By Holly Smith Peterson
With autumn colors cascading through the Puget Sound region, this season invites us to spend as much time outdoors as we did during this past gorgeous summer. However, while you could take a leisurely drive or an exhilarating hike or bike ride out to explore fall scenes in the countryside, an even better way to do so is by kayak.
Think about it: It’s a lot more exercise than sitting in a car, but it’s not as strenuous as pedaling or trekking up and down hills. Gliding through one of the area’s many quiet bays or along one the picturesque rivers is a fun and relaxing way to get out into nature and see the leaves from a new perspective — and you don’t need a helmet. Plus, it’s an activity that’s gentle yet active and intriguing enough to be perfect for all ages – and for everyone from singles to couples or the whole family.
Downtown Tacoma: Commencement Bay
Right at the entrance to the Thea Foss Waterway is a terrific casting-off point that combines cool city views with cool-weather foliage. Take in close-set waterside views of Tacoma’s parks and residential neighborhoods while gliding through the recreational boating lanes as you pick out your favorite cruisers and homes along the journey through downtown’s northwestern edges. Foss Harbor Marina rents both kayaks and paddle boards ($25-$55 for 2-4 hours), and is a great resource for exploration ideas based on your group composition and time.
West Tacoma: Point Defiance & Ruston Way
At the opposite shoreline, as Commencement Bay and views of Vashon Island meet the roiling Narrows waterway, peaceful Owen Beach lies at the western point looking back toward downtown. Slide your kayak into the smooth waters along the edge of this pebbled, driftwood-strewn shoreline and you can paddle past Point Defiance Park’s massive hills, stained golden and auburn this season. Take in views of the Vashon ferry and be on the lookout for seal and sea lion sightings. For the energetic, head all the way around to the pretty, park-like lawns and boulevards of Ruston Way, the perfect place to pull up to a restaurant dock for a drink and a break, or to pack a picnic for one of the public dock benches. Ruston Recreational Rentals at Owen Beach rents kayaks noon-7 p.m. daily in fair weather ($14-$75); paddle boards are available on weekends from Dolan Board Sports at Jack Hyde Park on Ruston Way ($25-$70).
Des Moines/Federal Way: Redondo Beach & coastline
The narrow, rocky beach with its adjacent marina has long been a play place for families edged by a lively street side walkway that spans this quaint coastal neighborhood. From here you can glide through the calm bay and along beautiful autumn views of fall foliage on the hillsides, interspersed with the gracefully balconied architecture of some of Puget Sound’s most ostentatious mansions. To make it a day trip, paddle a few miles north to Saltwater State Park, with its tide pools and underwater artificial reef, or south toward the hilly coastal trails and mudflats of Dash Point State Park, where marine treasures abound in the shallow, sandy currents. The truly daring can head even further south all the way for the beach around Brown’s Point Lighthouse and the east side of Commencement Bay, with its lovely Tacoma views. No on-site rentals are available at Redondo or the parks, but plenty of Tacoma-area outdoor recreation companies and tour agencies can get kayaks to the staging points for you. (Hint: Park free across from the marina and Salty’s restaurant.)
The Puyallup River
Class I-II rapids are the highlight of this route, a lively and faster-paced journey through the salmon-rich currents of Pierce County’s main riverine waterway. The 6.1-mile McMillin-to-Puyallup section is a particular local favorite for kayaking, whitewater rafting and canoe trips, and there are campgrounds along the river still open during fall. This season – in addition to the kaleidoscope of red, orange and gold leaves you’ll see along the river – you’ll have the chance to wander through Puyallup’s popular pumpkin patches, corn mazes and produce stands; pick up fresh apples, bread and honey, and other home-grown goodies for sustenance during the trip. For kayak rentals and the best casting-off spots, ask your local outdoor recreation company or travel agency.
Drive west across the scenic Narrows Bridge and you’re in another world that’s filled with Pacific Northwest forest terrain and surrounded by water. Some of the best autumn views are here, around the bay of the “Maritime City,” which is fronted by a majestic vista of snow-capped Mt. Rainier. Here, you can take a quiet glide past the slim wooden docks and compact seaside cottages of this quaint former fishing village. It’s an ideal spot for a family getaway — or a couples’ escape — with a short paddling jaunt interspersed with bayside walks, a coffee stop, and small waterfront business and art gallery browsing. Kayaks ($10-$40), paddle boats and motor boats are available through Gig Harbor Rent-A-Boat, as are lessons and family kayaking sessions. Gig Harbor Kayak Rentals offers kayaks and paddle board equipment and rentals around the same prices. If you have your own kayaks, excellent sites to slide into the water here are at the Fox Island bridge boat launch, the Purdy Bridge spit, and Kopachuck or Sunrise state parks.
North Mason County: Alderbrook & Allyn
Kayaking is pristine and idyllic in the quiet thread of waterways northeast of Bremerton, where Highway 3 takes you into north Mason County. Twenty miles in is the tiny shoreline community of Allyn, where North Bay Kayaks & Cones offers rentals ($20-$40), chainsaw wood carvings, and fresh ice cream and treats along the shallow currents of North Bay and Case Inlet. A short drive further east to Alderbrook Resort & Spa leads to serene views of the Hood Canal lining the posh property’s immaculately landscaped lawns and pebbly stretch of beach. Public kayak rentals ($25-$35) are available from the resort’s Alderbrook Waterfront Center, as are paddle boards. If you have your own kayak, the Hood Canal Marina and grocery is two miles west.
Kent: The Green River
With 304 river-split acres of thick deciduous and evergreen woodlands, the Green River Natural Resources Area is a wonderful environment in which to view fall foliage and wildlife. Besides the spread of autumn colors along the river’s edges, keep your eyes open for any of the park’s 53 mammal species and 165 types of birds. If you want to do more than kayak, a 10.5-mile trail runs past sights like Three Friends Fishing Hole and Boeing Rock and Eagle Scout Park. This is a BYOK (bring your own kayak) experience also ideal for rafting and tubing on warmer days. Local travel companies and outdoor recreation businesses have equipment and tour ideas.
Bonney Lake: Lake Tapps
In the foothills of Mt. Rainier is this popular lake-dotted area, with the family-friendly boaters haven of Lake Tapps at the top of the list. With a kayak, you can explore numerous inlets laced with autumn foliage, and then swim in the designated area at the lake’s northern edge beneath spectacular mountain views. For a more peaceful experience, stick to the south shoreline. In any case, pack a picnic for the grassy beach, bring something to throw on the grills, or grab a snack at the concession stand.