Port Gamble offers urbanites a weekend getaway without the cost
The journey from Seattle to Port Gamble is only an hour and a half by car and ferry, but meandering into one of the oldest towns in Washington from Highway 104 feels like a journey back in time. Quaint clapboard houses in primary colors dot rolling hills. A cemetery lined with a white picket fence sits above the town. Picturesque St. Paul’s Church is a popular wedding venue overlooking Gamble Bay.
If you’re seeking small-town charm that evokes the East Coast without the hassle and cost of air travel, Port Gamble fits the bill.
A community hub of outdoor recreation
Nestled in the nook of Puget Sound, Port Gamble has a ton to offer metro-area weekend travelers, especially those seeking time outdoors in the great Pacific Northwest. Situated on Gamble Bay, the town is the perfect spot to get out on the water. Grab your gear—kayaking, anyone?—at Olympic Outdoor Center in the commercial district. Kitsap Peninsula Water Trails, which celebrates 10 years of operation in 2024, offers space to kayak, sail, and dive. You can join the trails at two locations in town, at Salsbury Point Park and at Port Gamble Village Beach. Plan your route with an interactive map.
For those looking for adventures on land, Port Gamble Forest Heritage Park offers 3,500 acres of recently conserved forest land, where hikers, cyclists and runners can embark on 65 miles of trails through old-growth.
Once owned by a timber company, the land was conserved in 2017 through a partnership between the Port Gamble S’Klallam and Suquamish Tribes, Kitsap County, Pope Resources, Great Peninsula Conservancy, and a coalition of state agencies, businesses, and community groups, according to the park’s website.
Kitsap County Commissioner Rob Gelder said the park is a crucial part of the community’s stewardship of the land; amid rapid change and development in the Northwest, the park provides a much-needed community hub for outdoor recreation. “We need those opportunities to get out and experience nature, whether you were a birder or an equestrian, or a mountain biker or a hiker,” Gelder said.
An ongoing stewardship project is also restoring this former timber land back to its historic state. Thinning allows space for trees to grow longer and bigger. “It's almost like terraforming, where you are sort of undoing another kind of environment to create something that's more natural,” Gelder said.
Gelder leaves office at the end of May, but he hopes that the park will become a reason people come to visit.
After all that time exploring and adventuring, head to Butcher and Baker, one of the town’s central spots for grub. Located in Port Gamble’s commercial district right off Highway 104, the eatery is a community staple where everything is made in-house, said chef and owner Adam Sawasy.
“Our baker is usually in here bright and early in the morning, and she makes everything from scratch,” Sawasy said, and the goodies are available at a low price point.
“Even if you're a high school kid on your first date, you can come out and grab dinner,” Sawasy said. “Or, if you're a wealthy retiree, you can enjoy your time here as well.”
The restaurant’s menu typically rotates every six to eight weeks, Sawasy said. Visitors can enjoy their meals on a patio with covered picnic tables when the weather is cooperative, and there’s plenty of room inside to stay cozy for a chilly-day meal. If you’re just stopping in for a quick bite, grab-and-go pastry and coffee can sweeten the drive home.
Ghosts of Port Gamble
Port Gamble has a rich history that’s seen, felt and heard across the town — with some spirits from the past loving the place so much, they haven’t even left postmortem. The town is known for its paranormal history.
In the low-lit rooms of the Port Gamble Historic Museum, strange things are afoot. In one exhibit, a re-creation of Captain William Talbot’s ship quarters from his journey to San Francisco from Maine in the 1840s, is a chair with an imprint of someone’s backside outlined with dust. Pete Orbea is the town manager, who leads both daytime historic tours and nighttime haunted prowls through the town. He said the outline must be from a spirit, as they haven’t dusted the exhibit in years and no new dust has settled on the seat. Wet boot prints lead up the ladder in the display, with no indication that their owner walked in from outside the exhibit.
If you’re not convinced, Orbea can relate: He was a self-described open skeptic before he started leading the tours. His skepticism quickly dissipated. “It took one season and made me a believer in the paranormal,” Orbea said.
The town embraces its reputation for all things ghostly with an annual Ghost Conference for seasoned and amateur paranormal investigators alike every autumn, this year from November 10-12. Orbea said it always sells out.
Perhaps some of the haunting comes from Port Gamble’s history as a working timber town.
The Pope and Talbot Company opened Puget Mill sawmill in 1853, the same year Washington became a territory of the United States, establishing the town. Over the years, trees from surrounding forests were turned into timber on these shores. “It was the longest continuously operating sawmill in U.S. history,” Orbea said.
The mill closed in 1995, 142-years later. Visitors can learn all about the working port’s history at the museum. To zoom in on the history, take a tour with Orbea, who has been the town manager since 2011. The tours last three hours.
The museum was established in 1976 in the basement of the Port Gamble General Store & Cafe. Treasures abound in this 1916 building, now a gift store and sandwich shop. In the early days of the mill, the basement of the building housed its offices. “Everything that's in here was either retained by the company or donated from families,” Orbea said.
And if you're more patriotic than paranormal-curious, the museum offers plenty of tidbits of early American history. One room touts a 38-star flag and memorabilia from the old mill workers’ baseball team. The team was part of an association of baseball teams known as the Sawdust League, populated by workers from mills throughout the Northwest. Finally, a glass case holds three land grants, one with an authenticated signature from Abraham Lincoln.
The town’s connection to New England isn’t just cosmetic: The environs resemble Maine because of deep roots Port Gamble residents had on the East Coast. Orbea said many of the town’s trees were brought in from Maine in the late 1800s as workers settled, with the goal of making the place feel more like home. It’s no surprise that it does.
“If you think about it, you’re taking this big boat journey, you're leaving your life back home coming out here,” Orbea said. “They didn't want the workers to be so homesick.”
Now those trees offer picturesque views to please any leaf-peeper, and they’re much easier to get to than the eastern seaboard. Plan your visit for autumn to witness a sea of yellow, orange and red foliage: Orbea said the trees start turning in September.
A walkable community
After Port Gamble’s mill closed in 1995, a $40 million environmental cleanup began. Orbea said the Washington State Department of Ecology dredged out 130,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and put the same amount of uncontaminated soil back into Gamble Bay. Scientists monitored the cleanup and tested the bay’s shellfish, which are now healthy as clams. The community is still a company town, but the industry has switched from lumber to tourism. Many of the businesses are women-owned, Orbea said.
In 2020, the real-estate development company Rayonier Inc. bought out Pope and Talbot, and now manages the town. The company is planning to develop 220 homes with exteriors that retain the historic look of other cottages dotting the area, and interiors will be decked out with modern amenities.
“The future of the town is there's a really good opportunity to make this an amazing place to live,” Orbea said.
A portion of the land was purchased by the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, who resided here before Pope and Talbot turned the place into a mill town. The former site of Babcock Farm, an old homestead farm that once produced much of the milk, eggs, poultry and produce for the town, will become an agri-tourist destination, where Orbea said the company is planning to build wineries and the county is developing more mountain bike trails.
“What we're hoping for is a walkable community, that anybody who lives here can get everything you need just by walking,” Orbea said. With so many changes in store, Port Gamble still has plenty to offer to visitors now and in the years to come.
Plan your visit to Port Gamble and explore more events, places to go and things to do in Kitsap County with Visit Kitsap.