Herb Clippert remembers coming to the Renaissance Faire on the property that is now Gateway Park on State Route 302 in Wauna. When he saw earth-moving equipment in 2017, he “didn’t know what it would turn out to be.”
The 72-acre park has been transformed since its incremental acquisition by Key Pen Parks in 2013 and 2016. Major grants won through community organizing paid for the construction of a picnic shelter, restrooms, multiple playgrounds, off-leash dog areas, parking and access to 360 Trails Park. On a sunny day, even in winter, it is common for the parking lots to be full.
“It’s awesome what they did,” Clippert said. He visits three times a week from Rosedale to walk his puppies. “It’s so big. You can do everything here.”
The park feels full of life yet uncrowded. Amber Malcolm, who visited recently from Olalla with her 11-month-old daughter, said she is drawn to the park because there is a little kid area for her daughter, a bigger kid area for her older son and trails for her husband to mountain bike. “He’ll go off and ride while the kids are on the playground.”
She said that for months, early in the pandemic, she and her husband were too cautious to visit parks. “We got to a breaking point,” she said. “Being outside makes you feel better.”
Ray Gilmore of Lakebay said he and his wife and two kids come several times a month. Some visits they set out to hike the trails, but they usually end up on the playground. He said one doesn’t expect parks on the Key Peninsula to be so nice. “It reminds me of a park in San Diego or something, where you have nature trails, a dog park and everything,” he said.
Gateway Park, with its close connection to 360 Trails Park, has made the Key Peninsula something of a destination, especially in the mountain biking community. Mark Poupard, a beginning mountain biker who recently made the trek from his home in Olympia, said it’s a good park for riders looking to build their skillset. It has “a good track for all skill levels,” he said, “beginner to expert.”
Erica Sprague, an expert young horseback rider from Gig Harbor, said she comes at least once a week because of the variety and quality of the trails. “I like the jump lines. You get a lot of air on them, and they’re really free-flowing,” she said. “It’s cool to see everyone use it.”
Elsewhere, it is not uncommon for tensions to mount between hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders, yet at Gateway Park and 360 Trails there seems to be space for all types of users. Janey and Roger Aiken, who regularly come from Purdy to walk the trails, said that everyone has been “pretty darn friendly.”
“It’s a beautiful place,” Janey said. “You can still find that piece of heaven, you know?”
They like the park for the woods, the quiet and the fresh air. Each time they find themselves exploring different side trails, discovering things like a small tree decorated at Christmastime or cement toadstools. Recently they found themselves sitting on a concrete bench with an unexpected view of Horseshoe Lake Golf Course. “The sun was coming right at us,” Janey said. “To get that in February. We both sat there for a few minutes and just breathed deep.”
Tracey Perkosky, director of Key Pen Parks, said that one of her favorite things to watch at Gateway is the large multipurpose field at its heart. “I see people playing tee-ball, radio-controlled aircrafts, agility training with their dogs, teaching their kids how to ride bikes,” she said. “People take a little space of it and make it their own.”
Fifteen years ago, Volunteer Park was the only locally managed park on the peninsula. Today Key Pen Parks owns or leases nine properties, all of them open to the public, accommodating uses from nature exploration at Rocky Creek Conservation Area to kayak camping at Maple Hollow. How does Perkosky think Gateway Park fits into the park system?
“I see this as the primary destination spot,” she said, a place where families can bring their dogs, picnic, play, hike, bike, and invent their own uses. “I think that these are amazing assets for the community. Twenty years from now, this is still going to be here. Forty years from now, this is still going to look pretty similar.
“The ability to preserve this kind of space is priceless,” she said.
Key Pen Parks staff is currently planning socially distanced events at Gateway Park, like an Easter egg hunt. The splash pad, now fully permitted, will also open this summer, though it will likely require health precautions such as timed entries.
Later this year, Key Pen Parks plans to launch a master planning process for Gateway’s next phase of development. While it will build on previous master plans, Perkosky said, everything will be on the table for how several undeveloped sections of the park are ultimately used. The process will focus on outreach to community members so that amenities are designed according to the things park goers want today and for the future.
“We definitely need more parking,” Perkosky said. “That is a clear challenge at Gateway Park — that everyone loves it.”
Parking might be at a premium on a beautiful day, but space inside the park is not. Throughout the pandemic the park has blossomed as a place to stretch legs, have fun and relax. Families are everywhere.
As former Key Pen Parks director, the late Scott Gallacher, told KP News when Gateway opened in 2017: “Huge spaces bring community together. (Gateway Park) is a gateway to the Key Peninsula and a gateway to community.”
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