Tucked away kitty-corner from a Fred Meyer and across the street from Foss High School is an oasis of trees, trails, birds and the occasional glimpse of forest wildlife. Welcome to the Tacoma Nature Center. This 71-acre nature preserve encompasses Tacoma's Snake Lake and its surrounding wetlands and forest areas, and is a surprising gem just a few minutes' drive from the freeway.
"This is a place where people of all ages can come and feel like they're connecting to nature, even in the middle of the city," says Margie Shea, education program specialist and on-site educator.
From the center's Nurture in Nature Preschool, which offers hands-on outdoor and nature education in addition to traditional early education, to adult education classes such as advanced birding and nature-mapping, the center offers programs for toddlers all the way up to senior citizens.
The great thing about the center, as my 5-year-old son and I discovered, is that, programs aside, you can enjoy exploring and learning at the Nature Center on your own.
My son and I packed a light snack, got our "muddy" shoes on and headed toward the center. We had no trouble parking, though it was a sunny Saturday morning. When we arrived, the Discovery Pond play area was closed for a private party, but my son was more than happy to explore the Visitor Center first.
As we entered, we were welcomed by a smiling volunteer as well as a pair of turtles "sunning" themselves on a rock under a heat lamp in a very convincing habitat. While I was pretty excited about the snake in a nearby terrarium, my son had already discovered the indoor learning and activity area. A cozy hollowed-out "tree" is a hiding place for kids dressed up as raccoons, squirrels or birds (costumes hang from nearby, easy-to-reach pegs), and a wall of wildlife puppets wait for little ones to put on an impromptu puppet show.
The center offers a nice balance of play and education. My son peered through a magnifying glass, fascinated by a display of colorful insects. A collection of shed snakeskin fueled the imagination. An exhibit featuring a great blue heron stretching its wings looms above a display of a beaver habitat.
"Let's try to find one of those!" My son, all set to go, was out the door after about 10 minutes, ready to hit the trails.
As a matter of fact, once we rounded the first loop of the trail and headed across the picturesque bridge, we did spy a great blue heron, as still as a statue in the lake among several ducks dabbling in the water.
More than two miles of soft-surfaced walking trails wind through the nature preserve. In some areas, the trees are so dense, the "urban soundscape" is swallowed and masked by their foliage. We ran into a couple visiting from Vashon Island who said they hardly knew they were in the middle of a city.
After the trails, we were ready to take a break at one of the benches around the Discovery Pond play area, which was now open. After a snack, my son explored the playground, which had the typical offerings (slides, ladders, etc.) but all were cleverly disguised as fallen and hollowed-out trees. My son enjoyed an old-fashioned working pump that he was able to use to create a waterfall down an incline of rocks.
The Tacoma Nature Center got the seal of approval from my son, who was begging to return the minute we got in the car to leave. "It was fun to explore the trails and listen to the birds," he said, when I asked what his favorite part was. While the visitor center and playground were undeniably fun, it was the magic of the trail that impressed him the most.
"The beauty of the center is that it is always changing," Shea points out. "The leaves on the trees will be a different color; different birds will be there depending on the season; there's always a chance for discovery."
She adds, "What the Nature Center offers is a lifelong learning experience. We're here to help people fall in love with being outdoors."
IF YOU GO
Where: 1919 S. Tyler St., Tacoma.
When: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday; closed on Sundays.
Admission: FREE, with a suggested donation of $3.
Contact: 253-591-6439, www.metroparkstacoma.org.
Jenni Prange Boran is a Tacoma-based writer, painter and proud mom.