Puget Sound

Puget Sound is an estuary, a semi-enclosed body of water in which salt water from the nearby Pacific Ocean mixes with fresh water runoff from the surrounding watershed in western Washington, it is a sheltered arm of ocean between Seattle and the mainland of Washington State to the east and the Olympic Peninsula to the west. The southern boundary is marked by where the mainland and the Olympic Peninsula meet, near Olympia. The northern boundary is marked by Admiralty Pass and the Strait of San Juan de Fuca. It is the second largest estuary in the United States, Puget Sound has 3,790 kilometers of shoreline and the Puget Sound watershed covers nearly 42,800 square kilometers and consists of over ten thousand rivers and streams that drain into the Sound.

The Puget Sound Region consists of Puget Sound itself, the islands of Puget Sound, the Kitsap Peninsula, plus the mainland counties which form both the western and eastern sides of Puget Sound leading up to the edges of the watershed in the high crests of the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. Counties with this area include: Island, Snohomish, Kitsap, King, Pierce, and Thurston

an Orca 'porpoising' in Hood Canal area of Puget Sound


It is difficult to break down Puget Sound into smaller regions because there are so many different geographic, cultural and political ideas that it entails. Locals generally refer to Puget Sound as both the body of water and the geographic area surrounding it, but even different bodies of government define Puget Sound as having different physical boundaries. For the sake of clarity we will use the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)official breakdown into five main regions.


map of Puget Sound with major cities

The Puget Sound Region has many cities, check in the subregion articles for more of them. Some areas might be mentioned here but be covered more broadly in other subregion articles. For example Port Townsend is located on the shores of Puget Sound but it actually falls under the Olympic Peninsula subregion.

Other destinations

Puget Sound area offers a vast variety of areas from thick rain forests and rocky wild rivers to sophisticated urban areas with an international cultural influence.


Suquamish woman photographed by Edward S. Curtis in 1913.


Puget Sounds complex series of waterways were formed from receding glaciers that left the area about 14,000 years ago cutting deep into the land forming valleys that eventually flooded creating the intricate landscape that we know today.

According to scientific data the first people arrived in Puget Sound about 12,000 years ago, but according to native Suquamish people, legend says that all of the earth was water, then the Old One dried the land and created everything from mud, he used the last mud balls from the earth to create the people. Then he sent Coyote to teach the people how to live with the earth, Coyote traveled the earth teaching the people and making life better for them.

By 1792 when Captain George Vancouver named the area after one of his officers and declared the area for Great Briton, the Suquamish and Salish people had already developed a multi facetted and complex society of their own. The Suquamish people called Puget Sound the Lushootseed name 'WulcH, which simply means "Salt Water". For thousands of years the Suquamish traveled the waters of Puget Sound in well designed cedar canoes and before settlers developed roadways a complex series of ferries known as the ‘Mosquito Fleet’ was also the main way people and goods were transported around the area and waters of Puget Sound became the first regional highway.

Once the Washington Territory was established in 1853, the U.S. government began signing treaties with area tribes to acquire their lands. The Suquamish people ceded most of their land to the United States and logging came into the area in full force. The areas once impassible thick forests gave way to farms, towns and industry as lumber was shipped off to areas such as San Francisco or burned as fuel for the growing fleet of boats.

Today the area has grown in international influence with economic powerhouses such as Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft whose global reach is far beyond Washington State borders. Seattle is the largest cosmopolitan city with millions of people and the regions cultural influence is profound with many artistic and cultural endeavors reaching an international audience. Yet through all of this growth and change the people of the region are still tied to Puget Sound not only for transportation and source of food but as the symbolic center of area culture.


Despite common belief and contrary to widespread usage there is some debate on the exact boundaries of the area we call Puget Sound. For the sake of clarity we are using the boundaries established by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which draws the northern border along the Canadian border and Straight of Georgia. There has been a recent popular movement to officially name the area that contains the Strait of Juan De Fuca, all of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia as the Salish Sea, in honor of the native people of the region (referred to as 'First Nations' people by Canadians).


The Pacific Northwest accent spoken in the Puget Sound region is considered very similar to the General American standard accent (native to the Midwest), popularized in the 20th century by radio, TV and movies. People in the area generally have little to no problem understanding different accents of the English language. The Pacific Northwest attracts tourists from around the world, and it is common to hear many foreign languages being spoken in public in major tourist areas.

There are ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the Seattle area where many languages are spoken, including a large International District where many Asian languages are spoken. Washington is the thirteenth most populated state for example, but by comparison has the fourth highest Asian population. Seattle's 98118 zip code centered around the Columbia City neighborhood in South Seattle is considered the most ethnically diverse zip code in the country by the US Census bureau with 59 different languages regularly being spoken.

Chinook Jargon was a pidgin or trade language established among indigenous inhabitants of the region. After contact with Europeans, French, English, and Cree words entered the language, and "eventually Chinook became the lingua franca for as many as 250,000 people along the Pacific Slope from Alaska to Oregon." Chinook Jargon reached its height of usage in the 19th century though remained common in resource and wilderness areas, particularly but not exclusively by Native Americans and Canadian First Nations people, well into the 20th century. Chinook Jargon was still in use in Seattle until roughly the eve of World War II, making Seattle the last city where the language was widely used. Today its influence is felt mostly in place names and a handful of localized slang terms. Pronunciation of some of these terms is difficult and often separates the visitor from the local including Alki, Seattle, Kitsap, Yakima, Duwamish and Lummi.

Get in

By air

sea plane leaving San Juan Islands

By train

Amtrak has three train services that serve the Puget Sound area. Cities served are Seattle, Tukwila, Tacoma, Olympia, Edmonds, and Everett: see the "Get in" sections of those cities for more details.

For more information about travelling by train in the United States see Rail travel in the United States.

By car

I-5 is the main freeway running north-south; going north to Vancouver and south to Portland and California. I-90 goes east from Seattle to Spokane, Chicago and ultimately Boston. Other east-west routes include US-2 over Stevens Pass from Everett and SR-410 from Tacoma (closed in winter).

By bus

By ferry

Washington State Ferry leaving Vashon Island

There is also a ferry connecting Port Townsend and Coupeville [4], on Whidbey Island. The small ferries required by Coupeville's narrow harbor mean that vehicle space is often limited, and drive-up motorists may have to wait several sailings for a space. Guaranteed reservations can be made in advance online [5] or by calling 511, and are all but essential on Friday afternoons, weekends and holidays

By cruise ship

Cruise ships to Seattle may be docked at one of two terminals in the Port of Seattle.

By boat

It is not coincidence that so many cities in this region are located on the water. Early settlers found the thick regional forests too impenetrable to navigate by land so waterways became the Pacific Northwests early highway system.

However when arriving from Canada there are only a handful of ports including Roche Harbor, Friday Harbor, Anacortes and Bellingham that are official U.S. ports-of-entry and can process boaters through customs. The Cardinal Rule is touch land at customs dock before any other stops, fines for not doing so can be up to $5000. Besides a passport for everyone on board, you will need your boat's license number and User Fee Decal number.

Customs enforces USDA guidelines for what foods are acceptable to bring into the country and these guidelines are constantly changing so it is best to check in with them before arriving. Boaters are responsible for knowing the prohibited foods and can be fined for not declaring them.

The Puget Sound region offers a wide variety of guest marinas throughout the area. Check city listings for specific marina information.

Get around

By ferry

Car alarm?

nothing separates the tourist from the local on the ferry system more than car alarms. Please make sure yours is off if you leave your car to enjoy the view from the deck. Most car alarms detect movement and will be activated by the movement of the ferry and you will be asked to return to your car.

Washington State Ferries is the largest system of ferries in the country and they are the key to successfully navigating Puget Sound. Many ferry destinations are not islands without a bridge, but peninsulas where going by land would involve a very long detour. The most extreme example of this is the Port Townsend -- Keystone route on State Hwy 20. Only five and a half miles via the ferry, becomes a whopping 217 miles (354 km) traveling by car!

Washington State Ferry routes cross Puget Sound including several islands including Bainbridge, Vashon, Whidbey and the San Juan Islands. There are also some county-run ferries to smaller destinations such as to Anderson Island and Guemes Island.

By car

Outside the main cities public transportation is scarce and is not of much use for extensive sightseeing, so renting or arriving by car is advisable. Although distances can be long, most roads are paved and well-maintained. Be aware of distances between gas stations and plan accordingly when traveling in rural areas. Most ferries accept vehicles and utilizing them is key to navigating the area.

By bus

Regional transit systems tend to be organized by county however they are often interconnected to cover larger areas and some are coordinated with Washington State Ferries, with each other (for one to arrive within minutes of the next one leaving) and have many coordinated pickups at Seatac airport. Not the fastest way to travel but efficient and cheap for the budget traveler and are the only way available in the (more rural) areas west of the Puget Sound. See the below:

Along West Side of Puget Sound With the exception of the Dungeness Line, the county operated transit systems are the only way around the Olympic Peninsula without a car on the west side of the sound. Schedules are less frequent on rural routes then local services within the cities/towns.

Along East Side of Puget Sound The eastside is more populated and therefore, offer more frequent schedules on more routes. If you're trying to get from Olympia to Port Townsend, Bremerton or Widbey Island it would be quicker to get a series of buses up into Seattle and taking the ferry across than the buses along the west side of the Sound.

By light rail

Light rail is growing rapidly in the area, however is currently only available to deliver passengers between the airport in Seatac to downtown Seattle with various stops through South Seattle and Sodo.


Puget Sound with Mount Rainier in the distance

Kitsap Peninsula

The Kitsap Peninsula is almost an island attached by a relatively small landmass near Belfair, its complex coastline dominates the Puget Sound area between Hood Canal and the Main Puget Sound Channel. It is home of several cities and towns and is accessible by the Tacoma Narrows Bridge near Tacoma and the floating Hood Canal Bridge giving access on the northern end to the Olympic Peninsula as well as several ferry terminals giving access from Seattle and Edmunds.


Other areas


Beach combing

purple seastar found on Kitsap Peninsula beach

What Puget Sound beaches lack in white sand and warm water is more than made up for in the amazing scenery as the clear waters play against wild coastlines and snow peaked mountains scatter on the horizons. The areas many State Parks are an excellent place to start a beach combing adventure offering miles of beaches from the rugged to the sandy smooth. Small crabs, moon snails, sea stars and sand dollars are common sites and tide pools can offer hours of exploration.

Be warned that sea shells and driftwood are considered part of the natural environment and should not be removed, however the often rocky and wild shores are havens for creating and revealing beach glass and anything artificial found is fair game for removal. Be respectful of private property and gentle with sea creatures. Keep a wide distance away from nesting birds, seals and other shore animals and always put back anything removed from the shoreline.


Puget Sound offers some of the best recreational boating in the world. Breath taking views of the snow capped Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges along with glimpses of Mount Rainier mingle with thick forests and clear bays and streams to create a humbling cacophony of natural sights. Carved by ancient glaciers, Puget Sounds intricate and complex waterways provide endless opportunities for exploration while the many harbor towns built on protective bays cater to boaters and provide an wide array of services, restaurants and shops. Harbor Seals, Otters, Sea Lions, Bald Eagles and Blue Herons are common sites while the occasional viewing of an Orca or Grey Whale is not out of the question.


The Puget Sound is a destination celebrated by sailors from around the world. The scenery around Puget Sound can be so amazing that it borders on the surreal and could only possibly be appreciated more from the deck of a boat under sail. From isolated moorages in such places as Blake Island State Park to historic harbor towns with fine restaurants, museums and shopping all accessible from convenient harbors.

Tacoma Yacht Club race

Visitors to the area will often be treated to the sight of a flotilla of sailboats on Puget Sound as local yacht clubs organize events that sometimes attract hundreds of sailors. These ‘races’ such as the Gig Harbor Yacht Club Islands Race are often informal events that are more of an opportunity for fraternization and attract many types of sailboats and many different skill levels of sailors.

Sea kayaking

Sea kayaking can be a rewarding way to explore the Puget Sounds miles of coastline allowing the paddler a closer and slower look at their surroundings and making Puget Sound a popular area to sea kayak. Both urban and rural areas offer their own rewards and many organized tours are available in different areas.

Kayak trails

Organized trails offer overnight camping options and maps of appropriate travel lengths and scenic travel destinations. For thousands of years native Salish tribes navigated these waters in small, well designed wooden boats and many of these trails were developed along their same paths.

Bird watching

Scuba diving

California Sea Lions

Diving the cold waters of Puget Sound takes a bit more gear and training than other warm water locations, but the rewards are incredible. The area contains some of the best diving in the world and many areas are accessible from the Kitsap Peninsula. Many dive sites are completely covered with colorful sea creatures that defy description. Giant Pacific Octopus are common, along with friendly wolf eels. Colorful sponges, sea cucumbers, sea stars, soft corals, anemones and fish can be seen on nearly every dive. The state has offers a guide to parks with launch sites HERE


The Pacific Northwest is a foodie’s dream come true. Talented chefs and entrepreneurs have taken advantage the northwest’s incredible seafood, abundant locally sourced produce, award-winning wines, and a well developed beer brewing tradition to establish a regional cuisine that trumps just about any other area in America. The Puget Sound region offers top of the line restaurants squirreled away in almost every neighborhood Pacific north westerners have high expectations from their food.

The Pacific North West is perhaps best known for it's Salmon, but a large variety of other seafood is available in the area. Oftentimes seafood comes in short bursts with seasonal migrations such as the areas fall Salmon runs available for only short amounts of time so watch closely for seasonal specials in restaurants and markets.

Shellfish are the prized resources of the Puget Sound, the cool, clean waters provide some of the finest shellfish habitat in the world. Washington State is the nation’s leading producer of farmed bivalve shellfish (clams, mussels and oysters) but other specialties like Geoducks are sometimes available for the more adventurous.

The Dungeness Crab is a popular seafood prized for its sweet and tender flesh and high ratio of meat. Its common name comes from the port of Dungeness, Washington where the first commercial harvesting of the crab was done. The Dungeness Crab is a commercially important crab in the state of Washington's territorial waters and was the first shellfish harvested commercially in the area but other crab species are also common.

The areas mild climate, rich soil and abundant water resources have created a bountiful climate for the many varieties of fresh produce available across the region. Farmers markets are common in both urban and rural areas and a great way to experience local culture as well as experience local foods.


Few, if any, American regions can challenge the Pacific North West's love of coffee. According to a group of industry market researchers, there were an amazing 1,640 coffee shops in the Puget Sound region in 2011, ranking it the most popular coffee region. It is not surprising that such coffee giants such as Starbucks have exported the Pacific Northwest's coffee culture across the globe.

Microbreweries and beer in general are a Northwest specialty, and the area has many to offer for beer enthusiasts. The larger brewers, like Redhook and Pyramid, distribute their products regionally or nationally like their coffee cousins, while other brews can only be found in local stores or bars (some notable brewers don't even bottle their product). Ask your servers for local beer recommendations and search out regional microbrews in stores. Hops are the key ingredient in beer making and Washington State's neaby Yakima Valley is by far the biggest exporter of hops in the US giving area brewers another edge in making the best beers. Vineyard in Willamette Valley

There are many great wineries spread across the Puget Sound region such as The Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, which is not only the oldest winery in the state but is the largest single producer of Riesling wine in the United States.

Stay safe

Puget Sound is such a broad and varying region it is difficult to give specific safety advice. From large cities where common sense should prevail when dealing with valuables to remote forests where you should keep a watchful eye out for wildlife. Check various subregion and city articles for more specific information.



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