Touring the Port of Tacoma

Puget Sound's two largest seaports offer public tours, and a glimpse at big changes ahead.

Touring the Port of Tacoma
Husky Terminal, one of five major terminals at the Port of Tacoma. (Cara Kuhlman/Future Tides)

The Port of Tacoma and Port of Seattle (which collaborate through the Northwest Seaport Alliance) own and operate thousands of acres along the shores of Puget Sound. They are a major gateway for goods and connect ship, rail and truck routes.

You might often drive, or boat, past the ports from a distance. There are cranes, stacked containers, layers of history and commercial development. They don't scream “come visit me!!” but that's exactly what you can do.

Both of Puget Sound's major ports offer tours, more details below, as well as public points of access. It's a chance to explore the scale and complexity of these local seaports.

Pacific Northwest ports are continually evolving. After touring both Seattle and Tacoma, I noticed a few trends hinting at the big changes currently taking place and where these seaports are headed:

  • Bigger ships, bigger cranes and deeper harbors. If those container ships look big now, they'll eventually look gargantuan as the industry aims to transport more goods with every transit.

    Container ship size is measured by TEU, essentially its max capacity for 20' long containers. The largest containerships in the world are, for now, about 24,000 TEUs. The Port of Tacoma can currently accommodate a 14,000 TEU ship. After the harbor deepening project, they'll be able to accommodate 18,000 TEU ships.
  • Automation is happening but people are still involved throughout the process. From the ships to the stevedores, longshore workers, port employees, truck drivers, nearby businesses and further down the line, a lot of people's work intersects with port operations. Labor unions are also negotiating the role automation can play. And systems are limited by interoperability, or all the players using different software.
  • Habitat restoration is underway as the ports try to balance the demands of industry and waterfront habitats. While there are big plans afoot for how the ports will reduce their ongoing environmental impact, habitat restoration projects are undoing their past work. You can see visible changes, such as along the Duwamish Waterway and Lower Wapato Creek.
  • Major capital projects are underway. From receiving big federal grants to expanding cruise or container ship capacity to new headquarters, both ports are investing heavily in the future.

Photos from the Port of Tacoma public tour:

Large rectangular boxes stacked in a parking lot with train tracks and a fence in the foreground.
Shipping containers near the Blair Waterway. Twelve ocean carriers share space on vessels through three major alliances. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
Tall yellow and orange shipping cranes lined up behind shipping containers.
Various sized cranes along the Blair Waterway. Note the train tracks in the foreground, the railroad extends all the way out the dock. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
Three trucks loaded with shipping containers wait in a line near an intersection, large blue cranes are in the background.
Trucks waiting to enter Husky Terminal, which recently received millions in federal funding. Each container is scanned at multiple points, sending data to trucking companies and terminal operations. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
A tall blue vehicle with a lift to pick up shipping containers.
A straddle carrier used to move shipping containers around the terminal. The operator sits approximately 40' up in the air. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
Three large ships with red hulls, black decks and white pilot houses in a body of water surrounded by land.
Ships anchored in Commencement Bay, a naturally deep harbor. Across the bay is a grain terminal, one of the region's major exports. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
Half a dozen railroad tracks next to each other on a large concrete area with shipping containers and cranes in the background.
There are train tracks everywhere across the port. Tacoma Rail, owned by the city, operates these railways and transfers freight to transcontinental rail lines like BNSF. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
A stream winds through an area with low grass, some tree stumps and young trees.
In partnership with the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, the port's Lower Wapato Creek Habitat project re-established a stream and wetland habitat on approx. 20 acres. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
A parking lot full of cars with a magenta container ship partially-loaded with containers in the background.
Teslas parked on the Puyallup Tribe's property along the Blair Waterway. Approx. 400,000 autos are imported via the Port of Tacoma each year. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)
Large yellow tractors fill a parking lot with cranes behind and railroad tracks in the foreground.
Tractors at the Port of Tacoma. Along with autos, equipment like this is "roll-on/roll-off" or "RoRo" cargo because it's driven on and off the ships by longshore workers. (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)

A large and tall blue ship at dock, in the foreground is a parking lot with various vehicles.
A "RoRo" ship designed for wheeled cargo like autos, construction equipment, etc. This type of cargo is a major business area for the Port of Tacoma (Future Tides/Cara Kuhlman)

Take a tour

Port of Tacoma offers free public tours via bus throughout the year. They do tours via boat one day in the summer and have a virtual tour option. For little ones obsessed with big vehicles, they also host an annual "Touch a Truck" event.

Port of Seattle offers a free "Port U Adult Education Series" which includes separate tours that each focus on a different facet of the port's operations and properties including cargo, the airport, Duwamish River and Lake Washington Ship Canal.

In 2023, this series was held during the month of September. Visit the port's events calendar or subscribe to their "Community Events and Programs" email newsletter to watch for 2024 dates. They also have a self-guided walking tour that directs you to two public viewpoints overlooking the container terminals.

Have other maritime tour recommendations? Send 'em my way!

Update: Port of Everett offers public tours too! Their current tour offerings are by boat during the summer months. Registration opens May 1 and is $7/person.

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