Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

PNW Nature centers

Michael Wohl and Stephanie Shephard and their son Max at Tacoma Nature Center. Photo by Joshua Huston

Nature centers: Growing young stewards

Centers offer ample info on animals, ecosystems and how to help both

Take a day trip to a nature center and pair it with a hike on a nearby trail. My family loves these mini-museums that invite visitors to explore Washington’s environment and its many enchanting wonders. Explore marine life, discover the origins of your drinking water, or track bird migration at a local refuge. Learn valuable lessons about being responsible stewards of our land and waterways. With interactive exhibits, scavenger hunts, art displays and plenty of hands-on activities, families will find these centers an engaging way to spend the afternoon.

Here are some of our favorite nature centers around the Seattle area:

Hiram Chittenden Ballard Locks

The Ballard Locks is a fantastic, pet-friendly place to watch boats of all sizes pass from the freshwater harbor to the tidal waters of Puget Sound. In the summer months, you can also watch salmon climb a water ladder on their epic journey to spawning grounds. The visitor center and museum explore the locks’ history through videos and installations. Take the trails: Stroll the paths at Carl S. English Botanical Garden to find the grassy hill facing the locks—a popular place for kids to roll down. Cost: FREE. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Location: 3015 NW 54th St., Seattle. 

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

Take your flock to Olympia’s Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge attracts more than 250 species of birds and other wildlife. Interactive stations and placards reveal a wealth of information about the delta, watershed, and animal habitat. Check out binoculars from the Norm Dicks Visitor Center to see wildlife up close. Take the trails: The refuge has four miles of mostly boardwalk trails that move through varied landscapes, from the forest to the river and pond. Cost: $3/four adults,16 and under: FREE. Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Location: 100 Brown Farm Road NE, Olympia.

The Breazeale Interpretive Center/Padilla Bay

Located in Skagit County, the pet-friendly Breazeale Interpretive Center is a mini-aquarium that packs a punch. Exhibits tell the tale of Padilla Bay estuary and its intertidal mudflats. Large tanks hold seastars, urchins, and various fish. Touch tanks are a plus for kids. Don’t miss the hands-on room: Sort shells and rocks, identify bones, read, play games, and more. Take the trails: A spiral staircase leads to a rocky beach or take the Padilla Bay Shore Trail, one mile south of the center, for grand views of the San Juan Islands, Mt. Baker, and the Cascades. Cost: FREE. Hours: Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Location: 10441 Bayview Edison Road, Mount Vernon.

Brightwater Environmental Education Center

Where does poop go? It’s a question that every curious child wants to know, and the answer is at this pet-friendly wastewater treatment facility and education center. Interactive stations teach kids about water conservation and how the treatment facility separates wastewater into clean and reclaimed water. Take the trails: The facility is surrounded by three miles of trails. Bonus: Brightwater Center has a PopUp StoryWalk to keep your little ones moving on the trail. Cost: FREE. Hours: Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Location: 22505 WA-9, Woodinville. 

Cedar River Watershed Education Center

This pet-friendly education center is all about the city’s drinking water. Listen for the rhythmic beats of water hitting the collection of drumheads created by local artist Dan Corson. Grab a blue ping-pong ball and get ready to experience a day in the life of a water droplet. Take the trails: For an easy walk, follow the paved path from the Center to the shore of Rattlesnake Lake. Cost: FREE. Hours: Thursday-Friday, Noon-5 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Location: 17905 Cedar Falls Road SE, North Bend.

Highline College MaST Center

Gobies, greenlings, sculpins, gunnels, sea stars, crabs, and snails, too. You’ll find them at this marine biology center and aquarium, where a 38-foot gray whale skeleton greets you at the door. There are more than 250 native Puget Sound marine species in the Center’s tanks of marine life and hands-on exhibits. Take the trails: Walk the beach at low tide. MaST divers often recover animals from the Sound, so be on the lookout as you walk on the shore. Cost: FREE. Hours: Saturdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Location: 28203 Redondo Beach Drive S, Des Moines.

Tacoma Nature Center

The Tacoma Nature Center is on a 70-acre preserve surrounding Snake Lake and offers something for everyone. Engaging activities include family walks, easy trails, and a fantastic playground. Exhibits host local wildlife like frogs, turtles, and bugs. Interactive areas teach how to build a wetland and its importance to our environment. The reading nook provides a quiet space, while the log-shaped tunnel calls for kids with a lot of energy to climb and scurry through, which is especially great on rainy days.  Cost: FREE. Hours: Everyday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Location: 1919 S Tyler St., Tacoma.

Read more:

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About the Author

Jasmin Thankachen

Jasmin is the Associate Publisher at Seattle's Child and an Eastside mom of two boys. She enjoys parenting with lots of love and laughter. Co-Founder of PopUp StoryWalk, she also loves children's picture books, essay writing, and community stories.