Ever Wonder What It’s Like to Live at Salmon Beach?

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

  1. The two or three times I’ve gone down there I got a lot of side eyes, a few “what are you doing here”’s and a “you need to leave now.” As such I find the likelihood of a Salmon Beacher willing to chat unlikely unless it’s on neutral ground, but it’s interesting to learn that I suppose I was trespassing if it’s all private land. Still kind of a bummer that such a beautiful and fun location for a walk/beach picnic is so guarded, but again, they are peoples homes and they’re probably wary of strangers and messes they may leave behind…

    1. The “looks” you received were indeed because you were trespassing. Salmon Beach residents feel strongly about their privacy and property rights. On the other hand, many of them love sharing about this most special place. My parents owned a house there from 1972 to 2016 and my dad, now 91 loves to talk about and share photos of the many wonderful years he and my mom spent there. My adult children will also gladly share the adventures of “growing up” at Salmon Beach. My daughter’s band, Bear Grass has released a song “Sail Out” which she wrote that is based on those years.

  2. My wife Judy and I bought our cabin (51?) even before we were married ~ 1968 when we were 18 and 19. WHAT MEMORIES. There was the sunny afternoon with Tom Robinson running down the path yelling “BUCKETS, BUCKETS …” Knowing Tom, we thought he was yelling something beginning with an F. Turned out to be a cabin on fire about 5 cabins south of us. We saved most of the cabin. And many more such stories

    1. As far as I know, the city just won’t issue permits for any new construction. There are cabins for sale occasionally but no empty lots.

      1. Hello Sierra,
        So in your opinion, pretty much a waste of money if I was to locate and purchase a lot on Salmon Beach since the city isn’t ever allowing new construction?

        Thank you

    2. The city did indeed issue new permits for two new cabins in about 2010 or 2011. These cabins were built on lots where the previous cabins were pushed off their pilings and out into the Narrows. The cabins and all the contents were later located underwater over near the Tahlequah Ferry Dock on Vashon. Fortunately, no one was in the cabins at the time so there was no loss of life. There have been numerous slides and considerable damages over the decades.

      For further information on the dangers and issues facing Salmon Beach, including the governing body, see this link, it’s very informative: https://www.investorspropertyservices.com/public-safety-announcement-salmon-beach-tacoma-wa/

  3. I can’t really say with certainty. The information I got for this story came from only a handful of people and it was all relatively informal. I’d encourage you to reach out to the planning department at the city or maybe a real estate agent who knows the area.

  4. I spent my childhood summers here with friends who owned a cabin here back in the 70’s. it was a great place for kids to explore and run amock and a great place for adults to do the same basically. Lots of hippies and colorful people, also the paths down the cliff were a total drag to have to go up and down, a really GREAT workout. I loved it and if I had the money I would own a weekend place here, it’s a magical place to chill out.

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