Des Moines is located on the east shore of Puget Sound, approximately halfway between the major cities of Seattle and Tacoma. The city is bordered by the suburbs of Federal Way to the south, Kent to the east, Sea-Tac to the northeast, Burien to the north, and Normandy Park to the northwest. It is one of the few points along this shoreline where the topography facilitates access to the water, and a recreational marina operated by the city, with moorage, boat launching and pier fishing facilities, is located there. Forested Saltwater State Park on a steep ravine between the Zenith and Woodmont neighborhoods is the most-used State Park on the Sound. Near the border of Federal Way, Redondo has a board-walk complete with a Salty's restaurant and a pay parking lot.
Property within the city has been the subject of land buyouts because of noise from aircraft landing or taking off from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport two miles (about 3.2 km) to the north of Des Moines.
There is no evidence that Indian tribes had permanent settlements in Des Moines. However, there is ample evidence that the Duwamish and Muckleshoot Indian tribes came to Des Moines for fishing and clamming.
What was to become Des Moines was first explored by Europeans on May 26, 1792, during the exploration of British naval Captain George Vancouver on his flagship HMS Discovery. The first Americans to visit the area were part of Charles Wilkes' Expedition.
The first known settler was John Moore, who probably arrived about 1867. His homestead claim certificate (#285) was granted on July 2, 1872.
In 1887 F.A. Blasher persuaded some friends in his home city of Des Moines, Iowa, to help finance the development of a town on Puget Sound. The work was done by the Des Moines Improvement Company. In 1889 the area was platted into lots and sold by the Des Moines Improvement Company, which had been incorporated by F. A. Blasher, Orin Watts Barlow, Charles M. Johnson, and John W. Kleeb. Lumber mills provided the community with its primary employment.
Early transportation to Des Moines was by water. The Mosquito Fleet provided access to Seattle, Tacoma, and Vashon Island. The first road, the Brick Highway, was completed in May 1916. The first cross-Puget Sound automobile ferry started service from Des Moines to Portage on November 13, 1916. This ferry service continued until September 1921. Before World War II farming fueled the local economy.
Following the war, suburbanization of the community occurred. With increased population, the county government was unable to supply the level of service and local control desired by Des Moines residents. In response to this, Des Moines was officially incorporated on June 17, 1959.
The city's most visible asset is its 838-berth small boat marina that was opened on May 10, 1970. In 1980, a 670 foot concrete and aluminum fishing pier was built at the north end of the marina.