Top Waterfront Piers
Washington and Oregon offer numerous fascinating piers, boardwalks and wharfs. Some are serene and quiet spots made for watching sunsets and ships passing by, whereas others are bustling with shops and restaurants. Read our picks for the best ones to visit in the Pacific Northwest.
Hearing the waves lapping on a wooden dock and measuring time by the boats passing by offer an irreplaceable experience — one that has the power to bring about a joyful calm. And while sandy beaches and rocky coastline are pleasant spots to glimpse the magic of land meeting water, it’s the wharfs, piers and boardwalks that offer the most accessibility and best chance to experience a snapshot of these treasured waterfront communities.
Welcoming faraway travelers and those who spend their days working on deck, some of these structures predate railroads and have weathered more than a century’s worth of history. Many offer the chance to go fishing or crabbing from shore, and others have designated launch sites for boats, kayaks and standup paddleboards. In their vicinity, you usually find a bench perfectly positioned for watching a color-soaked sunset dance across the sky and reflect on the water. Some are the heart of community activity, attracting eateries, attractions and beloved events. Others offer a quiet, rural haven where countless seamen have escaped stormy weather.
“For every pier, there’s a story,” says Gary Koz Mraz, the author of Piers of the West Coast.
“Every time you visit a pier, you’ve opened another door and walked into a whole different reality that is unique to that place.”
In Washington and Oregon, even the smallest cities along the Pacific Ocean have a way of attracting people to its shores. But some towns are home to wharfs and piers that have developed into attractions that top must-do lists.
After visiting dozens of piers from California to Washington, Mraz says the highlight of his book is the wharf in Astoria, Oregon. Near the mouth of the Columbia River, the town is home to a set of piers that serve as a great place to sit and watch boats setting off to sea and coming back to port. It’s also a spot where you can get a coffee at an over-water cafe or tour the Hanthorn Cannery Museum, a fish processing plant that dates to 1875.
Plus, you’re near the stunning 4-mile Astoria-Melger Bridge that connects Oregon to Washington, the riverfront trolley, Astoria Column and Columbia River Maritime Museum. “It was the best of everything I visited,” Mraz says. “It’s just a great destination.”
Just south in Newport, Oregon, find a mix of piers and boardwalks along the Historic Bayfront where fishing boats deliver their freshest catches directly to the markets and string of nearby restaurants. You can fish and crab right from the docks, all while looking out at the seafoam green arches of the Yaquina Bay Bridge, one of the most iconic bridges along Highway 101. Kids and kids-at-heart should prepare to be entertained by the bark of resident sea lions who post up on the floating docks.
But it’s not only the ocean that draws people. One of the top attractions in the Pacific Northwest’s biggest city is the Seattle Waterfront, a collection of piers along Puget Sound that has something for everyone. This is where you find the Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Great Ferris Wheel and the launch site for several cruises and ferries — a perfect way to take in or visit the many surrounding islands.
You can take a stroll to admire the public art at Olympic Sculpture Park, meander the stalls and sample delicious foods at Pike Place Market, or take in a game at nearby stadiums for the Sounders, Mariners and Seahawks.
With bays, lakes and canals surrounding the city, Seattle has more than one waterfront area to enjoy. But one that stands out for its pleasant visit is the Ballard Locks. Straddled by two parks to the north and south and with Salmon Bay Bridge to the west, the area is a flurry of activity.
There is a waterfront walkway that extends across the locks, a botanical garden, fish ladder and museum. Even if your visit isn’t timed to see the locks in action, there is enough to do and see in the area to make a trip worthwhile.
Small Coastal Charm
Mraz, a motorcycle journalist, says that standing on a pier gives him the same thrill as riding a motorcycle — all without having to get into the water or deal with the sand. “The energy, the sounds, the wind, the motion of the waves thundering below me,” Mraz says. “It was a very powerful experience emotionally.”
The small towns that dot the coastline, Mraz points out, are worth the detour for their flavor of adventure. For example, Oregon’s longest pier is in Garibaldi, a small town outside of Tillamook. The 700-foot wooden walkway stretches out into the calm waters of the protected bay, making it a prime spot for a relaxing stroll to spot pelicans, casting a rod to catch your dinner or curling up with a blanket to watch the sunrise.
Boasting a population of around 1,500, Depoe Bay in Oregon’s Central Coast claims to have the “World’s smallest natural navigable harbor.” As advertised, there isn’t much of a wharf aside from the Coast Guard Station, but the town is known for being an excellent vantage point for spotting migratory grey whales.
In Washington, Port Angeles, a town popular for its ferries to Canada’s Victoria Island has a pier worthy of an extended stay. Littered with sculptures and topped with a tower that visitors can climb for a higher vantage point, Port Angeles City Pier offers a wonderful setting for an outing. Lucky visitors catch sight of the resident orcas breaching in the distance or time their visit with one of the many festivals the pier hosts.
Plus, visitors to Port Angeles who want to pair a fun day at the pier with a nice drive to a vista will appreciate the city’s Hurricane Ridge Road, which rises roughly 5,000 feet over 18 miles. “It’s nothing but twisty, windy roads, but when you get to the top, there are spectacular views,” Mraz says.
Stroll the Waterfront
Waterways attract more than piers, restaurants and community events — they’re also often the place you find a peaceful path to move alongside the current. Walks along waterways can be found in Oregon cities like Portland, Bend and Eugene. The same is true for Tacoma, Chelan and Aberdeen in Washington.
The South Bay Trail in Bellingham features an over-water boardwalk and a shoreline path to create 2 miles of pedestrian-only enjoyment between Bellingham’s business district and Fairhaven. Along the way, visitors spot Grace Statue, a human-shaped metal statue perched on a rocky outcropping.
Across the Sound is the Bremerton Boardwalk, a short walkway that features historic markers and sculptures. The route can easily be extended to include a walk over the nearby Manette Bridge. History and naval buffs should plan accordingly, because the area boasts the Puget Sound Navy Museum and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, with enough floating military machinery to keep enthusiasts occupied for days.
History enthusiasts also may enjoy the Promenade, a 1.5-mile beachfront walkway in Seaside, Oregon, which recently celebrated its centennial. Hugging the flat, sandy shores of the Pacific Ocean, the “Prom” features colorful stores, seafood restaurants and an assortment of attractions including the Seaside Aquarium, Carousel Mall and the Lewis & Clark Salt Cairn.
Farther south, Bandon’s boardwalk offers a serene setting to amble alongside the water while peeking at the public art, sunset or to grab a bite at the many nearby eateries. The city is special for its view of numerous sea stacks, many of which have playful names such as Wizard’s Hat and Cat and Kitten Rock.
If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, don’t miss its piers, wharfs and boardwalks. “There are so many cool things happening at these places,” Mraz says. “We tend not to think about them, but there’s such a richness there.”
–Written by Emily Gillespie, last updated in October 2022.
–Top photo is of the Statue of Grace along the Broadwalk at Boulevard Park, Bellingham. By Paul Conrad/Alamy