Found! Three Hidden Gems in Point Defiance Park


By Jessica Peyton Roberts

clearviewcarpetblock2Most of us know Point Defiance Park for its gorgeous gardens, the Five-Mile Drive, and the acclaimed Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (puffins!). Originally a federal military reservation, President Theodore Roosevelt signed a deed giving Tacoma Point Defiance to use as a park in 1905.

Around the turn of the century, Tacoma’s residents enjoyed the nascent zoo, campgrounds, passenger ferries, a restaurant, and the city’s first indoor swimming pool, The Nereides Baths. However, while the Nereides of Greek mythology were beautiful maidens who rode on dolphins through rough currents, the park’s patrons used it for tamer recreation like swimming lessons in cocoon-like 80 degree water.

point defiance parkSome of the park’s original attractions, such as the Baths, are long gone, while others, like the Zoo, have become fixtures. One of the defining characteristics of Point Defiance Park’s 125 year history is how it continues to evolve with the community as a site for recreation and education. Consider adding any of the following three activities the next time you are in the park:

Waterfront Walkway: Interim Trail

On September 22, 2013 Metro Parks Tacoma offered a sneak peek of the newly completed “Interim Trail,” the first step in fulfilling a decades-long dream to connect Point Defiance Park directly to the Ruston Way Waterfront. The trail is expected to open for public use by the end of October 2013.

Nancy Johnson, the Metro Parks Communications and Public Relations Manager, explains that the walkway is meant to give the community the “totality of experiences” offered between Point Defiance and Tacoma. The path is a way to reintegrate Point Defiance Park into Tacoma residents’ consciousness as a quintessential city landmark. She also emphasizes that the Interim Trail is just that – temporary. “It’s important for people to understand what is there is for short-term use,” she explains, while Metro Parks completes the design and construction of the permanent 20 foot wide path anticipated to open in early 2016.

However, there is no reason to wait to start enjoying the walkway. Grab your bike, your dog, or your running buddy and take off from downtown (or from any of the parks along the way) enjoying the gorgeous waterfront scenery. When you make it to Point Defiance, have a picnic while enjoying the view of Commencement Bay.

Science and Math Institute

point defiance park
Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute students spend at least half of their day learning outside. Photo credit: Casey Madison

Don’t feel like running 7 miles? That’s ok, I didn’t either. For those of us who choose to drive to Point Defiance, you will notice a number of trailers near the Interim Trail’s entrance. You’re looking at one of the most inventive learning environments in the country, the Science and Math Institute (SAMI).

Opened in 2009, SAMI is recalibrating how 450 high school students learn by sending them outside for at least 50% of their days to study in the park.  Co-Director Kristin Tinder explains, “Hands on, minds on.”

Chances are good you will bump into one of SAMI’s classes while visiting Point Defiance. Classrooms are sprinkled throughout Point Defiance Park, including sites in Fort Nisqually, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, and the Pagoda. Students take accelerated classes for grades 9 and 10, before choosing a “pathway” to concentrate on for their junior and senior years. Tinder compares the school’s curriculum model to that of a university, preparing their students to go onto liberal arts, engineering, and pre-professional programs following graduating.

If you know a student who is potentially interested in enrolling in SAMI, Tinder says the school welcomes those who embrace active learning and enjoy spending time outside. SAMI regularly hosts information nights, but you might find it more helpful to stop by the campus the next time you visit Point Defiance Park.

Fort Nisqually Living History Museum

fort nisquallyDelving further into the park, follow signs to the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. Whether you have a professional or personal interest in local history, the museum’s Research Library offers one of the most comprehensive collections of fur trade documents in the region. Lane Sample, Education Program Specialist, highlights the Fort Nisqually Indian Shop Blotter (1834-1852) and microfilm copies of the fort’s  Journal of Occurrences, the original Hudson Bay Company’s operations on Puget Sound business records from 1833-1869.

Community members are welcome to research in the reading room, and Sample encourages local students to make use of the resources for research papers.  SAMI students have access to the library, and Thurston Middle School’s fourth graders visit the museum each October to kick off their year-long “Homesteader’s Program,” starting with Fort Nisqually’s annual Candlelight Tour.

Sample explains that the tour, in the spirit of the museum’s regular activities, invites guests to be “ghosts from the future” observing Fort Nisqually’s significance in the Pacific Northwest’s history.  The Library is open Thursday afternoons or by appointment at 253-591-5339.

Break these fascinating spots into a few visits, or make a day of it – there’s a reason Point Defiance consistently ranks high on local and national lists for parks!

Point Defiance Park

5400 North Pearl Street

Tacoma, WA 98407

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