DES MOINES, Wash. — One of the best-kept secrets on Puget Sound is this beach-side community halfway between Seattle and Tacoma.
A short turn off Interstate 5 — 15 miles south of Seattle and an equal distance north of Tacoma — Des Moines has a shoreline 4½ miles long, as well as one of the largest small-boat marinas and two of the finest seafood restaurants on the sound. It also has a ¾-mile strip of small shops and cafes, a fascinating little college-run aquarium, a curious national historic district and the most visited state park on the sound.
To reach this suburban town of 30,000 people, I turned off I-5 a couple of exits south of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. I crossed Pacific Highway (state Highway 99) and meandered west down Kent-Des Moines Road (state Highway 516) just two miles to Marine View Drive, Des Moines’ main drag.
Although Des Moines celebrated only the 50th anniversary of its incorporation two months ago (June 17), it’s been a community for much longer than that. It was first homesteaded in 1867, and its streets were platted in 1889 by settlers from Iowa who gave it the name of their land-locked hometown. The Iowa city’s name honored French Jesuit priests (“moines”); neither French nor Jesuits established a strong presence on Puget Sound.
A mural at South Marina Park, where weekly farmers markets are held Saturdays through October, depicts many episodes in the city’s history, including the various seagoing vessels that served the community before completion of the first road in 1916. Titled “Spirit of Des Moines,” the wall-size painting was created in 2008 by artists Anita Corby and Katherine Caughey. Fishing and logging fueled the economy during Des Moines’ pioneer years; the growth of Seattle and Tacoma led the city to establish its own local government a half-century ago.
Like most visitors, I imagine, I was immediately drawn to the marina. It extends a good half-mile north from Anthony’s HomePort — my favorite of any restaurant in the Seattle-based group — to a two-block-long concrete fishing pier. More than 800 vessels, including sailboats, motor yachts and other pleasure craft are moored here, most of them in a series of boathouses.
On moonlit evenings, dozens of people may be found jigging for squid off the pier. To build its artificial reef, intended to encourage a diversity of sea life, engineers poured 30 barge-loads of concrete over more than 36,000 tires and 200 porcelain toilets, sinks and bathtubs. Almost any time of any day, anglers of all ages are casting lines for ling cod, rockfish and other saltwater denizens. In front of the nearby offices of the marina harbormaster, a wooden sign, with a carved salmon on top, indicates the direction of other Washington maritime communities.
Hillside homes rise above the harbor and Des Moines Creek, which gradually falls down the slope of a 400-foot bluff through a park corridor on the north side of the marina. Near its outlet, at Des Moines Beach Park, is the Covenant Beach National Historic District, location of the community’s original homestead and, in the 1890s, a lumber mill.
In 1931, the property was purchased by the Evangelical Covenant Church as a children’s Bible camp for its largely Swedish-immigrant membership. It remained a church camp until 1986. Although the original church burned down in 1956, a small cluster of redwood buildings remains, including a main lodge still used by the city of Des Moines for youth summer camps and year-round recreation programs. A $2.6 million structural repair has targeted the 1934 dining hall, which straddles Des Moines Creek, and adjacent buildings closed after Seattle’s 2001 earthquake and unrelated creek flooding.
Despite its extremely limited hours, hard-core history buffs may want to plan a visit to the Des Moines Historical Society Museum. Lodged in an early-20th-century Odd Fellows Hall that at various times has served as a school, a city hall, a fire station, and a police station and jail, the museum contains thousands of photographs and historic artifacts, as well as a permanent maritime exhibit. But it’s open only on summer Saturday afternoons and by appointment.
The one feature always visible is a 1953 chamber of commerce sign by once-noted artist Robert De Zordo: “Shop and Save! in Des Moines, the Town on the Sound.”
The museum is a half-block west of Marine View Drive South, downtown Des Moines’ main thoroughfare. Points of interest here include Butler’s Bar & Grill, which opened last year in an auto-repair shop first built in 1935, and the Des Moines Cinema, a classic single-screen 1947 movie theater that today specializes in inexpensive family-oriented movies; they stand next door to one another between 223rd and 225th streets. Corky Cellars (22511 Marine View Drive S.) is one of the Puget Sound area’s best wine shops; the Spice Islands Trading Co. (22307 Marine View Drive S.) is an excellent import store; Rolling Thunder (22231 Marine View Drive S.) has a fine reputation among Harley-Davidson, Indian and Ural motorcycle owners.
No building in Des Moines is more prominent, however, than Landmark on the Sound (23660 Marine View Drive S.), built in 1927 as the palatial Masonic Home of Washington. Its panoramic view of Puget Sound, with a backdrop of Maury and Vashon islands and the craggy Olympic Mountains, made it a resoundingly popular retirement residence. Purchased last year by new owners, it is being converted into a luxury senior community and certainly something to catch the eye of passers-by.
Saltwater State Park
I may never have noticed Landmark, however, had I not been driving south on Marine View Drive to Saltwater State Park.
This forested park embraces the lower drainage of salmon-rich McSorley Creek, as well as a quarter-mile of rocky shoreline. Historically a favored location for clam digging by Duwamish and Muckleshoot Indians, Saltwater symbolized a peace offering between feuding Seattle and Tacoma when it was established in 1933 after a joint urban fundraising campaign. Several park buildings were built in 1935 and 1936 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and today it is the most visited state park anywhere on Puget Sound.
Camping, hiking and ocean fishing are popular activities at Saltwater. Fishing is not permitted in the creek: A stream-recovery program — launched in 1992 — has resulted in the re-establishment of a spawning coho salmon population.
Saltwater is especially popular with scuba divers. Puget Sound is one of the world’s richest marine habitats, not for variety of bright colors, as might be seen in the tropics, but for diversity of species. More than 200 species of fish live in these waters, as well as the planet’s largest octopuses and its biggest and fastest sea stars. Visitors may see its sea birds, harbor seals and orcas (killer whales), but rarely do they have an opportunity to view the sound’s rare crabs and sea slugs.
The reason for this diversity — as I learned from Bob Maplestone, retired director of Highline Community College’s Marine Science and Technology Center — is the nature of Puget Sound’s underwater environment. The water is cold (45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit) and turbulent, Maplestone said, and the twice-daily tidal exchange assures constant refreshment of marine nutrients.
Divers are well-served both at Saltwater and at Redondo Beach, a couple of miles farther south. The state park has a designated dive area with marked underwater trails and a shallow artificial reef, and there’s a scuba rinse area on shore. Redondo also has man-made reefs, as well as small boat wrecks. A pipe obstacle course challenges novice divers. A useful publication for underwater adventurers, published by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, is “Beneath Emerald Waters: Scuba Diving Locations in Puget Sound.”
I met Maplestone, a former Oregon State University track athlete from Wales, at the MAST aquarium on the boardwalk at Redondo Beach. Highline, which has its main campus on a Des Moines hilltop, opened its new educational facility last summer on a 260-foot pier that extends into the sound. A classroom, laboratories and public displays on marine science are contained within the main building, next to a street-side boardwalk.
But MAST’s public attraction is its aquarium, which exhibits more than 80 species of marine life specific to Puget Sound. During a brief visit, I saw sea stars, sea slugs, sea urchins, sea pens; anemones, sponges, nudibranchs, octopuses; and fair number of fish, mollusks and crustaceans. “People who have lived here for many years see the colors and don’t believe they can all be from Puget Sound,” Maplestone said.
More than 300 gallons of saltwater is pumped through the aquarium’s tanks each minute, Maplestone said, and continually recycled back through the adjacent sound waters.
Located next door to the popular Salty’s at Redondo restaurant, the aquarium is open to the general public from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday, year-round. Every second week, a speakers’ series, “Science on the Sound,” brings oceanographers and other naturalists to MAST’s seaside classroom.
It’s still one of the best-kept secrets on Puget Sound.
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visiting Des Moines, WA
In two weeks: Coos Bay
• Gas, round-trip, 640 miles @ $2.75/gallon $70.40
• Lunch, en route $6
• Lodging (two nights), Marina Inn, Des Moines $159.53*
• Dinner, Applebee’s, Tukwila $20
• Breakfast, Starbucks, Des Moines $7
• Lunch, Anthony’s HomePort, Des Moines $22.69
• Dinner, Salty’s on Redondo, Des Moines $31.40
• Breakfast, Starbucks, Des Moines $7
• Lunch, en route $5.25
Prices include taxes and tips
*I stayed at no charge with my son in Seattle.
If you go
All locations are in Washington
• Seattle Southside Visitor Center, 14220 Interurban Ave. S., Suite 130, Seattle; 206-575-2489, 877-885-9452, www.seattlesouthside.com.
• Garden Suites, 22845 Pacific Hwy. S., Des Moines; 206-878-3020, www.gardensuitesairport .com. Rates from $54.95.
• Marina Inn, 22300 Seventh Ave. S., Des Moines; 206-824-9920, www.marinainn.org. Rates from $69.
• SeaTac Valu Inn, 22246 Pacific Hwy. S., Des Moines; 206-878-8427, 866-498-2489, www.valuinnseatac.com. Rates from $45.99.
• Anthony’s HomePort, 421 S. 227th St., Des Moines; 206-824-1947, www.anthonys.com. Lunch and dinner. Moderate.
• Butler’s Bar & Grill, 22341 Marine View Drive S., Des Moines; 206-429-3709, www.butlerbar.com. Dinner. Moderate.
• Salty’s at Redondo, 28201 Redondo Beach Drive S., Des Moines; 253-946-0636, www .saltys.com. Lunch and dinner. Moderate to expensive.
• Wally’s Chowder House, 22531 Marine View Drive S., Des Moines; 206-878-8140. Lunch and dinner. Budget to moderate.
• Des Moines Historical Society Museum, 730 S. 225th St., Des Moines; 206-824-5226, www.dmhs.org.
• Marine Science and Technology Center, Highline Community College, 28207 Redondo Beach Drive S., Des Moines; 206-878-3710, http://flightline.highline.edu/ mast.