Our region is rich in close-in natural areas but we’ve picked a few favorites that are worth checking out in the spring. Bring along a guidebook to identify resident birds or spring-blooming plants and then let the kids run along trails edged in green. (Got a favorite place to roam that you don’t see here? Email email@example.com with your tip!)
Juanita Bay Park. Recently upgraded with boardwalk trails that are also very scooter-friendly, Kirkland's Juanita Bay Park is a great nearby location for exploration with active kids, even little ones. As you walk the trails, keep an eye out for amphibians, raptors and other birds, beavers and river otters. Wide-open hilly fields are a perfect place to run. The park’s rich natural history is highlighted on interpretive signs located along the trails.
Mercer Slough. The slough is an in-city marvel, mere minutes from downtown Bellevue. Boardwalks wind through quiet freshwater wetlands (the largest remaining on Lake Washington), where you can easily spot birds and other local wildlife. Before you venture out, be sure to stop by the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center (MSEEC) to check out the interpretive displays (helps to know what you’re seeing out there) and the kid-delighting outdoor “tree house,” which gives you a birds-eye view of the wetlands. The MSEEC is open daily, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Union Bay Natural Area. Seattle’s answer to Mercer Slough — a large, vital wetland surrounded by city — is located next to the Center for Urban Horticulture. Kids can run through fields along the easily traversed trail, which dips down to Lake Washington wetlands and then loops back around. Birders abound, so use your indoor voices as you travel through one of the city’s richest bird habitats, and watch for songbirds, great blue herons and waterfowl in the ponds. You’ll find plenty of spots to explore down by the lake, and keep your eyes peeled for turtles sunning themselves on partially submerged logs, and the occasional river otter. Trails open dawn to dusk.
Seward Park. You could easily spend a full day at this Seattle gem, running (or biking) along the flat, paved 2.4-mile shoreline trail, looking for eagles and great blue herons, and admiring the breathtaking views of Lake Washington and Mount Rainier. If you feel ambitious, take one of the upland hikes through (remarkably) old-growth forest. Be sure to stop by the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center, located in a restored historic building near the park’s entrance; the folks there are friendly and will tell you whatever you need to know about the park’s habitats and inhabitants and will even lend you a pair of binoculars. Consider a class in birding, owls or urban wildlife.
Spencer Island. This 412-acre wetland park in Everett, located on the Snohomish River estuary, offers big, serene views of fields, wetlands and ponds, and the North Cascades in the far distance. It’s a gorgeous place to visit on a sunny day, and kids can take off down the short loop trail to the south to watch waterfowl swimming in the ponds and look for signs of other critters; river otters, deer and a host of birds are regular visitors. Interpretive signs describe the park’s features.
Tacoma Nature Center. Tacoma also boasts an urban wetland. Stop by the visitor center for a self-guided-tour booklet, then take to the nearly two miles of easy trails. Waterfowl and other critters are always a possibility, but even if you don’t see a thing, you’ll enjoy a quiet, green retreat from the city and plenty of room for the kids to run. The visitor center is open Monday–Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.
Watershed Park. This remarkable 100-plus-acre urban forest in Olympia once — you guessed it — supplied water to early Olympians. Now families can walk trails through a landscape lush with mature trees and native plants (in the spring, look for fluorescent yellow skunk cabbage glowing along Moxlie Creek) without having to drive out of the city. If you do drive, you can access the 1.5-mile-long G. Eldon Marshall loop trail, which crosses Moxlie Creek several times, from the parking lot at 2500 Henderson Blvd. S.E. In late spring, look for chinook salmon in the creek. Pedestrians can access the park from 2829 Henderson Blvd. S.E., 1605 Eastside St. S.E. and 1201 22nd Ave. S.E. For a map that shows other trails in the park, visit the website.
Kris Collingridge was ParentMap’s Out & About editor. This article was updated in April of 2013.
Photo credit: Top photo by Allison Holm, Seattle Travel Mom