"Northwest Trek? Isn't that really far away?"

Almost everyone I talked to about this 715-acre wildlife park, located about 55 miles south of downtown Seattle, was sure that the distance was an insurmountable obstacle to visiting with car-shy kids. As we found out on a sunny winter weekday morning, it's really not. We were amazed to be turning down the Trek's tree-lined drive a bit over an hour after we left our North Seattle neighborhood, even after running into some traffic through Puyallup.

The big draw at Northwest Trek is the 55-minute tram tour that takes visitors into the park's 435-acre free roaming area -- a pretty mix of grasslands, woods and wetlands -- to look for "hoofstock," or bison, moose, caribou, Roosevelt elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and native black-tailed deer. Kids on the tram gasped as we came upon a lone male bison, who had settled his bulk a few feet from the road, almost as soon as we set out. A few minutes later, the tram moved slowly through a herd of huge female Roosevelt elk who ambled out of our way, unconcerned; we also spotted a pair of male elks sparring in the trees. Our affable guide kept up a steady commentary throughout the tour, pointing out habitat features and talking about the natural history of the animals we came across.

The tours take place several times daily, and you'll be assigned a tour time when you arrive. This gives you the chance, before or after, to explore the rest of the grounds, which consist of paved paths -- easily accessible by stroller -- that meander through lush second-growth forest to naturalistic animal enclosures. We got an eyeful of gray wolves, bobcats, a lynx and a black bear, but the hit of the day was the wetlands area. Look for a beaver lodge with an underwater viewing area, and glassed-in wolverine, skunk, fisher and badger dens that allow close examination of the animals if they're at home.

Don't miss the Cheney Discovery Center, especially if you visit with grade-schoolers and younger. It's packed with well-kept animal pelts, antlers and skulls to handle; coloring activities; a working honeybee hive; puppets and other activities to teach kids about Washington's plants, animals and habitat. We spent close to an hour moving from station to station as the kids unwound after an exciting and tiring afternoon in the fresh air.

Food. On your way to the Trek, you'll pass through Puyallup and its surrounds, which offer the usual lineup of grocery stores, fast food and fast coffee. A large, clean picnic pavilion with plenty of tables is available on site for brown-baggers, as are a few tables on the grass in the sun. At the Fir Bough Cafe, located near the entrance, you can buy hot and cold drinks and reasonably priced sandwiches, hamburgers, pizza and the like.

Particulars. For directions and current hours and admission, visit www.nwtrek.org.

Want more? Northwest Trek is located close to Mount Rainier, and the view of the mountain behind miles of horse pasture is breathtaking on a clear day. On your way out, take a left onto SR 161, toward Eatonville. Drive three miles down the road to the pullout at Dogwood Park, which offers an unobstructed view of the mountain for your photo-op pleasure.

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