Peninsulas have identity issues. They’re attached to the mainland. No one can quite agree where they begin. And there’s always a smug little island nearby lording its independence.
When I took a day last week to explore the roughly 15-mile-long Key Peninsula, I couldn’t find a consensus among residents on exactly where theirs starts. Some said it includes Purdy, others said it’s the Pierce/Kitsap county line and still others said its where Glen Cove and Vaughn Bay point at each other near Key Center.
I say a peninsula is a state of mind as much as a place. And just about everywhere I went on this rural and scenic appendage put me in a good mood.
1) Rocky Creek Conservation Area
These 224 acres of untouched forest, creek and wetlands are the soft mossy center of Key Peninsula. There are no spectacular vistas of Mount Rainier or pebbly beaches, just quiet solitude. Ferns sprout from tree trunks and huckleberries fill the understory. The only sounds come from lovesick frogs and chattering Rocky Creek.
The area feels remote and secret. Which might explain the household refuse and tires dumped along approaching roads — a common eyesore on the peninsula, I soon discovered.
But those are minor distractions to an otherwise peaceful place that has 2 miles of walking trails through a wide variety of terrain and environment.
Kent Kingman is new to the oyster business. He bought the 84-year-old Minterbrook Oyster Company just three years ago. And in some ways he’s the unlikeliest of oystermen.
“I didn’t even like oysters when I bought the company,” he said.
The far-traveling business consultant felt he needed a change and, because his kids were already raising manila clams commercially, he thought the company would be a good fit for his family.
Since then, Kingman has expanded the business. He’s also building an oyster bar in Purdy that he plans to open in spring of 2016.
“It’s going to be the coolest oyster bar in America,” he said.
For now, visitors can head to the oyster company on Minter Bay to purchase jarred and in-shell oysters and other seafood, as well as tour the operation’s nursery where sand-grain-sized baby oysters are raised before being put on to beds. Like so many places on the peninsula, Mount Rainier provides a backdrop.
“People love to sit up here and eat an oyster and watch (salmon) swim by,” Kingman said.
Oysters in the shell range from $8.50 per dozen for small to $13 for large. Jarred (shucked) come in a variety of sizes, volumes and prices.
3) 360 Trails
The name of this park refers to the number of acres it contains. It’s a popular place for hiking, running, horseback riding and mountain biking.
The park, built on Department of Natural Resources land, is managed by Key Pen Parks. On my visit, I came across Aaron Atkission of Gig Harbor who was just finishing a ride on his mountain bike. It was his second visit of the week. Sometimes he comes alone, sometimes with his wife, and sometimes with their kids.
“It’s beautiful, well maintained and far enough out where it’s not really crowded,” Atkission said. Some of the trails are for bikes only, with drops, jumps and rolling terrain, he said. “But there are some single track you can ride with a 10-speed. We’ve taken our 6- and 7-year-olds on pretty much everything here.”
The park’s main loop is 2.5 miles but there are a total of 9 miles of trails that vary from general use to hiking, biking and equestrian only.
Key Pen Parks’s latest trail at 360, for horses and pedestrians, will be completed on April 25 — Parks Appreciation Day.
By the end of the year, 360 Trails will join with the new Gateway Park on Highway 302. Plans for Gateway include parking and restrooms followed by sports fields, a splash park and more.
4) The Key Peninsula Historical Society and Museum
This museum isn’t big — just one room — but then neither is where it’s located: Vaughn. But it’s not devoted to just Vaughn. It holds the history for all the communities on the peninsula.
Some of the peninsula’s current residents are the fifth- or sixth-generation from the original white settlers, said board member Colleen Slater. She herself is fourth generation and related to many area folks.
“His mother is my first cousin,” Slater said, pointing at a volunteer who was busy explaining local history to some museum visitors.
One of the area’s white settlers, William Vaughn, arrived in 1852, Slater said. Vaughn, the town, peaked in the 1950s when it had a small commercial district. Now, nearby Key Center is the largest community on the peninsula.
This being Western Washington, the museum has several displays devoted to logging. A retired wall of the Lakebay post office takes up part of the room. Visitors can peruse high school class photos from the early 1900s. The civic center itself was once the Vaughn High School.
Books on the peninsula’s history, a couple written by Slater, fill a bookcase.
5) Maple Hollow Park
I had Maple Hollow Park all to myself. Maybe it was the locked gate or maybe it was because it was a Thursday, but it was nice having a personal park.
I parked on the road and walked in. Like all Key Pen Parks, parking and entry are free.
Tall trees shield a winding trail that leads downhill to a rocky beach. The first part of the path, which leads to a view of water and Mount Rainier, is accessible for people with disabilities.
The beach makes a good stop for kayakers who are traveling down from the Purdy Spit or other points. A couple of camp spots provide overnight digs for water travelers.
This small community on the shores of Von Geldern Cove is a mix of old and newer homes. Or at least newer-appearing. The sleepy atmosphere belies its storied history.
Built as an anarchist utopia in the 1890s, the small town was a thriving experiment in communal living until it began to fade after 1910. At one point, the town had three newspapers, and the residents had a variety of leisure pursuits and interests: Esperanto, Hatha-Yoga, vegetarianism, fasting, and German and Oriental philosophies.
Today, the town is a little peaceful slice of another era, with chickens on lawns and stunning views of Carr Inlet.
Lakebay seems like a little bit of New England transplanted to the Pacific Northwest. Boats are anchored to its long sandy spit as if they’re waiting for Andrew Wyeth and his easel to make an appearance.
Most of Lakebay’s boats are moored at the dock. The Lakebay Marina Resort sells food and beverages and offers campsites, cabins and moorage.
Some of Key Peninsula’s more affluent residents no doubt have living rooms bigger than Lulu’s Homeport restaurant, but the one-room-fits-all vibe is one of this eatery’s charms.
Owner and cook Lulu Smith is the proprietor. I just missed her when I stopped in for lunch on her 69th birthday. A laid-back waitress suggested I try the fish and chips. She didn’t steer me wrong. The $10.50 plate was overflowing with pieces of cod in a thick but light breading. I barely touched the fries.
The joint is clearly popular with locals. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and if they don’t, they’ll keep trading names until they do. The all-day hours and full menu make stopping in as easy as it gets.
A row of distinctive customized mugs hangs above the cook’s window. Off the restaurant is a lounge that had a couple of men seated in it on my visit. The bartender said a patio and horseshoes are out back. One of the patrons said there is a lagoon as well. He may have been drinking something stronger than coffee.
8) Penrose Point
This large and relatively flat 165-acre state park is a combination of forested trails and beaches. Camp sites abound in the trees.
The main parking area has amenities for a day visit. When I visited, a couple of shellfish harvesters were working the beach.
A Discover Pass is required for parking beyond 15 minutes, but Saturday is State Parks Free Day at all Washington state parks. Entry, but not camping, is free.
Just getting to Gary Andersen’s pottery studio is an adventure. The retired schoolteacher and now full-time potter has a home and studio at the end of a country lane. The road is so thick with huckleberries you practically expect them to open a door and climb in.
But once there, a visitor will find a small sales area filled with a mind-boggling array of creative ceramic wares. Andersen’s studio is attached to his home.
“My commute from the coffeepot is 20 feet,” he said.
One of his repeating motifs is a clear glaze over ceramics imprinted with blackberry leaves.
“I’m not the typical potter. I do all sorts of things. Some of my best ideas come from customers,” he said.
Along with garlic shredders, butter warmers, teapots, vases, plates, bowls and candelabras, he sells a lot of mugs. Andersen will customize just about anything with names, logos and other designs. His mugs were what I saw hanging at Lulu’s.
Mugs sell for $16. Custom lettering can add zero to $5, depending on complexity. A pasta bowl with a blue and green glaze was priced at $15.
Andersen’s wife, Michael Anne, helps with the business and puts up with the peculiarities of her husband’s vocation. “One time I had blackberry leaves in the freezer because they’re not out in winter,” she said.
Andersen, 77, has been making pottery since he retired from teaching at Peninsula High School. “If I won the lottery, I’d still do it,” the Tacoma native said.
The Andersens keep studio hours 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays, but will entertain visitors any day of the week if they are home. Just call ahead.
9) Joemma Beach
This state park is all about the beach. The main parking area slopes down to a shoreline punctuated by a long dock. That’s where I found Zack Breaux of Vaughn peering into the water.
Though he had brought his fishing pole, the clear water on this day made for less than ideal fishing for Breaux. “I come here to swim in the summertime. I like to bring the dogs here. You can crab, dig for clams, fish for cutthroat trout,” he said.
On one visit, Breaux said he had seen a sea otter and her pups on the beach. “She would take them out fishing and then lead them back out,” he recalled.
A large floating dock was piled in the parking lot, waiting for warmer weather. But on this day, it felt as though summer had already arrived.