Hike along a steep-sided ravine with some highly eroded banks. Enjoy the deciduous forest with a few large trees, and appreciate the moss and ferns along the creek. There's also an option to extend your hike to include the historic district of Des Moines Beach Park, and stroll out onto the Des Moines Public Fishing Pier for the view.
With the optional extensions included, this can be a diverse and interesting hike. However, depending on your sensitivities, there could be some downsides. First, Des Moines Creek drains an area adjoining the southern end of the busy Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and planes taking off frequently pass directly over the northern trailhead. After the first few, you may find you can tune out the noise and still enjoy your hike. Also, a quarter-mile segment of the trail passes Midway Sewer District's wastewater treatment facility. Fortunately, there generally is no odor or noise, and you will get past it soon enough and regain the forest environment.
Ready to take it on? Let's go! Head south on that wide paved trail that probably looks more like a freeway. It even has a yellow line painted down the middle. Hikers and bicyclists share the route, and "traffic" does go in both directions. To the west of the northern trailhead there's an area with a network of paths set aside for mountain bikers. While the Des Moines Creek Trail itself would probably seem too tame for them, some may use the trail to access their preferred area.
For the first half mile or so, the right edge of the trail sports an extensive growth of invasive Himalayan blackberries. In summer, you might find a ready selection of ripe and tasty berries to supplement any snacks you are carrying.
As you progress down the trail, the trees seem to become larger and lean in over the trail. The creek, at first not evident, becomes more obvious as you continue on. In summer the water level may be low, although it can be much higher at other times of the year. In some steeper sections the soft sounds of flowing water will offer a pleasant contrast to any airplane noises you may have heard. In some areas the steep creek banks are highly eroded and display interesting sedimentary layers.
Distances along the trail are marked off every quarter mile on small "mileposts" installed beside the trail. Also, you will find occasional benches for your relaxation. As you add up the quarter-miles, here are some things you will note along the way:
At about 0.85 miles, a fancy bridge and stair structure on the left crosses the creek and connects with a path heading up the hill. There are no signs to indicate where it might lead. If you were to explore that path, you would find it forks after about 400 feet. The right fork leads out to a neighborhood trailhead near the corner of S 212 St and 15th Ave S. The left fork leads, in about 0.3 mile, to S 216th St, a quarter-mile west of 20th Ave S.
Back on the Des Moines Creek Trail, a similar set of stairs occurs at about 1.1 miles, this time on the right, and again without any signage. That path leads up the hill and, in about 300 feet, reaches a neighborhood trailhead near the corner of S 211th Pl and 13th Ave S.
You can explore the side paths if you like. They provide alternative ways of entering the canyon, but they will be of interest mostly to residents or visitors who already are in one of those neighborhood areas. For other hikers, the northern trailhead is the preferred entry point.
At 1.2 miles, the trail bends sharply to the right and begins a traverse along an open hillside. Close by on the left is the high chain-link fence surrounding the wastewater treatment plant. Unlike the similar plant in Seattle's Discovery Park, there has been no effort to disguise this plant behind high walls or botanical barriers. You do have the option of turning around here, but in another quarter-mile you will have passed the wastewater plant and will be back in the trees along the creek.
At 1.8 miles, the trail passes under a massive concrete support structure where Hwy 509 (Marine View Drive) crosses over the canyon.
At 2.0 miles, buildings and a turn-around loop appear up ahead. It's the end of the Des Moines Creek Trail itself, and the beginning of the 19.6-acre Des Moines Beach Park. You can turn around here if you like and head back to the northern trailhead. Or, consider the following.
Extending Your Hike
You might enjoy exploring a bit farther, adding at most an extra mile to your round trip distance. The foot trail continues on through the park, and is well-marked by signs as it heads toward the beach. The park has a number of buildings dating from earlier days of Des Moines. A few small buildings could use some work, but many have been beautifully restored and now are used as a community Event Center. Conferences sometimes are held here, and on a summer weekend you might find yourself at a free outdoor concert or a play -- even Shakespeare is performed here!
A number of signs in the park offer interesting comments on the early history of this area that began as a logging camp, then became a church camp before it was a park. You can read the same signs online.
As you approach the stony beach, there are views out to Puget Sound and the Des Moines Public Fishing Pier. To reach the pier, leave the park at the SE corner, go a block south on Cliff Drive, then turn right and head toward the pier. It's often busy, with many folks out with their fishing rods or crab traps hoping for a good day's catch. You might as well walk out to the end of the pier for the best views of the sound and back toward the park. Then turn around and head back to the northern trailhead, now 2.5 miles away.