By Linda Schnell
For eager travelers wishing to find a rainbow of sea glass and history, one of the best-kept secrets is exploring around the “Emerald City” of Seattle, Washington. From Alki Beach in West Seattle to renowned Glass Beach in Port Townsend, there are plenty of nearby options to fulfill beachcombing desires.
Seattle sits along Elliott Bay in Puget Sound. The area is known for technology, tourism, seafood, coffee, craft beer, grunge rock, aircraft development, a busy shipping port, plus the largest ferry system in the United States. With a history of glacial changes during the Ice Age, indigenous cultures, thirsty lumberjacks and fishermen, brickworks opening in the 1850s, population growth after the 1889 Seattle Great Fire, and shipbuilding, there are plenty of opportunities to find unique treasures that have been swirling in salty waters for over 100 years.
While I was working in high tech, a diagnosis of osteoarthritis and psoriatic arthritis came along with hip replacements and ongoing inflammation. Like tumbling sea glass, living with arthritis can be a rough journey. The top advice from doctors: “Reduce stress.” Towards this end, my time has been delightfully spent by the sea for fresh air, relaxing walks, and beachcombing. The following article refers to more obvious finds that have risen to shore and require minimal effort to fetch. In the areas mentioned below, there are also people digging and sifting through pebbles with pleasure.
Plan to visit beaches before low tide and search where there are piles of pebbles, stones, rocks, and boulders. It’s important to note that being prepared with tide schedules, comfortable clothing layers, and sturdy shoes will greatly improve the chances of finding special mementos.
Take a short drive or water taxi to Alki Beach in West Seattle where you’ll most likely find a few pieces of white or brown sea glass while sitting on a log enjoying the view. History of the area includes dumping of local trash at Alki Point, brickworks, an amusement park from 1907–1931, Navy maneuvers, and shipwrecks. It’s a unique setting as the difference in tide line between high-to-low tides can be ten feet or more, providing shards ample movement across shoreline rocks for smoothing.
Sea glass finds are primarily frosted, under ½ inch long, and of craft quality. Larger pieces of white and milk glass originating from housewares appear, as well as browns from beer bottles including Rainier Beer, which was brewed in Washington until the state enacted Prohibition in 1915. Alki Beach is in a residential area with restaurants and free street parking. As locals warm to fires on the beach, you may also see gnarly bonfire glass.
All shades of green and blue can be found, including classic seafoam green from Coca-Cola bottles, lime green from lemon-lime soda bottles, dark green from wine bottles, aquas from insulators, and cobalt blues from medicine bottles. Most pieces of lavender, or sun purple, look whiter when wet. You may also be lucky to find rarer grey, purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, and UV green Depression Era glass.
Along with sea glass, there are lovely pieces of sea pottery, small shells, interesting wishing stones, and rocks, including agates, calcite, and jadeite. Native American artifacts such as arrowheads may be seen by a keen eye. If found, please return artifacts to the Duwamish Longhouse and Cultural Center in West Seattle.
Sea Glass Beach in Port Townsend
The famous Sea Glass Beach in Port Townsend is an approximate two-hour drive or one-hour ferry ride away from the Seattle, Elliott Bay waterfront. Glass Beach is on the other side of downtown from the ferry terminal, and parking is free at North Beach Park next to Fort Worden State Park.
Trucks used to back up to the end of the bluff and dump the town’s trash. Here you’ll find larger shards of frosted sea glass in similar colors with higher chances of jewelry quality. While walking along, sea glass, pottery, and colorful stones may seem bigger and brighter than those from Alki Beach.
Planning is essential for the five-and-a-half-mile round-trip walk—longer if you zig-zag—with exceptionally rocky sections. Some areas of the beach are thinner requiring an eye on the tide. Approach the start of Glass Beach from North Beach Park as the southwest side may be private property.
While in Port Townsend, see quaint Victorian homes on the way back to downtown for restaurants, boutique hotels, and shopping. It’s no surprise Fodor’s Travel designated this place as one of “America’s Best Small Towns.”
There are over 170 islands and reefs in the San Juan Island Chain, a few dozen of which are inhabited. In general, there are fewer sea glass finds as there have been fewer inhabitants.
From downtown Seattle, take a ferry ride to San Juan and Orcas Islands, or drive one and a half hours north to Fidalgo, Whidbey, and Camano Islands.
The best beachcombing success will be along the west coasts, especially at Rosario Beach and Deception Pass State Park between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands. All these islands have parks, hotels, and restaurants to enjoy along with soothing water views.
While in the Seattle area, also consider experiencing:
- Seattle Center, which includes the 605-foot Space Needle built for the 1962 World’s Fair, Chihuly Glass Garden, Museum of Pop Culture, and new Climate Pledge Arena for ice hockey and events opening October 2021
- Pike Place Market to watch a fish toss, eat fresh seafood, visit the first Starbucks coffee house, plus shopping for flowers and crafts
- Professional sporting events including Mariners baseball, Storm women’s basketball, Seahawks football, Sounders soccer, and Kraken ice hockey (inaugural season in 2021-2022)
- Boeing Future of Flight in Everett and the Museum of Flight
- Craft breweries downtown and wineries in nearby Woodinville
- Orca whale watching and seaplane tours
- Lavender farms in Sequim during the summer
- Tulip farms in Mt. Vernon in April
- Hiking around Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier
Before leaving town, consider a rendezvous with travel mates and possible new beachcombing friends at the top of the Space Needle to celebrate your visit. When returning home, you’ll be carrying gems from around the “Emerald City” with you.
Hear from other beachcombers in the Pacific Northwest:
- A sisterly sea glass adventure
- Olympic Peninsula Odyssey
- Port Townsend’s Glass Beach
- Beachcombing in the Pacific Northwest: Fossil Concretions
- Beachcomber Interview: Alan Rammer
- All in a Day’s Work: Japanese Glass Fishing Floats
- Boat and Float Day
- Pacific Road Trip
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2021 issue.