Short Stops

The Fighting Forts of Puget Sound

A single day trip to Forts Casey, Worden, and Flagler bounces from history to nature and back again.

By Allison Williams November 14, 2022

A ferry links Whidbey Island's Fort Casey to Port Townsend and its two other forts on the mainland. 

If you were to invade Seattle, how would you do it? Until airplanes were a thing, enemies would have sailed right through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then headed through Puget Sound. That's why military installations were erected there, today transformed into three historical parks that serve as scenic playgrounds steeped in history, nature, and arts, plus a dose of spookiness.

Of course, it's not merely Seattle that Forts Worden, Casey, and Flagler protected; the Puget Sound Naval Station was formed in Bremerton in 1891, and the government quickly realized that it better protect its valuables. Sites were selected on Whidbey Island (Casey), as well as just north of Port Townsend (Worden) and on Marrowstone Island south of the city (Flagler), forming defenses from every angle. The trio earned the nickname "the Triangle of Fire."

The forts came to include buildings for housing and training, big fields, and even one balloon hanger. But today their signature remains are of the batteries, cement fortifications for giant weapons. Think a 12-inch gun doesn't sound that big? The 12-inch disappearing guns of Fort Worden weighed more than 100,000 pounds and had a range of more than 10 miles. Soldiers practiced mixing the powder for the giant gun and aiming shells into the Sound.

Of course, the newly created forts weren't much use in the next major conflict, World War I, whose battlefields were half a world away. Besides being used for training, the forts saw some of their big machinery shipped overseas. Though eventually converted to include some anti-aircraft weapons, all three were deactivated in the decade or so after World War II. In the following decades, they were sold to the state, which turned them into state parks. 

Today Fort Worden, the one in Port Townsend, hums with the most activity. As a conference center, its austere buildings host various gatherings and more than a few weddings. A museum sits on one end, a marine science center on the other. Several campgrounds fill to the brim all summer, and the old officer's houses are available to rent.

Centrum, an arts organization, holds music, theater, and visual arts classes, everything from a ukulele workshop to jazz performances, and Seattle Theater Group launched the Thing music festival there. More than 10 miles of hiking trails wind through the grassy bluffs and thick forest. If any of it looks familiar, that might be because the 1982 Richard Gere movie An Officer and a Gentleman was filmed at Fort Worden.

Just south, Fort Flagler hides at the tip of Marrowstone Island, linked by bridge to the mainland via the still-active military installation of Naval Magazine Indian Island. (It's where the navy loads munitions and other supplies on and off aircraft carriers, ships, and submarines, so it's unsurprisingly not open for the public beyond the road to Marrowstone.) Deer saunter through Fort Flagler like they own the place, and in a way they do; it's host to much less activity, though also has a campground. Seabirds usually outnumber visitors, and a long, straight beach traces one side of the park, littered with bleached driftwood and often empty. 

The historic buildings of Fort Flagler are available as vacation rentals, ideal for turn-of-the-century military cosplay.

A short ferry ride across Admiralty Inlet, Fort Casey sits on the side of Whidbey Island. Today it's part of the Central Whidbey Island Historic District, a massive swath of the island with more than 100 historic structures. The stately batteries here serve as a ghost tour spot near Halloween. The Pacific Northwest Trail, a 1,200-mile hiking route from Glacier National Park to the Pacific Ocean—kind of like the PCT, only more rugged—goes through Fort Casey.

The three forts have some similarities, like big grassy parade grounds ideal for kite flying. Each has a scenic lighthouse. But visiting more than one on a trip means a long beach walk at Fort Flagler, and then a beer at the guardhouse-turned-restaurant at Fort Worden. Fort Casey's raised walkways and many staircases feel like an M. C. Escher illustration come to life. The parking fee is covered by a Discover Pass, $30 per year or $10 a day. 

No one ever invaded Puget Sound by water after Washington became a state, so in some ways the Triangle of Fire never really got to serve its purpose. But the trio of sentinels gets to do something else entirely—provide a glimpse of military history that has little to do with conflict and death.  

Fort Worden, Fort Flagler, and Fort Casey Historical State Parks

Port Townsend, Marrowstone Island, and Whidbey Island
Travel time from Seattle: 1 hour, 30 minutes to 2 hours

Share
Show Comments