Sep 21, 2022

What to expect on a day trip to Des Moines aboard the Chilkat Express


The Chilkat Express pulls into the Des Moines marina

Passengers boarding the new walk-on ferry to Des Moines at Seattle's Bell Harbor Marina could practically touch the massive Norwegian Spirit cruise liner ready to leave port.

But while its 2,000 passengers were bound for Alaska, a dozen of us were day-tripping to Des Moines, a suburb known more for jets flying overhead on their approach to Sea-Tac Airport than its tourism attractions.

The Chilkat Express, a 62-seat catamaran, equipped with a hydrofoil, joins other fast walk-on ferries zipping across the Puget Sound between Seattle and communities such as West Seattle; and Kingston, Bremerton and Southworth in Kitsap County. 

Those runs are aimed at commuters, but for now at least, the focus of the two-month, city-sponsored Des Moines pilot project, is on providing suburban residents a quick and pleasant trip into the city that doesn't involve fighting traffic.

The bonus for Seattleites is a cheap, 40-minute cruise ($10 each way for adults; $5 for seniors) across the Sound in a comfortable boat with upholstered seats and picture windows run by local tour operator Puget Sound Express.

The Wednesday-Sunday trips are scheduled to run through October 9, but city officials seem  optimistic about the possibility of the service continuing.

“Everything is about revitalizing the downtown and marina," City Manager Michael Matthias told The Seattle Times recently. "The ferry fits in perfectly with that.”

Boarding with bikes at the Bell Harbor Marina in Seattle 

Exploring with bikes

Catching the the first boat leaving Seattle at 11 a.m. and the last one back at 4 p.m. gave my husband and I about four hours to explore.

With electric power-assisted bikes loaded onboard, we joined the few others going south despite almost a full load of passengers disembarking in Seattle.

We've traveled to and from Sea-Tac Airport hundreds of times, but always on surface roads, never before on a route water route skirting familiar landmarks such as the lighthouse at Alki Point and Three Tree Point, a triangle-shaped spit jutting into the east Sound in Burien.

The Chilkat Express is enclosed but passenger can stand on the back deck for pictures

Zipping along at a brisk 32 knots (40 mph), the Chilkat Express reached Des Moines around 11:40. Maneuvering around construction at the marina (A $15 million renovation of the north sea wall calls for a set of steps, modeled after Seattle’s Harbor Steps, to link downtown and the harbor), we pedaled past picnickers and beachcombers enjoying low tide at Des Moines Beach Park. Picking up the paved Des Moines Creek biking and walking trail, we wended 

Low tide at Des Moines Beach Park

through shaded lowland forest. Jets flying overheard were the only clue we were just a few miles from the airport and the Angle Lake light rail station.

The trail is just four miles out and back, so with time to spare, we next detoured a few miles out of town to the city of Normandy Park and the wooded Marine View Park Valley Loop Trail, a mile-long trail popular with birders and hikers. Parking the bikes, we walked the trail, taking in views of the Sound and beaches below.

Doubling back to Des Moines, we relaxed at Anchor Espresso & Lounge with cozy seating and a large selection of fruit smoothies. A recent Seattle Times story on places to eat in Des Moines recommended Sweet D’Licias, a Mexican ice cream shop serving a drink called a mangoneada that combines pureed mango with the  spicy, sour tang of chamoy and Tajin.

Chilling at the Quarterdeck pub

Looking for a spot at the marina for a late lunch before the 4 p.m. ferry, we snagged seats on the patio of the Quarterdeck pub, and settled in with glasses of Jellyfish Porter and grilled tuna sandwiches. The menu is simple, but the beer and wine- by- the glass selection is large due to a loyal boating clientele.

With just ten of us onboard, the trip back felt like a private cruise. Greeting us at the dock in Seattle was a long line of passengers headed home to Des Moines. 

If you go:

The Des Moines to Seattle foot ferry makes four round-trips per day, Wednesday-Sunday, departing Des Moines at 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. and leaving Seattle at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Reservations are recommended.

One-way fares are $10 for adults; $5 for seniors and military. Children under 13 ride free. Bikes are $2 extra, with a boat capacity of four.  

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