mid-September), a number of top-notch maritime shops, and a beautiful and walkable downtown. Even if you are just boating through, the gorgeous Victorian architecture here is unique in a mostly-modern region that didn’t even see Europeans until the mid-1800’s. Haunted hotels, gourmet food, fun galleries and shops are all excellent reasons to stay and explore if you have the time. Boating from Port Townsend, you can head inland toward Hood Canal or Puget Sound, Northward toward the San Juans or British Columbia, or out to the Pacific.
Though this city has more of an industrial boating reputation than a pleasure boating one, it is a great location to leave from if you plan on doing halibut fishing, sailing along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, or heading to Victoria. This is one of the closest points in Washington State to the iconic city within British Columbia, and on a good day, it offers a simple, cross-channel journey. Just be prepared with your passport if you decide to take the trip, as you will need to clear customs when you reach the marina across the way. Port Angeles is also home to the Olympic National Park, and if you have access to a car while at one of the marinas here, you can head up to Hurricane Ridge or Lake Crescent in under an hour. Port Angeles has an annual kayak festival in late April that offers a chance to demo new gear, buy used and closeout items at a discount, meet with pros and just boat with other kayak lovers.
This Northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula is the corner of the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Neah Bay is an excellent starting point if you plan on doing some deep-sea fishing or coastal sailing, though it requires some skill to boat here as the conditions are rarely flat. There are several Neah Bay is also a great place to watch for gray whales, and is home to the Makah tribe. If you want to see traditional native canoes, head here during mid-July. This is one of the stops for the annual canoe journey, where dozens of Pacific Northwest tribes from BC, Washington and Oregon gather and caravan by canoe to a final destination and celebration. If you can catch the group on their overnight stay here, you will get the opportunity to see a variety of traditional multi-person canoes still created the traditional way from old-growth cedars. To watch them travel together is nothing short of stunning.
When it comes to boating in Western Washington, you cannot go wrong with boat type or location. If you are unsure of the kind of boating you love best, the diverse environment and set of boating opportunities make it an excellent location to experiment with many water sports, boat types and boat sizes.