Best Spots for Urban Kayaking in Tacoma

Kayaker under bridge.

When you picture the ideal spot for kayaking, what comes to mind? An isolated river or lake in the woods? Or on an urban waterway surrounded by bridges and skyscrapers? When we got our kayaks last winter, I couldn’t wait to try them out somewhere totally new — my own backyard.

Tacoma is a peninsula, surrounded on three sides by the waters of Puget Sound. Much of that water is easily accessible from one of the city’s waterfront parks. Many times, I’ve walked along the shore and wondered what the city must look like from out there. This summer, I got to find out. Kayaking is an excellent way to get outside for fresh air and exercise as you practice social distancing. It’s also a sure-fire way to beat cabin fever and reminded me of why it’s so important that we preserve ecosystems like the Salish Sea.

Now, without further ado, here are three of my favorite spots to kayak around Tacoma:

Ruston Way

Two-mile scenic waterfront dotted with parks and beaches in Tacoma’s North End

Ruston Way was the first place we tried kayaking and it’s still our favorite spot. Ruston Way’s many parks and gently sloping beaches provide plenty of opportunities to launch. Parking is tight, meaning you’ll probably wind up carrying your kayaks across a busy road or down the sidewalk a ways, but generally, you don’t have to park too far from the water. Both Dickman Mill Park and Cummings Park offer great spots to put in. The water here is generally calm with some wakes from passing boats, but we had plenty of room to paddle just off shore. Within a few minutes, it felt like we were miles away from the bustle of the city.

Ruston Way’s industrial history means there’s a lot to explore. The remains of 38 piers are scattered along the shoreline. Once the home of Tacoma’s lumber mills, warehouses and copper smelters, these pilings and concrete ruins are now home to seagulls, loons and cormorants while seals play in the surf.

Thea Foss Waterway

1.5-mile inlet between downtown and the Port of Tacoma

Between the sight of the Murray-Morgan Bridge towering 60 feet above you, sailboats and yachts coming in and out of the marina, and the downtown Tacoma skyline, the Thea Foss Waterway is full of spectacular sights. We put in at Thea’s Park, located on Dock Street. There’s very limited parking, but there is a public dock here, making this the easiest place on the list to launch from (we didn’t even get our feet wet!). Because of the boat traffic, Thea Foss is a less leisurely place to paddle, but if you’re aware of your surroundings and steer clear of the larger vessels passing through the marina, there’s a lot to see and explore.

Titlow Beach

Scenic views of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in Tacoma’s West End

Titlow Beach was by far our most challenging kayak trip, but it was well worth the effort. While there’s plenty of parking at the park, you’ll need to carry your kayaks and gear across the train tracks and down a flight of stairs to reach the beach, which can be slippery at low tide. Unlike the more serene waters of Commencement Bay, the Tacoma Narrows are known for strong currents and can be dangerous if you stray too far from shore. The day we came was especially windy, which meant we had to contend with some pretty significant swells. Sticking close to the beach, we paddled north until we reached a point where we could see the Tacoma Narrows Bridge in the distance. We also enjoyed beautiful views of Gig Harbor and Fox Island. On a clear day, I suspect you could also spot the Olympic Mountains.

We got soaked paddling at Titlow Beach. It was cold and windy, but it was also a stunning reminder of how lucky we are to live in the Pacific Northwest, where we’re all just minutes away from nature.

Tips for Urban Kayakers

  • You don’t have to buy a kayak right away — there are plenty of places to rent kayaks to get a feel for the sport before you invest in your own gear.
  • Get an early start, especially on weekends and holidays, to find a good place to load and unload your gear and be prepared to fall back on Plan B if your first choice location is too busy.
  • Always wear a personal flotation device and be sure it fits properly.
  • Check the weather conditions and tide tables before you go. You don’t want to come back after a long afternoon of kayaking to discover that the beach where you put in is now underwater or find yourself battling the elements when a small craft advisory is in effect. Knowing the current weather conditions can also help you plan your route, so you can take advantage of a tailwind on the return trip.
  • Busy waterways can be hazardous and larger vessels may not be able to see you or change course to avoid a collision. Stay away from ferry routes and shipping lanes and always keep an eye out for approaching vessels.
  • Stay at least 300 yards from orcas and 100 yards from seal pups, if you encounter them on your excursions.

Are there other kayaking spots around the Tacoma area that I missed? Let me know what areas I should check out in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, filmmaker and paddling hobbyist in Tacoma, WA. His writing has been featured in Creative Colloquy and Grit City Magazine. Follow him on Twitter and subscribe to the mailing list today.

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