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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

Nancy Chaney

Published on: July 30, 2020

Shadow Lake Nature Preserve Renton hike for kids
Shadow Lake Nature Preserve boardwalk. Credit: Nancy Chaney

Editor's note: We first visited Shadow Lake Nature Preserve back in 2015. The approximately 5,000-year-old peat bog is only a little older now, but visiting the preserve has changed. It's currently open Tuesday–Saturday by reservation only. Read on for info.

As a native Washingtonian, I feel 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 all shades of green and learning about the ecology of a peat bog. Keen eyes will spy frogs, banana slugs and other critters who live in the wetland habitat.

SHADOW Lake Nature Preserve is a non-profit organization that owns the land and allows public access. It also operates an interpretive center, offers educational programs and tours, and welcomes visitors to explore the preserve's trails.

Shadow Lake snail in hand
Credit: Nancy Chaney

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.

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

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, past Community Education and Program Manager. A local family bought the property and had over 100 dump-truck loads of trash removed. A corps of community volunteers and donations continue working toward expanding the preserve’s area and providing access for public exploration.

Shadow Lake entrance and amphitheater
Boardwalk entrance to Shadow Lake. Credit: Nancy Chaney

Getting started

Follow the website’s directions to find the unassuming entry to the area that the staff call the “Boardwalk entrance.” Look for a small amphitheater and the Richter Interpretive Center, a former mechanic's garage that has been remodeled to include educational displays and classroom space. Upstairs is SHADOW's office. There's also a mobile home which is a private residence (please do not disturb). Park in the gravel area just to your left or along the road.

The Boardwalk trail

SHADOW Lake Nature Preserve'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 cut his hand. Better to take your time and follow the numbered spots on the downloadable tour and carefully search for critters among the leaves.

Shadow Lake bog plants
Bog plants along the boardwalk. 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

For those ready for more exploration, the preserve’s Upland area offers additional trails well worth a visit. Book your reservation online. Time slots are available Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. For groups of 10 or more, SHADOW staff ask that you email or call the office at 425-432-4914 to make arrangements.

To get to the Upland area, drive less than one mile southeast from the boardwalk entrance to a gated dirt road featuring a white sign that reads "SHADOW Lake Nature Preserve." 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 two vehicles.

Gated entrance to uplands area of Shadow Lake
Gated entrance to Uplands area. 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 clearing. Take a right to explore the 3/4-mile (one way) old logging-road trail that feels wild. Check out newly installed trail signs and info — thanks to local Eagle Scouts.

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.

Frog at Shadow Lake preserve
Can you see the frog? Credit: Nancy Chaney

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.

Opposite the old logging-road trail (to the left from the clearing with your back to the gate where you entered) there's a 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.

Upland trails at Shadow Lake Nature Preserve
Old logging-road trail in Shadow Lake's Upland area. Credit: Nancy Chaney

SHADOW offers guided tours for groups for a suggested donation of $3–$5 per person. Call to schedule as available times vary. Tours can be tailored to the age and interests of your group and can last from 60–90 minutes. 

Check out the offerings on SHADOW's education page. There you'll find different types of events and programs, including those catering to youth.

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...

Find it: Shadow Lake Nature Preserve is located at 21656 184th Ave. S.E. in Rentonat the southeast edge of Renton, not too far from Maple Valley. It's about a 35- to 40-minute drive from Bellevue, Tacoma or Seattle.

Hours: The preserve is open to the public Tuesday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m. by appointment only. Book a visit online. You'll then receive instructions on visiting by email.

Cost: Shadow Lake Nature Preserve is free, though donations are gratefully accepted to continue restoration and education efforts. If you are able, consider supporting this terrific spot.


  • 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 a recent visit.
  • Dogs are not allowed, so leave your furry friends at home.
  • 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 sharp.
  • Remember that this is a private preserve; read and adhere to SHADOW's rules of access so that everyone can enjoy this fascinating bog for many years to come.

Editor's note: This article was originally published in 2015 and updated for 2020.

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