On a day trip to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, children can come face to face with wolves, watch Roosevelt elk materialize in the misty woods and giggle at cavorting river otters – then return home to crash in the comfort of their own beds.
The park is just 55 miles south of Seattle, near Eatonville, and makes for an exciting day trip or an unforgettable stop on the way to Mt. Rainier National Park.
The 725-acre park began with a gift of land and a commitment to show North American animals in natural habitats. Visitors can take a 50-minute tram ride through the park's free-roaming area, scope out the spacious animal exhibits and stroll along forest trails. The park turns 35 this year and has a birthday bash planned for July 17 with special birthday treats for the animals and birthday-themed activities for the humans.
Before our recent visit, we downloaded kids' activity sheets with animal checklists from the Trek's Web site, so our girls knew what to look for. The tram has windows all around, so we got a great look at bighorn sheep, caribou, bison and mountain goats. Some of the animals stood inches away from the tram. (Don't worry; humans are the only carnivores on this part of the tour!)
After our ride, we strolled with our little ones along the paved forest pathways to large, natural enclosures that housed grizzly bears, black bears, lynx, cougars, bobcats, owls and eagles. It was enchanting to see these animals in homes that so closely mimicked their wild habitat. We caught one of the keeper talks that happen throughout the day along the paths and were fortunate enough to see a spotted owl up close.
The wetland animals were another highlight for my girls. We saw beavers grooming one another in their dens, martens, wolverines and fishers scampering around, and a river otter that seemed to know it was being watched and loved the attention.
Almost all of the viewing areas are covered and the picnic shelters are heated, so the park is a great place to visit whether it's sunny or rainy (as it was the day we visited.)
On the drive home, we chatted about all we'd learned – the spotted owl's asymmetrical ears, the enormity of a bison's head, the relationship between lynxes and snowshoe hares. Happy and tired, the kids conked out and we arrived home in time for dinner.
IF YOU GO
Where: Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, 11610 Trek Drive E., Eatonville.
When: Open seven days a week, July 1 to Sept. 7, 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Days and times vary other times of the year.
Cost: Adults (13 to 64) $16, seniors (65 and older) $14.50, youth (5 to 12) $11, tots (3 and 4) $8, kids under 3 free. Discounts for Pierce county residents, AAA members, and military.
Contact: 360-832-6117; www.nwtrek.org/
Laura Spruce Wight is a Seattle-area freelance writer and mother of two nature lovers.