The sun shines on a tour guest and the Northwest Trek keeper/tour guide Deanna Edwards. Credit: Nancy Chaney
Ever wanted to go on an African animal safari? Sounds amazing, but that kind of trip is out of reach for most families — and totally impossible right now.
But if you've got animal fans among your crew, you're in luck. A premier native animal destination, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, is offering private, behind-the-scenes jeep tours for families. They're the closest thing to a Northwest animal safari you're going to find, and they're called Keeper Adventure Tours.
One important note, while this experience doesn't touch the expense of a trip to Africa, it's definitely in the big splurge category. The 90-minute private jeep tour will cost your family $400 for up to five members of the same household. More on that later.
In normal times, a visit to Northwest Trek includes three aspects: Seeing smaller animals, such as beaver and bald eagles, and predators such as bears and cougars, in traditional zoo-like habitats; viewing large animals in the huge free-roaming area via a tram ride; and playing — at the awesome Kids' Trek playground.
In today's times, all that has changed. The playground is closed and Trek staff have exercised their creativity to provide different ways for visitors to safely enjoy the park.
Keeper Adventure Tour
One special way that visitors can still enjoy viewing the animals at Trek is by private jeep tour.
My son and I met our tour guide, keeper Deanna Edwards, outside the front gate of Northwest Trek. She was ready with her open-air keeper jeep and mic. In pre-pandemic times, the jeep would hold up to 12 guests, but it was just the two of us and Deanna, each of us wearing our masks. A sheet of plastic separated the driver area from the back where we rode.
We set off to explore the free-roaming area and find the animals. After passing through a double gate, we right away spotted a couple of caribou — with huge and fuzzy-looking antlers — lounging in the shade.
After a bit more driving and chatting, along with Deanna telling us about her duties as a vet tech and animal keeper, we came upon two of Trek's female moose, Aspen and Willow. The ladies were munching on some brush, with a couple of black-tailed deer nearby. We stopped and admired them, and attempted to take photos, though the bright light and shadow were a challenge to an amateur photographer.
Next we found the mountain goats. This fluffy pack with their earnest faces I think were my favorite. Next we passed a small band of Roosevelt elk resting in the shade.
A deer by the roadside looked at Deanna with yearning in its eyes. She wants a snack, Deanna told us, though the animals had already had their morning feed that supplements the vegetation they eat throughout the day.
After passing the white-rumped bighorn sheep who looked at us with what seemed to be a bit of suspicion, we came upon the park's showstopper: the bison.
In the midst of the bison pack, Deanna took the jeep off-road for a very close look. Two male bison rumbled and grunted at one another in play for dominance. It was pretty awesome to witness!
Female bison and older calves lounged in the open meadow, perhaps enjoying the morning sunshine. It was truly impressive to see these seemingly gentle giants — an American icon — up close.
The value for families
The beauty of the keeper tour is really twofold: Our guide Deanna stopped the jeep wherever we spotted an animal — for a closer look and a photo op, and she also shared with us her personal knowledge of each resident animal's origin and characteristics.
We also got to go off-road with the jeep, and we were able to search for animals that on the traditional tram tour, might have been out of view from the regular route.
Deanna was friendly, positive and a great ambassador for Northwest Trek. We enjoyed her enthusiasm and stories about caring for the different animals.
The price tag for the private tour, as mentioned, is quite hefty. This tour might appeal to families who are looking for a truly exclusive and private experience. Trek staff also suggested that the tour could serve as a celebratory family outing for a birthday when regular group parties aren't possible.
The keeper tour also includes timed admission to Trek's current Wild Walk experience. This is the COVID-era way that visitors can see the animals in the "core," the name staff use for the traditional zoo-like habitats. Here visitors can see cougars, bobcats, beaver, otters, raccoons and more. There is a one-way path that visitors must follow, and masks are required.
Wild Walk tickets alone cost $12 for adults and $10 for youth ages 3–12. (Kids ages 2 and under are free.) So this amounts to a potential value of $54 for a family of two adults and three kids.
If you go...
Find it: Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is located at 11610 Trek Drive E. in Eatonville, Wash. 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.
Time: Keeper Adventure Tours are offered Fridays, Saturdays or Sundays, at 10:30 a.m. each day.
Cost: Keeper Adventure Tours cost $400 for up to five members of the same household (if your immediate family has more than five members, contact Trek for accommodation). All tour guests must be ages 5 or older. Tours must be booked in advance and masks are required. The tour includes timed-entry admission to the Wild Walk experience.
Notes: The super-cool Kids' Trek playground is currently closed, and add-on features like Zip Wild zipline tours are also closed. COVID safety measures are in place in all open areas.
Other opportunities to visit Northwest Trek:
If a private tour doesn't fit your budget, there are two other ways to visit Trek now.
Private experiences at PDZA:
Northwest Trek's sister institution, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, just launched two private animal encounters that will also appeal to families.