There’s something beautiful about walking in the woods. The weight of life’s stresses seems to fall off your shoulders, brushed off to the ground by a low hanging Douglas fir or western red cedar. The earthy smell of composting soil fills your senses as it rises from the forest floor, swirling in the golden streaks of sunshine filtered through the canopy. You hear the complicated notes and pitches of the birds overhead, singing and conversing with one another in short bursts of language. Observing nature at work helps me to reset my mind and gain a better perspective on the things that I can and can’t control. These days that’s more important than ever. When looking for peace of mind I always turn to the outdoors. In Gig Harbor that means PenMet Parks.
Whether it’s a stroll amongst the old growth timber towering over you at McCormick Forest Park or a boardwalk tour of the soggy wetlands at Sehmel Homestead Park, Penmet provides some reprieve from the hustle and delivers the recipe for relaxation in the Gig Harbor area.
Visiting PenMet Park
A governing body since 2004, the Peninsula Metropolitan Park District, or PenMet for short, is comprised of sandy beaches, vast acres of wooded and open trail networks, community halls, off-leash dog parks, seaside piers, play fields and conservation land from Purdy south to the shores of the Narrows Strait, excluding Gig Harbor City limits. With almost 600 acres of managed park land, there is a trail or a beach for everyone.
For the last few months our family has maintained its sanity and our connection to the earth by visiting just about every trail and meadow in the PenMet library. By rubbing elbows with the sword ferns and leaving no beach rock unturned, we have discovered a newfound pride and appreciation for the nature in our own backyard and the many creatures we share it with.
Hit the Trail
Paved or unpaved? That is the question. Whether you’re looking to get your shoes a little dirty or go for a bike ride PenMet Parks has a trail for that.
The Cushman Powerline is a 6.2-mile paved trail for walkers, running, families with strollers and bicyclists. Working in partnership with the City of Gig Harbor Parks, PenMet helps to maintain portions of the trail. Cushman Trail runs along Highway 16 for the first mile or so out of the south but once you drop down the hill to the Wilkinson Farm Park and cross Rosedale Street you enter a greenbelt for the last few miles running north.
McCormick Forest Park, or “the woods,” as we call it in our house, is made up of over 100 acres of woods, creek beds and walking trails. Probably my favorite in the group, it has a funny way of making you take notice of just how small we are compared to nature. The dark green forest canopy floats high above you like a giant circus tent, held up by the old growth trees like skyscraper sized tent poles. McCormick Creek cuts the park in half with a steep but manageable climb in and out. Map boards and trail markers dot the intersecting 4 miles of zigzagging tails throughout the park. At the bottom of the creek traffic noise seems to shoot right over you leaving you to enjoy nature’s symphony. Plenty of birds fill the trees along with deer and the occasional bear sighting. You are more likely to run into a fellow walker though, as this can be a popular trail on a sunny day.
When McCormick does fill up, I simply cross the street. Directly across Bujacich Road from McCormick Forest Park is Rotary Bark Park, another 100-acre plot of woods, wetland and fields of chest high western sword ferns in between. With 3 miles of walking trails for humans, horses and on-leash dogs. Wanna let your 4-legged mate run free like the wind? Rotary Bark Park has 15 acres of dedicated off leash park reserved for you and your best friend. Fully fenced with walking trails and open space and plenty of room for your pup to roam. Rotary Bark Park sits on a bit of a westward facing slope which gives the park some color as the sunsets throwing oranges and reds against the deep green of the forest.
Toes in the Sand
When the sun shines on a Washington summer day we tend to try and take advantage of it. That means hitting the beach and exploring the shores of the Puget Sound. PenMet provides beachgoers with some amazing views and diverse marine grounds to enjoy.
Narrows Park sits in the shadows of the Narrows Bridge on the very southern tip of the Kitsap Peninsula. Most of the focus of this 35-acre park is centered around the beach. The 1300 feet of shoreline holds plenty of low tide treasures to look at. Stand in the gazebo at the top of the parking area and gaze for whales. Being the main passage from the Central Sound to the South Sound all things swim through the narrows straight. I’ve seen both Humpback and resident Orca pods swim right past Narrows Park. There is a non-motorized boat launch as well, but the narrows can have very strong currents so use caution.
One of the best sunset spots in the Gig Harbor also happens to be, in my opinion, the best beach in the Gig Harbor area. Out on the historic shores of Fox Island, the DeMolay Sandspit Nature Preserve is made up of almost 4 acres of pristine waterfront. Fox Island has been a hub of activity in the south sound for a long time. From a fishing camp for the Salish Tribes of the area to internment camp of those same people during the Puget Sound Indian Wars. This island has been through a lot. Remnants of the 19th century brickyard are still visible at the far west side of the beach. Acting as a bit of a filter for the sea as it screams through the narrow strip of water that runs between Fox Island and the mainland known as Hales Passage, the park collects shellfish in heaps. Plate sized oyster and clam shells carpet the beach and vibrant sea stars slowly crawl the waters edge. The spit curls in on itself a bit as it reaches out into the water creating a calm protection on the east side of the spit, perfect for wading. Harbor seals can be seen staring back at you from the water along with marine birds feeding on the shellfish. The park closes at dusk which is plenty of time to catch the sunset.
For the early morning beach stroller, PenMet has you in mind as well. Head north of the city to Sunrise Beach Park for some vitamin D with your morning coffee to go. Facing southeast from the shore the view is spectacular. Colvos Passage, Vashon Island, Tacoma and Mount Rainier fill the canvas. Another whale watching spot, Colvos Passage is a main north south route for the whales. We’ve even seen playful Harbor porpoises jumping and swimming off the beach. When the tide comes in high there’s not much beach to be had so check the tide charts first.
A great afternoon kayak trip, Wollochet Bay Estuary is a protected marshland full of life. This 20-acre park has a small entrance on Wollochet Drive, but is best seen from the water. I usually launch at the old ferry landing at the tip of Point Fosdick, off of Berg Drive. It takes about an hour, at a casual pace, to paddle down to the estuary. Wollochet Bay narrows quickly as it snakes its way inland, and so stays fairly protected from the wind. As you get close, you’ll hear the park before you see it. Flocks of seabirds migrate and nest on the muddy banks where Artondale Creek empties into the sea. Pigeon Guillemot, Sandpiper, Crane, Great Blue Heron, Cormorant, waterfowl and multiple predatory birds take advantage of this protected area. The grounds are a living, working ecosystem for all kinds of life so please tread lightly.
The Ol’ Homestead
When you’re talking Gig Harbor history post colonization, there’s a few family names that stand out as builders of this community, literally and figuratively: Skansie, Jerisich, Burnham and Sehmel.
In the latter half of the 19th century, newcomers, mostly of Croatian or Scandinavian descent, flocked to the protected harbor for its fishing prospects. As the new town grew crowded, settlers ventured out from the harbor and began to work the land. One homesteader was Henry Sehmel. Born in Germany, Henry came to America looking for opportunity. He wound up in Gig Harbor and filed papers for the 1862 “Homestead Act” which granted him 160 acres of land in the Artondale community for a total of $18, which was the charge to file his claim. From there the Sehmel family worked the land for 110 years until the early 2000s when the land began its transformation into the park you see today.
Today Sehmel Homestead Park hosts community events throughout the year in its indoor pavilion and community rooms, which are also available for private rentals. The majority of the park is dedicated to enjoying the outdoors. Soccer fields, baseball fields, children’s playgrounds and open grass fields flank the lower parking lot. Check out the amphitheater built into the hillside by the upper parking lot for a sunny day picnic. Miles of trails lace through the woods and wetlands providing plenty of shade for those hot days at the park. Search for the twisted corkscrew tree or the boardwalks that connect the trail as it crosses streams and muddy marsh. Well maintained dirt and gravel trails navigate the park making it suitable for all ages and abilities. Lots of small critters and deer share the park, and can be found walking the trails right alongside you throughout this historic property full of native flora in a beautiful setting.
There are more parks, trails and community buildings than I have space to write on. Check out Harbor Family Park, Rosedale Park and the ball fields at Hales Pass Park for just a few of the other PenMet properties out there or visit their site for a full list of all their parks and facilities and event calendar. We here in the Gig Harbor area are so lucky to have such a gorgeous collection of parks and facilities managed by a group of hardworking individuals dedicated to conserving the land and connecting it to the community it serves. Support your local parks and get outside.