In the spring, my kids and I go a little stir-crazy. We long to go hiking but the weather is still drippy and our favorite hiking trails in the mountains are snow-laden. It’s time to get creative and explore trails closer to home.
We especially like places that offer indoor nature centers where we can duck out of the rain and keep learning and exploring. Read on for 10 of our favorites, including one longer road trip for when the wanderlust bug bites.
Discovery Park, Seattle
In the heart of Seattle, kids can choose from several miles of trails through different habitats. This urban nature reserve is accessible in all seasons and in all weather, and will fill your need for green trees, birdsong and fresh air.
Favorite trails: Park at the Visitors Center/East parking lot and start on the 2.8-mile loop trail, which ambles through the woods, along bluffs with stunning views and through meadows; there's even a sandy area where kids can dig. Try the whole loop, or just do an out and back. From the north parking lot (where Daybreak Star Cultural Center is located), you can walk the short Wolf Tree Nature Trail.
Indoor options: Hop into the Visitors Center/Environmental Learning Center to escape the cold and play with the hands-on exhibits. Kids can learn about the forest and the seashore.
Mercer Slough, Bellevue
One of Bellevue's largest parks, Mercer Slough is 320 acres of wetland ecosystems teeming with all kinds of wildlife, from pileated woodpeckers to mallard ducks, with more than seven miles of trails. Begin your exploration by parking at the Environmental Education Center, a complex of classrooms, a visitors center, and lookout tower with a commanding view over the wetlands (ask the ranger for a key).
Indoor options: Get some tips from the friendly ranger, pick up a trail map and a scavenger hunt, or you can even check out a backpack with activities, books and binoculars for a suggested donation of $5. There is an art exhibit inside, as well.
Favorite trails: Walk south from the Education Center along the road and down the hill to the Bellefields Loop Trail, where you can choose the distance you hike. A one-mile loop takes you through forest and wetlands fresh with the pungent odor of skunk cabbage, down to the open water of the slough. From there you can go farther if your kids desire. Birds are abundant, and there are interpretive signs along the paths and boardwalks. If you're more ambitious, you can connect from the Bellefields Trail to the Heritage Trail, another loop of more than a mile that meanders past blueberry farms, among other habitats.
Logistics: Check the current hours and get directions at the Education Center home page.
Cedar River Watershed, North Bend
My kids have fond memories of puddle stomping the trail at this wonderful area about 45 minutes east of Seattle, and watching osprey dive for fish in the lake.
Favorite trails: You can park your car at Rattlesnake Lake and walk the gentle gravel path a half-mile up to the Cedar River Watershed Education Center.
Indoor options: In the Cedar River Watershed Education Center kids can learn about the water cycle by popping ping-pong balls into a fabulous system of pipes, talking to the naturalists, or touching some fascinating items collected from nature. Check out one of the backpacks with bug-catching tools, binoculars, field guides and other activities for a quick walk around the area. There is plenty to see and do here on a rainy day.
Padilla Bay, Skagit County
An hour-and-a half north of Seattle, near Anacortes, is a marvelous estuarine research reserve worthy of exploration.
Favorite trails: You have a few choices of trails to take. There is a wooded loop (a little less than a mile long) that you can access from the parking lot; check out a backpack with learning activities for along the way. Add a few hundred yards by walking the paved path down to the beach and explore the mudflats. Or drive a mile south of the Interpretive Center to the South Shore Trail and walk along the tops of dikes, with water on one side and fields on the other. All trails are great for birding and for giving kids room to explore.
Indoor options: The Breazeale Interpretive Center has a free museum chronicling life in the estuaries of the Salish Sea. We love the floor-to-ceiling aquarium full of sea life, and the hands-on room will keep the youngest children busy.
Extras: Padilla Bay is close to Anacortes. Pick up a bite to eat in the historic downtown afterwards, visit the beach and playground at Washington Park, or drive to the top of Mt. Erie to watch the sunset.
Logistics: Go to the Padilla Bay website for information on hours and directions.
Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Olympia
Located between Tacoma and Olympia, just off of I-5, this sprawling nature reserve offers plenty of room to roam. The Refuge encompasses a vast area around the Nisqually River delta. The Refuge was renamed in early 2016 in honor of Nisqually tribal member Billy Frank, Jr. who challenged state and federal government to honor the the Medicine Creek Treaty established in 1854. Mr. Frank died in 2014.
Favorite trails: Walk the boardwalks through the tangled wetlands, observing ducks and geese and listening for songbirds and frogs. Keep your eyes open for signs of beavers and other wildlife. You can also take longer walks further out into the estuary.
Indoor options: When you are ready to retreat indoors, children will enjoy the displays in the Visitor Center as they learn more about the ecosystems in the refuge.
Extras: Visit the Refuge's Nature Explore Area for youngsters to play, dig, pour dirt, make art and just be outside in a more natural playground than a typical suburban park.
Logistics: Check current hours and conditions at the Nisqually NWR website. The cost per family to visit the Refuge is $3.
Brightwater Center, Woodinville
You might think a wastewater treatment plant in Woodinvlle wouldn’t be a pleasant place to hike, but King County designed the open space surrounding Brightwater for recreation, wildlife and education. There are open areas, ponds, streams and forest to attract wildlife and humans.
Favorite trails: There are three miles of hiking trails on the 70-acre site. You can choose from a couple of short loops on varied terrain and good surfaces. Make sure to stop and visit one of the ponds while you are there.
Indoor options: At the Brighwater campus, kids and adults can learn all about our water system – where our water comes from, how we use and waste it, and how our wastewater is treated. There are interactive exhibits for all ages.
Extras: You’ll see lots of interesting and engaging art on the Brightwater campus, such as glass microbes and industrial pipes in the shapes of tree branches. You can also participate in educational events and walks throughout the year. Kids and adults over 9 years old can take a tour of the treatment plant. Bainbridge Island's Islandwood offers popular family programs and summer camps at Brightwater.
Logistics: The grounds and trails are open from dawn to dusk daily. The Education and Community Center are open from Monday–Thursday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. It is open one Saturday a month for tours and other events. You can get driving directions and print out trail maps from the website.
Tacoma Nature Center
Visit this urban wetland preserve in the South Sound for a chance to view wildlife and birds in all seasons.
Favorite trails: There are 2.5 miles of gentle trails in the park. A 1-mile loop circles Snake Lake. If you are up for more distance and a bit of elevation, take the Hillside Loop away from the lake.
Indoor options: The Nature Center has activities and games for children if you need to take shelter from the weather. There is also a small gift shop in the building.
Extras: Kids who still have energy to play on nicer days will enjoy the Discovery Pond. This nature-themed play area contains innovative structures for kids to explore, such as a tree house and a pond with waterfalls.
Logistics: The Tacoma Nature Center trails are open daily from 8:30 a.m. until sunset. The Nature Center itself is open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m., (this is where the restrooms are located). The Center is closed on Sundays and some holidays. You can download a trail map and trail guide from their website.
Extras: Take a class, go for a guided walk with a naturalist, or buy plants from the on-site native plant nursery (open May through September.) It even has a series of classes specifically for homeschoolers.
Bellevue Botanical Garden
Just minutes from downtown Bellevue, this gem is a fabulous place to visit to enjoy spring blooms and birds. There is no admission charge.
Favorite trails: Starting from the Visitor Center, the half-mile Tateuchi Trail winds through a wide variety of garden types. Many children enjoy the atmosphere of the Asian-themed Yao Garden, which feels secluded inside a wooden fence. The one-third-mile Lost Meadow Trail takes you through a peaceful natural forest area. And don't miss the Ravine Experience, a 150-foot suspension bridge that crosses a ravine in the heart of the garden.
Indoor options: Families can duck into the Shorts Visitor Center to warm up and use the restrooms if needed. You can visit the gift shop and pick up maps and other information about the gardens inside.
Logistics: The Bellevue Botanical Garden is free and open from dawn to dusk daily. The Visitor Center is open from 9 a.m.–4 p.m. You can find driving directions on their website.
Extras: Take a quick half-mile walk east to Wilburton Hill Park and play at the playgrounds. The Botanical Garden also connects with segments of the Lake to Lake Trail, so older kids and adults can walk several miles in either direction if they choose.
Lewis Creek Park, Bellevue
Tucked away in the hills of east Bellevue, this hidden gem offers plenty of room to explore. The park protects the headwaters of Lewis Creek, attracting birds and wildlife as well as little adventurers.
Indoor options: The Lewis Creek Visitor Center has a commanding view over the meadow and wetlands. Kids will find activities to do on a rainy day, books to look at, tables and chairs and even a spotting scope. Families can check out binoculars to use on their walk. The Visitor Center is open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.– 4 p.m.
Favorite trails: Hikers can choose from the three miles of trails and wander through wetland, forest and grassland habitats. Lewis Creek runs freely through the forested areas, and the 0.5 mile loop around the wetland lets explorers get up close with cattails and red-winged blackbirds.
Logistics: Find driving directions on its website. The park and restrooms are open from dawn to dusk every day. Extras: Take a class with a naturalist, play on the playground, or even come and watch a nature-themed movie or documentary.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park, Vantage
Sometimes you just need a road trip east to escape the gloom of Puget Sound. East of sunny Ellensburg, on the banks above the Columbia River, sits a fascinating Interpretive Center at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park (about a two-hour and forty minute drive from Seattle).
Indoor options: I recommend visiting the Interpretive Center before doing a hike. Kids can learn all about petrified wood, how it was formed and where it was found in the area. The Interpretive Center is open on weekends through April; open days increase toward the summer months. Call 509-856-2700 or check the website for current hours and days of operation when planning a visit.
Favorite trails: After you learn about petrified wood, take a 3-mile hike at the nearby trails, seeing petrified logs in the ground and experiencing the desert in spring.
Logistics: For directions, head to the State Park website. You’ll need a Discover Pass to park. These destinations are about three hours from Seattle, so you might consider staying overnight in the area. There is camping at the State Park on the banks of the Columbia River.
Extras: If you still have energy, head back west along the Old Vantage Highway to the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility, where you’ll get to see giant wind turbines up close and learn about how they work. The Center is open April 1–Nov. 15.
Any of these hikes will help to lift your spirit, work out the wiggles, and give everyone a dose of inspiration. Just pack your rain gear, mittens and a warm hat, plus a change of clothes for the car ride home, and you’ll be cozy enough. You’ll have great memories to carry you through till summer, when you’ll be able to enjoy more sunny trails.