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Into the Urban Wild: 10 Seattle-area Nature Centers and Gardens to Explore

Find a mudlode of adventures

Published on: February 23, 2016

Padilla Bay. Photo credit: Brian Holsclaw, flickr CC

Need a boost to get outside with your kids in the dark, drizzly days? Here to help are environmental learning centers and gardens that dot our region’s urban wildlands. Treasures such as Mercer Slough and Tacoma Nature Center offer quiet trails to explore on your own time as well as kid-friendly activities — both indoors and outdoors — that can spur families to learn about the nature around them: frog-finding walks, owl prowls, crafts and more.

As much as your intent is to get outdoors, sometimes it can be just as satisfying to assemble a pinecone bird feeder, knowing that soon you’ll be watching feathered neighbors enjoy your effort.

Water wise: Brightwater Center, Woodinville

At Brightwater Center’s 70-acre campus in Woodinville, a wastewater treatment plant co-exists with a nature preserve that has been restored to its native vegetation, which includes wetlands, meadows and forest. At the center, kids and adults can learn all about our water system through interactive exhibits for all ages. Outside, three miles of trails meander through wildlife habitat.

Activities: The Education and Community Center at Brightwater is open to the public from Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., offering a variety of seasonal tours and activities. 

Mercer Slough lookout tower

Wetland magic: Mercer Slough, Bellevue

At one of Bellevue’s largest parks, 320-acre Mercer Slough, 7 miles of flat trails, including short loops, lead hikers through a verdant ecosystem of canals and wetlands — even a blueberry farm on the west side of the park. Look for red-winged blackbirds and duck species along the waterways or downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees in the woods. The Environmental Education Center, a complex of classrooms and a visitors center, perches on the edge of the slough, complete with a lookout tower that kids can climb (up a ladder!) to peer into the tree canopy.

Activities: The slough’s Education Center, open daily 10 a.m.–4 p.m., has a small assortment of displays and natural items to touch and see, and offers programs such as a monthly nature movie on fourth Friday nights, and a free nature walk around the wetland every Saturday (2–3:15 p.m.). Pacific Science Center also runs high-quality school-break and summer camps at Mercer Slough that explore science and nature, such as a Sasquatch-themed camp in July.

Stream In: Lewis Creek Park, Bellevue

Tucked away in the hills of south Bellevue, near Cougar Mountain, this lovely preserve protects the headwaters of Lewis Creek, attracting birds and wildlife — as well as little adventurers. A 1-mile loop trail is a perfect short hike for families, and there are also two connected playgrounds near the park’s visitor center.

Activities: The spacious, light-filled Lewis Creek Visitor Center, open Wednesday–Saturday 10 a.m.–4 p.m., offers a commanding view over the meadow and wetlands, and many rainy-day activities: Thumb through nature books, look at casts of animal tracks, use a spotting scope. Activities include a monthly story time on the first Friday of every month (ages 3 and older, $2, registration required); or indoor-outdoor programs on spring topics such as frogs or butterflies, or monthly guided hikes on the first Saturday of each month.

Seward Park Audubon Society

Into the woods: Seward Park, South Seattle

The jewel of South Seattle, Seward Park boasts nine miles of trails that wind through old-growth forest (reportedly the city’s last stand, look for the two eagles’ nests), a beach on Lake Washington and a 3-mile paved walk around the peninsula. A nature-oriented playground near the Seward Park Audubon Center features a thrilling zip line, a multilevel climbing complex and more play features that kids love.

Activities: The Audubon Center offers a rich set of programs for both younger kids (look for Toddler Tales and Trails events for little ones) and older kids, including full-moon owl prowls, bat treks and summer camps. Stop by the center to browse the nature shop, pick up an Explorer Pack for the park, or take a time-out at the library, which offers nature titles as well as toys and puzzles for little ones (open Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.).

Magnuson Children's Garden, fort pile
Magnuson Children's Garden, fort pile

Frogs and forts: Magnuson Park, North Seattle

At Magnuson Park’s wonderful children’s garden (located in the north end of the park, near the Junior League playground), kids can learn about composting, go on a scavenger hunt or even build a fort from a small pile of logs. Check out an Explorer Pack at the Magnuson Community Center for further self-guided exploration of the park, where a network of flat trails beckons for strolling or low-key cycling. Birds are abundant; in winter months, you might see bufflehead or a great blue heron in the wetlands. In spring and summer, look for frogs and spectacular dragonflies.

Activities: Magnuson Nature Programs, an organization sponsored by Magnuson Community Center, offers classes and family activities including monthly family wetland walks (on March 26, the focus is tree frogs), nighttime nature walks, monthly garden days, nature adventures for tots and summer nature camps.

Climbing 'Wood Wave' at Kruckeberg. Photo credit: Bryony Angell
Climbing 'Wood Wave' at Kruckeberg. Photo credit: Bryony Angell

Garden gem: Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline

This gem of a garden, located on a residential street in North Shoreline and run by the City of Shoreline, is a perfect kid-size world of native plants, trees, public art and trails. Play spots include an extraordinary burl sculpture that kids can climb (titled Wood Wave) and a glen that invites kids to build fairy houses from natural materials.

Activities: Kruckeberg is open Friday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m., from March to October. Seasonal events for kids include a leprechaun hunt for Saint Patrick’s Day, Garden Tot programs in the summer for kids ages 2–6, and summer camps. Admission to the garden is free, though a fee and registration are required for some programs.

Tacoma Nature Center
Tacoma Nature Center

Nature in the city, Tacoma Nature Center

This urban wetland preserve, run by Metro Parks Tacoma, offers a chance to view birds and other wildlife in all seasons, with 2.5 miles of gentle trails. Don’t miss Discovery Pond, a nature-themed play area with innovative structures for kids to explore, such as a tree house and a pond with waterfalls.

Activities: Duck out of the rain at the Nature Center (open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.) to explore hands-on activities for kids. Upcoming programs run by Tacoma Nature Center (many of which are not at the center itself) include the last Pier Peer of the winter, in which children 8 and older can investigate nocturnal sea life at the docks; as well as many classes and camps, and workshops. The center also teams up with Tahoma Audubon to offer bird-related activities and outings for kids.

Great lake: Cedar River Watershed Education Center, North Bend

Located on Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend, the Cedar River Watershed Center (open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.) is a showcase of sustainable architecture. Imaginative musical water features (rain drums!) and displays are designed to help visitors understand the cycle of water use and the Cedar River Municipal Watershed’s role in supplying drinking water to the city of Seattle. Outside, you can walk the lake for an easy hike or, with older kids, scale Rattlesnake Ledge (4 miles round trip).

Activities: The educational programs at the center vary seasonally: Through March, winter weekend offerings rotate between free wildlife-themed story times and guided “adventure hikes” exploring  the lake. In the summer, take a guided tour into the protected watershed (try the one-hour, family-oriented tour). Check the calendar for what's next.

Eagle at Padilla Bay. Photo credit: Gilia Angell
Eagle at Padilla Bay. Photo credit: Gilia Angell

Birder’s paradise: Padilla Bay, Skagit County

In the Skagit Valley near Anacortes, Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is a birder’s paradise and offers a breathtaking river delta landscape. Walk a short wooded loop (0.8 mile long) at the reserve or drive to Bayview nearby to walk the Padilla Bay dike walk, which runs 2.25 miles one way across flooded fields and tidal flats. Look for river otters, northern pintail ducks and bald eagles.

Activities: At the reserve, the Breazeale Interpretive Center (open Wednesday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.) chronicles life in the estuaries through its floor-to-ceiling aquarium; and more displays and hands-on activities. It offers aquarium tours, and nature exploration programs for preschoolers and elementary-school-age children, based on seasonal themes.

Crafting nature: Pilchuck Audubon, Snohomish County

This Audubon chapter supports family nature programs year round throughout Snohomish County, including the annual Kids’ Bird Festival in Everett in May and Swift Night Out in Monroe in September. Free craft events for kids are held at the Edmonds Native Plant Demonstration Garden at the Willow Creek Fish Hatchery in Edmonds, located just above the Edmonds marsh (a fantastic and easy place to see birds any time of the year).

Activities: Check the calendar for upcoming events. 

5 more spring nature adventures

Try geocaching. Technology plus nature plus a treasure hunt is a win-win-win.

Find frogs. Nothing says spring like a dusk frog chorus. Find kid-friendly hikes starring frogs and other spring critters at .

• Walk to a waterfall. The classic spring hike is to a roaring waterfall, fed by melting snowpack. We tell you where to go at .

Clam up. Clamming is easy, gets families outside in any kind of weather, and at the end of an hour or so, you have dinner. 

Storm away. Grab your kids and your Gore-tex and explore these beaches and parks that are at their best in bad weather. 

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