“Whoa!” said my son, “I think that bison is looking at us!” We were on the Discovery Tram Tour at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, and one bison in a group we were passing did seem to have its eye right on us. Northwest Trek is an open-range zoo near Eatonville and the the tram tour is the highlight of any visit to the park. You’ll have plenty of “this-isn’t–like-a-regular-zoo” moments at Trek, where animals native to our region roam free or spend their days in large exhibits that mimic their natural habitats. Northwest Trek celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2015, opened an expansive kids' play area in 2016 and continues as a uniquely Northwest destination and a not-to-be-missed wild time for animal lovers of all ages.
Key highlights of a trip this summer include American bison calves, Roosevelt elk calves and bighorn sheep lambs, all born to Northwest Trek's resident animals in late spring and growing quickly. They are with their herds, roaming the park's hundreds of acres, and can be viewed from the tram tour. Animals include bison, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats (roamiing freely); and grizzly bears, bobcats, wolves and eagles (in naturalistic exhibits).
Hurry to see a trio of fluffy little cygnets, or baby trumpeter swans, before they're sent to a special swan conservation organization.
“It’s always exciting for us to witness the joy and wonder on our visitors’ faces when they get to experience seeing a new calf or lamb for the first time,” Northwest Trek Education Curator Jessica Moore said.
In addition to riding the park’s tram, visitors can walk forested paths to view American black bears, a grizzly bear, Canada lynx, gray wolves, red foxes, beavers, a river otter and other animals.
Northwest Trek exists because of the generosity of Doc and Connie Hellyer, who donated the land to Metro Parks Tacoma with the goal of preserving a home for animals and teaching visitors to love nature. The park opened on July 17, 1975.
Our family thinks Northwest Trek warrants a visit any day, especially if you have kids who love nature or animals or are entertaining guests from out of town. We’ve been going to Trek since our boys were small and we’ve learned a few tips and tricks to help you make the most of your visit.
1. Go early for best animal viewing
Animals at Trek tend to be more active early in the morning, particularly during warmer weather. If you arrive in the afternoon on a hot day, you’ll likely be there for nap time!
2. Time your tram
The highlight of your Trek visit will be the Discovery Tram tour through the park's 435 wild, free-roaming acres, a 50-minute, naturalist-narrated ride that gets you up close and personal with the animals in a truly unique way. You might see a trumpeter swan gliding on the lake, goats leaping in the meadow, or deer grazing on the hills. The animals are free to roam through the area, and every season at Trek offers something different. Late spring is the time to see baby animals, and late summer brings the sound of bugling elk.
Tram tours run every hour (10 a.m-6 p.m. during the summer) and you pick your time when you purchase admission. Do not be late for your tram time, and make sure little ones have used the bathroom first. Though food isn’t generally allowed, the friendly driver will tell you that your small children are welcome to have their sippy cups and crackers. They want all their riders happy! Window seats are best, but you’ll get a good look at the action from any seat. The drivers are trained naturalists, and they’ll share lots of information about Trek and the animals.
You can also pay extra for a specialized tour such as a Photo tour or Keeper tour.
3. Pack a picnic
There is food at Trek – think standard burgers and sandwiches – but we suggest packing a picnic. There are lots of tables near the front entrance.
4. Dress for walking
In addition to the tram ride, Trek features a walking tour that is paved, making it wheelchair and stroller friendly, though there is one fairly steep slope down to the tram. You’ll want comfortable shoes to be able to take it all in. Exhibits include raptors, such as eagles and turkey vultures; Cat Country, with bobcat, lynx, and cougar; and the Northwest Loop with bears, fox, wolves, and coyotes. There are also wetland and forest animals.
5. Prepare your kids for this type of zoo
Note: If kids hear the word "zoo," they may be thinking lions and tigers. You may want to read some stories on area animals before you go, so your children understand what they'll be seeing.
6. Don’t miss the hidden gems
Don’t miss the Baker Research Cabin when you’re by the wolves. It’s a small cabin where kids can experience being scientists and (my boys’ favorite part), duck into a little tunnel where a window looks directly into the wolf exhibit.
If you have trouble seeing the bears, we’ve found they’re usually in the back. To find the cats, you often have to look up, up, up, into the trees.
The wetland and forest animals may not have the wow factor of some of the other creatures, but these exhibits are particularly nice for younger children because the animals are easy to spot and fun to watch. There is a small, underground section where you can see them going in and out of their homes, and there is an overlook where you can see some of them having a swim.
7. Talk to the naturalists
Take time to enjoy a trailside talk with a naturalist. hey often have some creatures or interesting exhibits with them. It’s a great chance for kids to ask questions.
8. Stop at the Discovery Center
Don’t miss the Cheney Family Discovery Center. It features educational exhibits, books, and puppets. There are also typically animal- or nature-themed crafts, and there is always a volunteer or naturalist on hand to answer questions and help out. It’s a nice stop if the kids are tired or you hit a rain shower. It can be hard to get kids out of here, so you may want to go after your tram ride.
9. Make a day of it — wild play time included
Trek really isn’t on the way to or from anything. Plan to make this a full-day outing. Kids won't let you miss Kids' Trek, the half-acre, adventure-themed playground opened in 2016. If needed, plan on having the kids passed out in the back seat when you head for home.
10. Zip wild into the trees
If you need more adventure, Trek offers four different high ropes courses suitable for various ages. Admission to these is separate (and not cheap), but may be worth it if you need to bond with a thrill-seeking teen. (As of this writing, no one in our household has braved them!)
If you go ...
Cost and hours: Northwest Trek is open daily, 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays, 9:30–5 p.m. weekends, and stays open a bit later through summer. Check website hours on the day you're plannign to go. Admission to the park is $22.25 for adults, $20.25 for seniors, $14.25 for youth ages 5–12, $10.25 for ages 3–4, and free for ages 2 and under. Members of the military and Pierce County residents receive a $2 discount for adults and a $1 discount for children. (The tram ride is included with admission.)
Location: Northwest Trek is located at 11610 Trek Drive E. in Eatonville. It's about a 50-minute drive from Tacoma, an hour from Olympia, and an hour and a half from Seattle or Bellevue. There is plenty of free parking.
Tips: Pets (except service animals; see policy online), sports equipment, smoking and alcohol are all prohibited. The park is fully-ADA accessible; contact park staff ahead of time with any specific questions.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated in June 2017.