When the temperature turns cooler, it’s tempting to give up outdoor adventures in favor of cozier, indoor fun. Don’t put away your walking shoes just yet. Crisp fall days are perfect for a family hike — the air isn’t yet truly chilly and colorful leaves and soft light make for great family photo ops. These seven walks and hikes around the South Sound offer great fall color and are easy enough for even your youngest hikers.
1. Swan Creek
A hidden slice of nature within a few miles of city hustle and bustle, Swan Creek is full of alder, cedar, and vine and big leaf maples that change to vibrant shades of red, gold and orange in the fall. Children will love exploring the creek and crossing the bridge spanning it. Ours played in the water even during a fall thunderstorm.
Find it: E Roosevelt Ave. and E. 42nd St., Tacoma, WA 98404. From I-5, exit toward Puyallup on Highway167, then bear right onto Pioneer Way. The trailhead will be on your right.
Length: The trail from the Pioneer entrance to the southern trailhead is just over two miles, one way. We often just wander from the entrance to the creek, which is under half a mile. It does get wet and muddy, so wear boots.
Photo ops: Snap action shots of water play or the kids walking across the rustic bridge.
2. Wright Park, Tacoma
Arguably Tacoma’s grandest park, Wright Park is a 27-acre jewel with more than 630 trees, including many over 100 years old and many state champions (this means they represent the biggest of their kind in the state). In the fall, walk the easy loop around the park to enjoy a blaze of color. My boys also love finding fallen nuts and watching all the squirrels at work.
Find it: 501 S. I. St., Tacoma, WA 98405. From I-5, take the City Center Exit. Follow A Street towards the City Center and Pacific. Take a slight left onto 15th, followed by a slight right on Yakima, and then a left onto S. I Street.
Length: The loop around the park is just under a mile. It’s an easy path.
Photo ops: Any of the historic trees make for great pictures in the fall. There are also a number of interesting statues and a duck pond with a "say cheese"-worthy bridge.
Special features: Wright Park also has a great playground and a glass-walled conservatory. The conservatory features permanent collections and rotating seasonal exhibits, and it’s always balmy. If it’s too cold for your kiddos outside, you can usually find a colorful, seasonal backdrop to pose them in front of here. Be sure to poke your head in the gift shop and ask if they have food for the kids to give the koi fish. Admission is by donation, with a suggested donation of $3 per person.
3. Point Defiance Park, Tacoma
While Point Defiance Park is known as the home of Tacoma’s zoo, it’s a huge park with many gardens and an underused network of trails that are worth exploring. There's even a whole new section with epic slides and views to match. Stop at the entrance to look at the changing colors in the Japanese garden by the pagoda. Continue into the park to explore one of the trails. Here, the fall color comes from vine maples that offer a beautiful contrast to the evergreen lushness of the park’s old-growth forest. Be sure to have the kids look up to appreciate the immensity of these giants. Children will also enjoy finding other-worldly-looking mushrooms and fungi.
Find it: 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma. Take I-5 to Highway 16 W. Exit at Sixth Ave., take a left, and then a right on Pearl. Follow Pearl into the park. Follow the signage for Five Mile Drive, and/or stop at the kiosk near the park entrance for a trail guide.
Length: Five primary trails range in distance from half a mile to just under five miles. Park at any pullout along Five Mile Drive to access the trail of your choice. Marked posts indicate the route. While none of the trails are difficult, all can be wet and muddy, and you may encounter tree blowdowns. You can also walk paved Five Mile Drive on Saturdays and Sundays before 1 p.m. and weekdays before 10 a.m. when it is closed to vehicle traffic.
Photo ops: The duck pond and Japanese garden at the park entrance offer lots of cute places to snap pics. There are several waterfront vistas along Five Mile Drive that are great for wowing out-of-town guests.
4. Wildwood Park, Puyallup
Quiet Wildwood Park includes 55 acres of natural forest — a mix of evergreen conifers and maples that offers bold bursts of color. There are several paths through the park, including some that are paved and have exercise stations. All are easy and wide.
Find it: 1101 23rd Ave. S.E., Puyallup, WA 98371. Head up the hill from the fairgrounds and turn on 23rd Ave. The park is on the left.
Photo ops: Several rustic picnic shelters and bridges seem ready-made just for posing.
5. Billy Frank, Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Billy Frank, Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge offers excellent, all-season hiking. In addition to fall colors, you can peep seasonal wildlife. In the fall months, see if your children can spot wintering songbirds, peregrine falcons and bald eagles. The visitor center is small but has a number of interesting exhibits and binoculars to borrow. Kids can also participate in the free Junior Wildlife Manager program and explore the playground.
Find it: 100 Brown Farm Rd. N.E., Olympia, WA 98516. The refuge is about 20 miles south of Tacoma and 10 miles north of Olympia. Take Exit 114 from I-5. The cost is $3 for four adults to enter the refuge; children ages 16 and younger enter free.
Length: There is a level, one-mile boardwalk with four additional spur trails of just a tenth of a mile to 1.5 miles in length. Kids will like the viewing platforms. It can get slick and surprisingly chilly here. The last 700 feet of the boardwalk trail close early October through late January when it is duck hunting season. Dogs, running and sports are not allowed. Read more information on this page.
Photo ops: Get shots of the kids strolling the boardwalk and looking through their binoculars.
6. McLane Creek Nature Tail, Capitol State Forest
Trees at McLane Creek include cedar, hemlock and vine maple, which provide impressive fall color. No matter how pretty the trees are, your kids may take greater interest in the beaver pond. In the fall, you can also spot returning chum salmon. Volunteer naturalists are on hand beginning in mid-November.
Find it: The trail is in the Capitol State Forest, a Department of Natural Resources site, which means a Discover Pass is required to park. Take I-5 to Highway 8. Take the Black Lake exit and continue west to Delphi Road. Take a right and follow the road to the trailhead. Find more info on the WTA website.
Length: Just over a mile with a shortcut option. There are boardwalks and viewing platforms.
Photo ops: Take a pic of the kids going in or emerging from a natural tunnel of hemlock.
7. Naches Peak Loop, Mount Rainier National Park
Note: This hike needs to be done in early fall, before the first snowfall. Always check current trail conditions before heading out.
You get big eyefuls of the mountain on this popular, kid-friendly hike. Huckleberry bushes and other ground cover provide a blaze of red and orange.
Find it: Hike the trail clockwise for the best views of Mount Rainier. Park just west of Chinook Pass and follow the trail from the picnic area. Northwest Forest Pass required for entry. Get trip reports on the WTA site.
Length: Allow two hours for the 3.5-mile loop. It’s well maintained, and while a true hike (bring the 10 essentials), it’s suitable for most children.
Photo ops: Great shots of Mount Rainier with red and orange meadows in the foreground.
More great family hikes:
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2013 and updated for 2019.