Across the street from the Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium is a little slice of the great outdoors. The Tacoma Nature Center, a 74-acre preserve filled with wildlife, is a hidden gem in an otherwise busy city. And in 2019, the Tacoma Nature Center is celebrating 40 years of serving the community through education, preservation, and outdoors play and exploration.

Snake Lake, the wetlands that surround it, the upland forest and meadows make up a deceptively large habitat for a wealth of plants and wildlife. “It is literally an urban oasis,” says Michele Cardinaux, Nature Center supervisor. “With the wetland habitat of Snake Lake and the upland forest and meadow habitats, it is a great chance for visitors to see what this area looked like before it became a populous city.”

With seven trails for hikers of all ages, the Tacoma Nature center is a perfect excursion for the whole family. “A good portion of the trails are flat and well packed gravel so they are accessible to most visitors, including families with strollers and young children,” explains Cardinaux. “It is a great ‘starter’ hike for families.”

Hiking the trails is a great way to see some of the local wildlife. Frogs, turtles, ducks, herons and more can be seen by taking the First Bridge Loop Trail. “There is a little bit of all the local natural habitats found here,” says Cardinaux, and adds that the best times to see wildlife is early in the day or late at night. “In addition, quiet walkers in small groups will see more than large and loud groups. The best chance to really see something great is to choose a “sit spot” and watch nature come alive around you as the critters forget you are there and go about their normal activities.

Tacoma Nature Center Bridge
The first bridge has a lovely view of the Snake Lake. Photo credit: Daniel Beers

Another great technique is to change your perspective. Lay down on the forest floor and look upwards through the tree branches. Bend over and look through the shrub understory. Use your binoculars to zero in on the lily pads and look for frogs and dragonflies.”

After a hike, children can burn off what remains of their energy at the Discovery Pond, a play area that includes rocks and logs to climb on, a covered slide, and a pond with a little waterfall. “The nature-themed play area Discovery Pond is a great bridge into the natural world at the Tacoma Nature Center,” says Cardinaux. “It helps families see how a natural area can be fun and allows them to become more comfortable with elements of nature in a more familiar setting – a playground.”

The Nature Center itself is also well worth the visit. From insect displays to living frogs and turtles to a play area with costumes, the exhibits showcase the ecosystem in a modern and interactive way. It even has its own beehive! The Tacoma Nature Center also has a wealth of scheduled activities for the kids.

Tacoma Nature Center
Photo credit: Daniel Beers

“Our summer camps and homeschool science program are hugely popular and that is what is coming up next in summer and fall. What many people do not know is that we also house the Outdoor Adventures program here. That includes kayaking trips and snow trips as well as some amazing camps! Another program area we are quite pleased with is the Agents of Discovery game. This is an augmented reality game that visitors can play on their mobile device while at the park. This summer the same game with different missions will be available at Swan Creek Park and Titlow Park.”

To Cardinaux, her role at the Tacoma Nature Center is a labor of love. “My favorite moments are when I can be in the indoor or outdoor classrooms and observe an instructor doing their job with the children under their care. I love watching a child get excited about things in nature and the staff here are great at awakening that excitement!”

The Tacoma Nature Center’s hours are 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is closed Sundays. The trails are open daily 8:00 a.m. to 30 minutes after sunset. The Discovery Pond play area is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 30 minutes after sunset. Pets are prohibited on the trails and in the play area, so don’t forget to leave your furry friends at home.

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