State park and popular travel destination, guardian of the Puget Sound, rehabilitator of rowdy teens. Inspiration to artists, poets, musicians, and trick bicyclists. Chock full of nature-y goodness. Hauntingly beautiful. Barely a century old, and already home to ancient ruins.
Fort Worden, named after Admiral John L. Worden (commander of the Union ship Monitor in its Civil War battle against the Confederate Merrimac, and once superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy), was established as a military post on May 14, 1902. Along with its sisters, Forts Casey and Flagler -- known collectively as the "triangle of death" -- Fort Worden served as coastal defender, keeping watch over the waters of Puget Sound. The fort guarded against enemy vessels through two world wars, closing in 1951.
Washington State acquired Fort Worden in June of 1957 at a cost of $127,533.18, and converted it to a youth rehabilitation center. The center opened to the first group of 18 boys in April of the next year, with a girl's unit added in 1961. Designed to help juvenile delinquents get back on their feet, the program provided counseling, schooling, and vocational training, and was reported to be quite successful by many former delinquent residents. Fort Worden Treatment Center remained open until 1971.
In 1973, Fort Worden reopened as a state park, and as of this writing remains a popular year-round vacation spot.
Why you should bother visiting
I've never introduced a friend to the fort without the experience eliciting at least one "wow", "woah", or "cool" -- and I have some rather jaded friends. Among the attractions that Fort Worden boasts are:
- Many excellent trails for hiking or mountain biking.
- Towering concrete bunkers, looming over the landscape like the remnants of some long-dead civilization; ladders for climbing, tunnels and hidden passageways for exploring, echoing chambers and acoustical oddities for exploiting, and generally impressive cliff-side vantage points for gazing from and being generally impressed by.
- Beach-front camping, a friendly hostel, or comfortable (if somewhat expensive and difficult to obtain on short notice) lodging in the former houses of the fort's officers.
- The Port Townsend Marine Science Center, where you can learn a great deal about the local sea life, and even pet a starfish or sea anemone in one of the specimen tanks. (Sea stars love children!)
- Workshops and seminars galore, most courtesy of Centrum Arts and Creative Education.
- A non-stop host of music festivals. As I write this, Jazz Port Townsend has just ended, and the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes is just warming up.
- Evergreens, apple trees, deer; beaches, fishing, and the occasional whale; more nature than you can shake a stick at.
Keen places to explore
The Really Big Bunkers: Having followed BlueJayW's excellent directions and/or the many signs posted around Port Townsend, and thus finding yourself at the main entrance to the fort, proceed straight through the four-way stop (if you're in a car, stop where indicated, but proceed straight after you are sure it's safe and legal). Head up the hill and take a left past Copper Canyon Press, optionally stopping to pick up a copy of Gift of Tongues. If necessary, stable your automobile in the small dirt parking area next to the court house, and continue up the hill past the gate and doggy-excrement-bag dispenser. Where the road forks, take a right, following the sign up to Memory's Vault. At this point, you have a choice between staying on the gently spiraling road, or scrambling directly up the hill through all the brush and bramble. If you opt for the latter, try to be in relatively good health, and do not be sheathed in clothes to which you have a strong sentimental attachment.
At the top of the hill and slightly past the old fire-hollowed jail (the wooden components were incinerated many years ago by reckless 4th of July revelers), you will come to a small patch of grass with a fire hydrant and an outhouse. Three paths are now before you:
Continuing straight will take you down to the beach, which is highly recommended, but dull and common in comparison to the other two options. Save it for later.
To your right is Memory's Vault, a time capsule and monument built in 1998 to commemorate Washington State's bicentennial. The installation was designed by Richard Turner, and besides the time capsule itself, features several pillars inscribed with poetry by Sam Hamill, and a courtyard vaguely reminiscent of Mount Olympus. While the more thoughtful visitor considers the imagery stirred by Hamill's homages to the fort and Puget Sound, megalomaniacal children and attention-deficient adults will enjoy grappling for control of the throne and smiting each other with imaginary lightning bolts.
Following the path to your left leads to the largest of Fort Worden's many bunker installations. At one time (as recently as my early childhood), great cannons were bolted to the upper decks here, keeping stern watch over the sound. Today, their riveting-and-concrete footprints remain, but the guns themselves are gone. The bunkers boast many tunnels to explore, ladders to climb, lookouts to spy from, and opportunities to skin one's knee; the perfect place for paint-ball, hide and seek, or writing in a journal.
Directly before the last of the bunkers, on the left side of the path, there is a small tunnel set into the hill. Take two steps into the mouth, stop, and stomp your feet as hard as you can. The echo will rise dramatically in pitch as it shoots up the tunnel, sounding distinctly like a mix between a plucked rubber band and a cheesy sci-fi laser. All manner of acoustical fun can be had at the bunkers, and it's a great place to experiment with strings, woodwinds, percussion, or good old fashioned singing and chanting.
For cheap fun, tell your young, impressionable children that the storm drains lining the central path are the military-standard "blood gutters". Ha-ha. My parents are sick people.
The Cliff Few People Know About: Starting again from the fort's entrance, hang a left at the four-way stop. Park at the trail head on your right, just before the lower gate. Down the road to the left is a military cemetery where this one used to play as a child -- to the kids in my neighborhood, the cannon mounted at the center was obviously a slide -- but that's not where we're headed today. Start up the trail, past the excellent climbing tree and the first few forks, then take the third left branching off from the main path. Keep bearing left as you follow the now-dense trail, hopping over the occasional fallen tree, until you come out by a field overlooking a lagoon (and, on the far side of the water, a sewage treatment plant -- don't worry, you can't smell it from here).
Once out in the open, hug the tree line and follow the path up the hill. Slightly past a few benches and a plaque (honoring the Chinese immigrants who made up a large part of early Port Townsend's population, and who kept a community garden here), the path will fork in two, heading either down to the beach or back into the fort. Ignore both of these options, and plunge forward into the thicket of trees. Follow what little path exists out to a small clearing at the edge of a large cliff. You are currently standing far above North Beach. This would be an excellent place to watch the sunset. For now, sit, breath deeply, and enjoy your surroundings. Maybe close your eyes and listen; waves crashing against the beach, seagulls calling out over the water, wind whistling through the trees. Once you have a solid mental construction of all you've heard, open your eyes, and dig the sensation of your perceptual resolution jumping an order of magnitude or two.
The Place Where Pseudomammal Nearly Broke His Tail Bone: If you've recently changed your middle name from "Scenery" to "Danger," and all this talk of pleasant viewing leaves you bored, see also: jumping off a cliff.
A well-wasted childhood