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Field Trip: Magical Shadow Lake Nature Preserve in Renton

Kid-friendly boardwalk and trails wind through a wild, wet and wonderful bog preserve

Published on: September 09, 2015

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Young hikers at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Boardwalk at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

As a native Washingtonian, I feel right at home in the mossy dampness of a Northwest forest. Shadow Lake Nature Preserve in Renton offers a fantastic destination for stretching legs, surrounding yourself with green, and learning about the ecology of a bog. Keen eyes will spy frogs, banana slugs and other critters who live in the wetland habitat.

SHADOW, the non-profit organization that oversees the area, stands for Save Habitat And Diversity Of Wetlands. SHADOW operates an interpretive center, offers educational programs and tours, and welcomes visitors to explore the preserve's trails.

Every September, SHADOW invites the public to its Annual Frog Frolic, a free community event showcasing SHADOW’s work, celebrating the preserve and raising money for SHADOW’s continuing efforts to expand and restore the area. Frog Frolic features guided tours, kids’ activities, live music, food trucks, a silent auction and more.

Snail at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Snail. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

A little history

The nature preserve centers around a 5000-year-old bog that provides habitat for Northwest animals from frogs and snails to deer and elk. A bog is a type of wetland that consists of peat, which is accumulated dead plant material, and where sphagnum moss grows in acidic conditions.

Until the mid-1990s, the bog area had been used as a dumping ground for trash and debris. "SHADOW itself was born out of a community clean-up project," said Sahara Suval, Community Education and Program Manager at SHADOW. A local family bought the property and had over 100 dump-truck loads of trash removed. A corps of community volunteers and donations continues working toward expanding the preserve’s area and providing access for public exploration.

Whether you’re looking to get little legs moving or really dive into wetland ecology, Shadow Lake Nature Preserve warrants a visit to immerse yourself in the wild, wet landscape.

Boardwalk entrance to Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Boardwalk entrance to Shadow Lake Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

Getting started

Follow the website’s directions to find the unassuming entry to the area that staff call the “Boardwalk entrance.” Look for a small amphitheater, large shed with stairs leading to the Richter Interpretive Center, and a white mobile home which is a private residence (please do not disturb). Park in the gravel area just to your left or along the road. Climb the stairs to visit the interpretive center, read the information on the bulletin board or stop by the portable toilet if needed.

The Boardwalk trail

Shadow Lake’s main feature is the 1/4-mile (each way) boardwalk trail that stretches through the preserve, showcasing native wetland plants and the sphagnum moss of the bog. The boardwalk provides access to the delicate area while protecting plants from being trampled. Kids love a boardwalk for the “highway” feel, though I caution visitors to try to keep kids from running. Even though most of the wood boardwalk is covered by metal grating to make it less slippery, a boy in our party slipped on the grating and badly cut his hand. Better to take your time and follow the numbered spots on the downloadable tour or carefully search for critters among the leaves.

Plants alongside the Boardwalk at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Plants along the Boardwalk. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

Note: A spur trail leaves the boardwalk about 2/3 of the way to the end. SHADOW staff ask that visitors not walk on this trail.

Further exploration: Upland area

Small sign marking Upland area at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Sign marking Upland area entrance at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

For those ready for more exploration, the preserve’s Upland area offers additional trails well worth a visit. SHADOW staff ask that you either stop by the office at the Richter Interpretive Center (at the Boardwalk Entrance) or call the office at 425-432-4914 to let them know you plan to visit the Upland area (leaving a message with your name, date and time, and number in party is fine).

To get to the Upland area, drive less than one mile southeast from the boardwalk entrance to a gated dirt road featuring a small white sign that reads "Forest Restoration in progress." Note, this area is easy to miss so drive slowly and figure you may have to turn around as you may have passed it by the time you spot it. There is enough parking for a handful of vehicles. We were the only car parked there on a recent weekend visit.

Gated entrance to Upland area at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Gated entrance to Upland area. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

To visit the Upland-area trails, pass through the (small) human-sized opening in the metal gate and walk a few dozen yards to the first clearning. Take a right to explore the 3/4-mile (one way) old logging-road trail that's overgrown and feels wild. This trail is the ideal place to let the kids run, though runners may miss resident creatures hidden in plain sight. A sharp-eyed boy in our party spotted a frog sitting defiantly in the middle of the trail. It held its ground, even as the boys got very near it, and only hopped into the brush when grown-ups tried to step over it.

Our troop also found snails and banana slugs, and we might have spotted garter snakes if I weren't determined to keep my eyes skyward to avoid the sight of them. 

Frog in Upland area of Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Resident frog at Shadow Lake. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

Opposite the old logging-road trail (to the left from the clearning with your back to the gate where you entered) there's a very short loop trail to explore, as well as a portable toilet. SHADOW staff is working on restoration along the road straight ahead from the gate, so asks that visitors stick to the right or left spurs from the first clearing.

Old logging-road trail in Upland area of Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Old logging-road trail in Upland area. Photo credit: Nancy Chaney

More Shadow Lake activities

SHADOW offers guided tours for a suggested donation of $3–$5 per person. Sahara Suval suggests that groups have a minimum of 4–5 people and up to 15 people is okay. Call to schedule as available times vary, but could be as soon as the next day or within a few weeks. Tours can be tailored to the age and interests of your group and can last from 1–2.5  hours.

In addition to its Frog Frolic, SHADOW offers other events throughout the year and always welcomes volunteers to its work parties. Contact staff ahead of time for guidance on what volunteer opportunities are family friendly. Field trips are offered to local school groups as well.

If you go...

Cost and hours: Shadow Lake Nature Preserve is free and open to the public daily during daylight hours. Donations are gratefully accepted to continue restoration and education efforts.

Location: Shadow Lake Nature Preserve is located at 21656 184th Ave SE, Renton, WA 98058, at the southeast edge of Renton. Map it or follow directions on the website. It's about a 40-minute drive from Bellevue, Tacoma or Seattle.


-Plan for roughly 2–2.5 hours total to visit the boardwalk and the Upland area trails, depending on the walking speed of your group members and their desire to stop and investigate plants and critters.
-Bring snacks or lunch and water and have a picnic at the amphitheater at the Boardwalk entrance. Portable toilets were clean and not overly smelly on our recent visit.
-Don't let rain stop you. A drizzly day is perfect for exploring this damp, green area. Wear boots or old shoes if you're worried about dirtying nicer shoes.
-As mentioned, try to keep kids from running on the boardwalk as it can be slippery even with metal grating, and the metal grating is very sharp.

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