Nestled between Seattle and Tacoma, Saltwater State Park is a small but gorgeous patch of coastal forest. The park is a surprisingly quiet place park where hikers, birders, paddlers, and scuba-divers alike can take in the tremendous natural beauty that the Puget Sound has to offer. Saltwater State Park, located in Des Moines, WA, was established in 1926, long before construction cranes filled the Seattle skyline. The hiking trails, small bridges, and several park buildings were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.
Saltwater State Park is comprised of 86 acres of dense, second-growth forest set right on the Puget Sound. The park features 1,445 feet of sandy shoreline with a paved walking path, plus lots of grassy areas, picnic tables, restrooms, and a sand volleyball court. McSorley Creek winds through the entire park, and the upper end near the camping area can be explored via several short but scenic hiking trails.
The main draws at Saltwater State Park are the large day-use area at the beach and the special world that lies underwater just offshore. An artificial reef structure is submerged directly off the beach and has become a thriving marine preserve. You'll see excited scuba divers carrying their gear up and down the beach all year round. Sea kayaking is also popular in this relatively calm section of the sound.
The park hosts a campground that is open from May through September each year. Most sites are suited to small vehicles and tents, but some larger sites exist for trailers and RVs. There are showers and a dump station, but no hookups at the campsites. Reservations at Saltwater's campsite can be made up to a year in advance. Since the park is so close to two urban hubs, spots can fill up quickly, so it's a good idea to book a spot if you can!
Saltwater State Park is located right off of I-5, just about 30 minutes south of Seattle and 20 minutes north of Tacoma. All roads to and within the park are paved and well-maintained. You need not worry about any steep, narrow, or winding sections.
The biggest hazard when driving to Saltwater is, in fact... other drivers. Though the park itself offers a great getaway from the bustling city, the areas immediately surrounding Saltwater State Park are quite busy. Turning or merging on major, traffic-filled roads can be stressful, especially if you're traveling with a large rig or trailer. The area's frequent rain doesn't help much either. One benefit of the park's urban location is that there's plenty to do right outside the park as well. Restaurants, shops, museums, and more are all just a quick drive away.
The park's campground features mostly back-in spots, though a few pull-throughs, suitable for larger rigs, can be found here too. Very large rigs are not recommended, but small to medium-sized ones should have little trouble maneuvering into their spot.
Once you are parked, you'll find yourself within walking distance of several trailheads and the campground's restroom and shower facilities. About a quarter-mile to the west sits the park's beautiful beach. It's an easy walk to the water, but you can drive too -- there's plenty of excess parking at the beach's day-use area.
When camping at Saltwater State Park, you may find it hard to believe you're less than 30 minutes from the bustling heart of Seattle. The park's quiet campground is filled with sylvan beauty.
Graceful big leaf maples and lichen-covered alders form a thick green canopy, underneath which grows lush beds of ferns and mosses. McSorley Creek ambles past many campsites, and it's babbling waters, complemented by the calls and songs of birds, create a wonderfully peaceful soundscape.
In total, Saltwater sports 39 campsites, most of which are suitable for RVs and trailers. These sites range in size, with most able to accommodate rigs up to 30 feet and some up to 50 feet long. Some sites offer pull-throughs, but the majority are back-in.
Saltwater State Park does not offer electric, water, or sewage hookups. However, there are potable water spigots spread throughout the campground, and the park does offer a sanitary dump station. If you need to use electric, generator use is permitted from 8 AM to 9 PM. The park also sports four modern restrooms and two pay-showers, both of the latter being easily accessible from the campground.
Although the park is open year-round, Saltwater's campground is only open from mid-May through mid-September. Reservations can be made online up to one year in advance. Since the park's open window is fairly short, and because its campground is fairly small, spots tend to fill up very quickly. Try to make reservations well ahead of time if you're able!
Unfilled spots at Saltwater State Park can be filled on a first-come, first-served basis. Given the park's popularity and its proximity to both Seattle and Tacoma, unreserved spots can be hard to come by, especially on Fridays and weekends. Mid-week, you may have a bit better luck, but there are certainly no guarantees!
Octopus, eels, sea anemones, and a whole host of other fascinating creatures make their home in the waters just off the park's shore. Saltwater State Park hosts a thriving Marine Preserve with large artificial reef structures up to 80 feet deep. The man-made reef has been a huge success, and scuba divers who visit here are rewarded all year round with exciting, close-up views of hundreds of kinds of marine life.
Several companies in the area provide guided tours, which may include lunch and equipment rentals. The extra-adventurous can even schedule a group dive at night. Water temps range from 45-55 degrees throughout the year. Visitors should note that all fishing and harvesting is prohibited within the Saltwater State Park Marine Preserve.
Just three miles to the south, in the beach community of Redondo, lies the Marine Science and Technology Center of Highline College. The 2,500 square-foot aquarium is open on Saturdays year-round, and it also opens on Thursdays during the summer season.
At the center, you can get an up-close look at over 250 species unique to the Puget Sound marine ecosystem. Study some of the area's most fascinating creatures, including octopus, sea urchins, sea stars, sponges, jellyfish, sculpins, crabs, and hundreds of other animals.
If you don't scuba dive or snorkel, this is a great, alternative way to see and learn about the Sound's diverse fauna. Special classes and interpretive talks are given at different times throughout the year. You can call the college for more info.
Every Sunday, the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Federal Way presents tours that are free to the public. They have over 150 trees on display and boast the largest public bonsai exhibit in North America. The museum's space is a peaceful and contemplative garden, which exists both as a living art museum and an educational resource bonsai enthusiasts. Fully mature trees with weathered bark, twisted branches, and miniature foliage, cones, and fruits are a remarkable sight to be seen. Many trees in the exhibit have been around for generations (or human generations anyway!). The Museum is only eight miles south of Saltwater State Park and is located just off of I-5.
As you meander along the lovely shoreline at Saltwater State Park, listening to the crash of the surf and the calls of gulls overhead, keep an eye out for oceanic gems along the beach. Rock, shells, and interesting bits of driftwood and jellyfish will give you plenty to be on the lookout for as you walk up and down the sandy beach here.
Respect the private property signs which mark the end of public land. Washington grants beach ownership all the way to the average high tide line, and wandering onto private property isn't the way you want to meet the locals. The tides are lowest in midsummer, giving you more room to explore.
Here at the far southern end of the Puget sound, the waters are surprisingly calm. Waves and swells don't usually make it past Port Townsend, far away on the Olympic Peninsula. As long as you watch out for boat traffic, mostly headed to the Port of Tacoma, you'll be able to safely explore as far as your strength allows.
If you're brave enough to head out during winter or early spring, when the sound is cold and oppressively gray, you may be rewarded with a view of migrating whales or orcas.
At any time of year, it's also fun to get a waterside glimpse at the luxurious homes the front on the sound. If you're up for a longer day on the water, you can paddle all the way to Redondo Beach (the Washington one, not the California one!) and enjoy lunch on the pier. A large day-use parking area provides convenient staging for your vehicle and gear. Watch out for scuba divers; this is their playground too!
Saltwater State Park is small, and though it does not boast an extensive trail system, the few footpaths it does have let visitors explore nearly every corner of the park. The park's North and South Trails, for instance, can be combined into a larger loop. The total loop is about 2.5 miles, including its spurs to the beach and day-use area. All the park's trail can get muddy, though there are several boardwalks and bridges over particularly wet sections. With no steep climbs to be found in the park, the trails here can be enjoyed by hikers of all skill levels.
As you trek through the forest, you'll take in a richly green landscape. Sword ferns, and a plethora of other non-woody species, dominate the understory while hulking Douglas firs, Sitka spruce, and western redcedar tower over a midstory of big leaf maple and alder.
Dogs are allowed on trails, but they must be on a leash at all times within the park. There is usually drinking water at the campground and the beach area. The tree cover is heavy enough to provide some cover during the rains, so don't rule out hiking just because it's wet (which it often is!)