Community Environment News

Two in Tow & On the Go: By any name, Donkey Creek Park is a good time

Posted on August 18th, 2023 By:

There’s a lot to know about Gig Harbor’s famous Donkey Creek Park.

We know a band of the Puyallup tribe were stewards of the land for generations. 

We know the park’s triangle-shaped plot is near Gig Harbor’s original city footprint plotted in 1888 by the Burnham family.

We know its waterway is widely celebrated for its seasonal salmon habitat – complete with an annual community festival, public art, environmental studies, and funds to reconstruct its ecosystem in phases.

We even know that Donkey Creek itself is named after the donkey steam engine stationed in its creekbed in the early 1900s, pulling logs from the forest into the Austin Mill downstream.

But did everyone know that Donkey Creek isn’t the creek’s real name? Or, that it’s not even a creek?!

As it turns out, it’s official, federally registered name is North Creek. And it’s a perennial stream.

But in addition to all those fun facts, the city park that surrounds the creek is also a fun place to take your kids. Read on as we break down all the charmingly odd tidbits about this family-friendly spot and why you should definitely visit it.

The park

Located at 8714 North Harborview Drive, Donkey Creek Park is just over an acre and includes a large grassy lawn for kiddos to run free, a restroom that boasts at least one fun fact, and some truly spectacular trees that filter down the sunlight in magical ways.

Clara and Wyatt absolutely love those trees because the way their trunks cluster together makes for an excellent fort setup to climb into and guard against “bandits.” (We’re big “Home Alone” fans over here).

There’s no playground and not a lot of frills at Donkey Creek Park, but it does have educational signage about watersheds and salmon, a nice pathway to stroll under the bridge and out to Austin Park at txʷaalqəł Estuary, and lots of shaded areas to picnic, sit and play.

The waterway

Now for the creek, er … stream.

(Fun Science Fact: Rain falls, pools on the ground, and channels into small creeks, which then combine to make streams, which then merge to become rivers, which eventually flow into the big wide oceans of Planet Earth. Around here, in Gig Harbor, instead of merging to flow into a river, the Donkey Creek/North Creek/North Creek Stream skips that portion of the program and goes rogue by flowing directly into the Txʷaalqəł Estuary before expanding into the Puget Sound’s prehistoric glacier-carved fjordwhich ultimately meets up with the Pacific Ocean).

Now that I’ve told you the official name and potentially bored you to death with some blogger-abridged science behind North Creek’s waterway type, I feel the need to hit you with a parent advisory: your kids should totally run wild in Donkey Creek Park but they can’t really play in the water there. I’m not sure if such activity is outright banned but, personally, the very idea of the kids and I accidentally stepping on some tiny pink salmon eggs in a stream everyone is super particular about protecting … is super cringe. Clara, Wyatt, and I are definitely creek people, though, so for those seeking a little splish-splash riparian adventure, I recommend driving across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge to the Chambers Creek access points at Kobayashi Park in University Place; or from the Canyon Trailhead toward Steilacoom. Great alternatives for creek play!

Back to that name, though

While some parents get caught up in parking and restroom details on their kid trips, I’ve spent the last five days researching tributary lingo and historic topography because I just can’t get over the fact that Donkey Creek is actually a stream named North Creek. The “Donkey Creek” name we all know and love isn’t even federally recognized. Nor is it listed as “Donkey Creek” on Google Maps, or on any federal map since the 1940s. It’s even marked by this sneaky “North Creek” name in the official U.S. Geological Survey database. In fact, the USGS is the government entity behind this whole naming business. The USGS works to gather names and data for “The National Map … a collaborative effort among the USGS and other Federal, State, and local partners to improve and deliver topographic information for the Nation.” Having one “official” go-to base map for all the things is important so everyone, including the public, has the same point of reference for recreation, science stuff, and even emergencies, according to

And, sadly, North Creek is on the National Map – not Donkey Creek. In fact, the only official Donkey Creek in the state is a whole 98 miles west in Grays Harbor County just north of the Columbia River.

I feel robbed!

These Pierce Conservation District signs are marked with the Donkey Creek name on both sides of Harborview Drive near Burnham Drive for public awareness that a waterway is nearby as they pass Donkey Creek Park.

“Anecdotally Donkey”*

Ok, so mayyybe I’m being a little melodramatic here. But I’m new to town and up to my neck in its history to establish my personal sense of place (and for the readers of this little blog of mine). So it’s safe to say I was already sold on Donkey Creek’s origin story with its endearing black-and-white imagery of ruggedly handsome sawmill dudes in dusty work bibs. Sigh.

At the end of the day, does the North Creek vs Donkey Creek name game really matter?

I asked a couple of local history buffs that very question. At least one of them agreed that the steam donkey-inspired name existed merely as an anecdotal side note was, indeed, a bummer. Especially since they made the very astute observation that this apparent northern waterway isn’t even the northernmost stream within city limits – nor was it in the early days. Crescent Creek is. And that one is only a mile away. (Spoiler: that one is a stream, too.)

Meanwhile, it appears that consultants, scientists, ecologists, and a whole host people are mixed when it comes to which name to use. Many treat “Donkey Creek” and “North Creek” as practically synonymous. Elsewhere, reports and studies published by public and private agencies referencing the stream for one reason or another navigate its competing name situation with varying degrees of:

  • “North Creek aka Donkey Creek”
  • Just “North Creek”
  • Going full-Donkey and ignoring the federal name altogether

One City of Gig Harbor document even makes a point to say North Creek is “anecdotally” called Donkey Creek to clear up any confusion.

Then, plot twist: the Washington State Department of Ecology in 2011 referred to North Creek as a waterway that leads into Donkey Creek – as in they’re two separate entities.

2011 | Washington State Department of Ecology

The report specifically states that North Creek “… flows north to south and discharges to Donkey Creek, a salmon-bearing stream which flows through the city of Gig Harbor and into Puget Sound…” Even though the report is 12 years old, seeing it clearly depict North Creek and Donkey Creek as two separate branches of one larger watershed gave my little writer heart hope that at least part of the stream could actually have a real Donkey Creek name, not just a fake anecdotal one.

NOTE: The “Donkey Creek” name in Gig Harbor remains today on the Washington State Department of Ecology’s water quality reports filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s databases for water quality. But the base map the state data is plotted remains a federal base map, so it still marks the stream as “North Creek.”

So perhaps all maps aren’t the end-all for what a location’s official name is?

An old map & a database

For my next trick, I’d like to know just who exactly thought up the North Creek name. And when it was added to the National Map.

Wyatt and Clara’s bandit-blocking tree fort at Donkey Creek Park

Some history: When the Burnhams homesteaded along the stream in question in the late 1800s, the family predictably called it “Burnham Creek,” after themselves. Burnham Creek still shows up as a local place name in transcribed oral histories of early residents, like this one over on the Harbor History Museum’s former blog (yet still an amazing resource). Eventually, though, Alfred Burnham died in 1896; followed by his wife Rachel in 1933 and it appears their namesake lost a stream. (They still have a road, though, with the modern-day Burnham Drive still tied to their family heritage as the City of Gig Harbor’s official name for the eastside thoroughfare and backroad to Target).

At some point, the whole “Donkey Engine” scenario came into play during the stream’s sawmill era, resulting in a funky but locally popular name that stuck. Then, there’s the additional reality that the Native Americans called it something completely different for hundreds of years before Gig Harbor’s pioneering days even began.

So with all that creek naming going on, just when did some mystery person even have time to officially register the stream with a boring and not even entirely accurate navigational name somewhere mid-century?

I’m pretty close on this research quest. Kinda.

Source: USGS

U.S. Geological Survey

It appears as though that answer resides with the USGS. Established by Congress in 1879, this “science arm of the Department of the Interior” sent surveyors across America to classify its public lands, primarily recording its natural mining resources, and then other environmental assets later.

Did you know the U.S. Board on Geographic Names exists? I didn’t until this article! The board was created to standardize “the complex issues of domestic geographic feature names during the surge of exploration, mining, and settlement of western territories after the American Civil War,” according to its website.

Apparently, surveyors, map makers, and scientists sought uniformity in geographic names but were instead met with “inconsistencies and contradictions among many names, spellings, and applications (which) became a serious problem,” the board’s history page says. So the board was given authority to resolve unsettled geographic names issues.

Regarding the origins of North Creek vs Donkey Creek (or even why Burnham Creek didn’t stick for that matter), one clue resides in the USGS online database. There, records there show Gig Harbor’s “North Creek” stream name was sourced from a “map” the originated in the “U.S. Board on Geographic Names files.”

So …. that seems pretty straightforward that the creek was named early on. Except if the name came from the USGS folks and its naming board, was it named during the federal survey expeditions of the early 1800s or did the agency’s board approve a recommended name from the public in the early 1900s?

The plot thickens.


The file dates are also interesting because the North Creek name is listed as being “entered” on Sept. 10, 1979 and “distributed” throughout the federal departments on Dec. 31, 1981. But 1979 is way after North Creek clearly appears on the 1953 USGS map pictured above. Meanwhile, earlier maps of the same Gig Harbor creek site show no names for it at all.

Geese swimming in North Creek along the walkway leading out of Donkey Creek Park toward the harbor.

Further, maps from other charting companies in the same era, even local township maps (or at least the two dozen or so I looked up online), don’t show any name for the creek/stream in question and only sometimes include the little blue squiggly line indicating it even exists.

Just enjoy the park

How all that translates into the who, what, and when behind the official name – I’m not entirely sure yet. But I’m on the case!

Until then, please take your children to run around Donkey Creek Park, peruse the local science on the educational signs posted there, and enjoy the remaining weeks of summer. Oh, and let me know if your kids catch some tree fort bandits and I’ll make sure to pass along the news to Clara and Wyatt.

And, as a consolation prize, at least I can still cling to Donkey Creek Park being the legit name. The city established that one shortly after acquiring the site about 15 years ago.

This leads me to the restroom’s fun fact! In the years between the Burnham era and present-day Donkey Creek Park, a longtime building supply store stood at this corner of town. Many folks regarded Borgen Building Supply as a longtime community staple and were sad when it was torn down. The silver lining: vertical logs that lined Borgen’s walls were salvaged and placed on the park restroom’s little building where they remain today.

Oh, and check back soon so I can update you on all this name minutia 🙂

See ya out there!

 *Please someone make “anecdotally donkey” their new screen name. 

A previous version of this story incorrectly said Donkey Creek Park was the exact site of Gig Harbor’s original town plat. It was nearby.



Location: 8714 North Harborview Drive

Run by: The City of Gig Harbor

Parking: No official parking lot, but there’s special street parking on one side of Austin Street

Hours: Open from dawn to dusk

Other: Citywide parks and trails map; general parks information line: 253-851-8136