The term “hidden gem” gets thrown around a lot but Salmon Beach really exemplifies it in every way. It’s one of the most wonderful parts of Tacoma and it’s about as hidden as you can get while still being in the city.
“It feels like you’re living in Tacoma while not really being in Tacoma,” says third generation Salmon Beacher, Galen Turner.
Even though the 82 homes occupy almost a mile of Tacoma’s western shore, a lot of people know little or nothing about Salmon Beach. The northernmost property sits just downhill from Ft. Nisqually, while the last cabin is just around the corner from the southern entrance to the Nelson Bennett train tunnel.
The only place you can get a full view of Salmon Beach — aside from by boat — is from the Narrows Bridge two miles away. A few of the turnouts along Five Mile Drive offer partial glimpses but unless you’re actively looking for it, it’s pretty easy to miss.
Since the land is all private property (including the parking lots at the top of the cliff), you really need to know someone who lives there in order to get an up-close look. As such, few people in Tacoma have ever actually been there. Those who have often recollect it in a hazy, “Oh, yea. I think I went to a party there once” kind of memory.
Salmon Beach is the kind of place that will either make you immediately fall in love with it or gain a newfound appreciation for amenities like off-street parking. It’s an amazing thing to live literally on the water but it comes at a price.
“It sucks to get to the top of the stairs and realize you forgot something,” Galen laments.
There are a couple different paths and stairways down to the cabins but none of them are easy. If residents want to get anything bigger than an armload into their cabins, it either takes a team effort or a boat from the Pt. Defiance boat launch. Think of it like living in the basement of a 12 story building with no elevator while the rest of the world is on the top floor.
The whole development started around the turn of the last century as a collection of fishing shacks and temporary homes for the train tunnel workers. Through the 1920s, the cabins were used for recreation and hangouts for Tacoma’s undesirables. In the 1950s Salmon Beach was officially incorporated and it has gone through a few administrative changes since then. As it stands now, no new cabins are allowed and modification of existing structures is tightly restricted by the city. At least one of the cabins, #97, is a Registered National Historic Place.
The whole place is reminiscent of a Disneyland attraction and the residents are as interesting as the decorations adorning the walkway. It’s the kind of place you’d expect to find Mark Twain or Jack Kerouac hanging out if they were still around. It takes a unique disposition to live there and if you ever get a chance to sit down and talk to a Salmon Beacher, it will be well worth your time.
Images by Sierra Hartman