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Best of the Key Peninsula

Shoreline ramblings and rural backroads a short drive from Seattle

Just a quick jaunt from Gig Harbor across Henderson Bay on Highway 302, the Key Peninsula awaits the weekender for laid-back shoreside fun. Its English name comes from the elongated key-like shape of the peninsula, an arm of land stretching southward from the larger Kitsap Peninsula about 16 miles into the South Sound. 

Meandering down the Key, you’ll find small communities like Wauna, Vaughn, Lakebay, Home and Longbranch with rich agricultural — and some surprisingly radical — histories. Nowadays, it’s a quiet place to enjoy the water, forests and reprieve from urban life.

The peninsula provides peekaboo views of both Mount Rainier and the Olympics and long, windy backcountry roads dotted with farms and homesteads. Although it’s about a 15-minute boat ride from Longbranch at the tip of the Key southward to Olympia, driving the distance through Tacoma takes well over an hour from the same starting point.

Sailboats at the Long Branch Marina
View of Mount Rainier at the marina in Longbranch. Photo by Jennifer Burns Bright

The Key’s Communities

For those interested in Washington history, the Key Peninsula has fascinating tales to tell. For an excellent overview and artifacts to browse, check out the small, lively Key Peninsula Historical Society & Museum in Vaughn, which is usually open twice a week with a break in the winter — see their website for current hours. Friendly volunteers can also share tips about exploring the peninsula.

For millennia, the peninsula served as a shellfish gathering area for local Indigenous peoples who dug and fished from beaches along inlets like Minter Cove in the north or Filucy Bay on the south end. In 1792, Peter Puget of the Vancouver Expedition had a hospitable visit with tribal ambassadors in the area now known as Minter, as he was surveying what became Puget Sound. You can experience some of that culinary wealth and imagine the historic meeting at Minterbrook Oyster Co., established in 1932 on the tidelands of Minter Bay. 

The Key was occupied with homesteads owned by white settlers by the late 19th century. Supplies for everything from building homes to feeding chickens were regularly delivered by dozens of compact steamers and sternwheelers. These ferries — known as the Mosquito Fleet  — buzzed back and forth as far as Seattle, toting supplies and lumber.

A quaint residential area today with a public boat launch on Avenue A, the community of Home was founded on utopian principles — its original inhabitants established an insular colony in 1896, complete with progressive views about free speech, free love, women’s rights and collaborative property ownership.  

Key Peninsula OlympiaOystersonbeach Jennifer Burns Bright
Oysters on the beach. Photo by Jennifer Burns Bright

Seashore Exploration

Littered with shells that hint at what lies just beneath on the east and west sides of the peninsula, its shores boast a wealth of oysters, geoducks and bay clams of every variety. Thousands of tiny crabs play in the seaweed lining the shore, while herons and raptors soar overhead. 

Be aware that much of the shoreline — and into the intertidal zone at varying levels depending on land contracts — is privately owned on the peninsula, and landowners here tend to jealously guard their property lines, so be aware of posted signs. Access is limited on lakes.

The peninsula’s two state parks, Joemma Beach State Park and Penrose Point State Park, provide plenty of publicly protected access to saltwater shores. Joemma Beach, on the peninsula’s southeast side, is a 106-acre park with 3,000 feet of saltwater beach on Case Inlet that maintains a nice public boat launch (with ample parking) and a pier that stretches out into the water for even better views of the sun sparkling on the waves.

Hikers will find longer scenic trails at Penrose Point, which is located on the east side of the peninsula on Carr Inlet — with roughly double the acreage of Joemma Beach. Penrose Point has 2.5 miles of trails through a fringe of mature conifer and alder forest for both hikers and mountain bikers, with a payoff of a nice view of Mount Rainier at the tip of the point, and a short-but-sweet interpretive trail down by the beach.

With nearly 2 miles of saltwater frontage on Mayo Cove and Carr Inlet, this popular park has a picnic area with horseshoe pits and oyster and clam gathering in season (be sure to check Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s regulations for shellfish before harvest). A staffed campground on-site has over 80 sites. You’ll need a Discover Pass for parking at both state parks.  

Key Peninsula FilucyBayLowTide Jennifer Burns Bright
On Filucy Bay at low tide. Photo by Jennifer Burns Bright

South Sound

Just over the low-slung Purdy Spit Bridge dividing Henderson Bay and Burley Lagoon, visitors park along Highway 302 and make their way down to the sandy shore at low tide on Purdy Sand Spit. There, they frolic in the nearshore waters with paddleboards, swim or just relax on the narrow but pleasant beach.

For those interested in fly-fishing, the saltwater currents near the bridge are most known for their population of sea-run cutthroat trout, which hang out in the area year-round. In Lakebay, you can launch a boat into Bay Lake or fish from shore for leisurely warmwater angling for species like bluegill, rainbow trout and largemouth bass. 

Kayakers will love exploring small islands and remote areas in the waters surrounding the peninsula on the Cascadia Marine Trail, a nationally recognized network of areas designated for nonmotorized boat touring in Puget Sound. Public boat launches are dotted along the peninsula’s east and west sides in Wauna, Vaughn, Home, Lakebay and Longbranch.

A newer boat-in-only site, the Filucy Bay Preserve on the south end of the peninsula is a mile-long stretch of beach on 119 acres of tidal estuary managed by the Great Peninsula Conservancy. After exploring the estuary at high tide, kayakers can relax with lunch on the picnic table and observe bald eagles and kingfishers hunting for fish. (Just watch the clock, as the tides tend to swing dramatically in this area and you don’t want to be stuck in the mudflats.)

Pebbly beach at the Key Peninsula on a cloudless day
At Joemma Beach State Park. Photo by Jennifer Burns Bright

Family Fun

Water sports and shoreside rambles aren’t the only outdoor activities on the Key. Plenty of family fun can be had at a network of charming, well-outfitted parks, like 20-acre Volunteer Park in Lakebay, with a 9-hole disc golf course through a forested tract, horseshoe pits, baseball field and skate park. While there, do as the locals do and grab a bacon cheeseburger and fries at the Snack Shack, an old-school concessions stand. 

The 39-acre Gateway Park features a full playground, splash pad from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and access to miles of forested trails beloved by dog walkers and joggers. Each month on the first Saturday morning, gather at the pavilion for a bird walk to learn about avian life and see a? or plural? hidden beaver pond in the woods. 

The peninsula also hosts a number of annual events and festivals, including the Farm Tour of local agricultural sites in October and Winter Warm-up Holiday Crafts Fairin November at the Key Peninsula Civic Center. 

—Written by Jennifer Burns Bright

—The top photo is of Filucy Bay. Photo is by Nicholas Steven/AdobeStock.

Interested in planning your next road trip with AAA Washington? Call your travel agent directly or your nearest AAA store to get pro tips, TripTik maps, and more. Find more Pacific Northwest scenic drives and road trips.

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