In Seattle, we have Discovery Park, which is great. Beautiful trails and views of the water, a nice playground, beach.
Imagine if Discovery Park also had a zoo and aquarium in it. And a living history museum. And a beach with a parking lot and modern, clean restrooms?
No need to imagine. This place does exist! It’s in Tacoma.
South Sound showpiece
Tacoma’s incredible, 760-acre Point Defiance Park is everything.
This past weekend, its popular Owen Beach reopened to the public, after a $6.3 million, 16-month-long renovation. New features at Owen Beach include a pavilion, a whale sculpture play area, improved ADA accessibility and adjustments for climate change.
My family and I braved the questionable forecast and went to check out all the new stuff.
First things first: parking and restrooms, because these are key to a successful outing with young children.
We saw a lot of cars parked along the side of Five Mile Drive, but hello people, there were tons of open spots in the Owen Beach parking lot, even on a sunny weekend afternoon. Maybe they didn’t know?
The old entry road is now a bike and pedestrian-only entry. A few yards down Five Mile Drive, there’s a new entry for cars into that large parking lot. The existing parking lot was reconfigured and restriped, adding 20 parking spots for a capacity of 248. There’s also a cluster of ADA-accessible spots closer to the water.
The old restrooms were scrapped and replaced with a new building: It now houses four single-stall family restrooms, each with a changing table inside.
New pavilion and play area
Next to the restrooms is a new beach pavilion. The building was pristine and empty when we visited, but the plan is to use it to hold classes and seasonal food concessions. It’s also available for private rentals, though not cheap: starting at $125 an hour in the off-season, and with a 4-hour time block. There’s a spigot on the front of the building, which is useful for hosing off sandy beach feet.
The brand-new pocket park features nature-themed equipment. There’s a wide stone slide, climbing logs and a cool orca sculpture. The cushy rubber ground surface makes the play area accessible for wheelchairs. Parents can relax on the surrounding benches while the kids tear around.
The old bath house/concession building was converted to kayak rental and storage. Kayak rental is available on weekends, 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., weather permitting. Rental fees start at $19 an hour for a single kayak or $26 an hour for a tandem.
Planning for further climate change
In anticipation of rising sea levels, the park's facilities were moved uphill, away from the water’s edge. (Sea levels are estimated to rise by over 6 feet by 2090, according to the Washington Coastal Resilience Project.) The promenade moved 18 feet inland, the picnic lawn moved 34 feet inland and the parking lot moved 57 feet inland.
All those improvements are great, but the very best part of Owen Beach is… the beach!
So much adventure to be had. Owen Beach includes 1,000 feet of shoreline. It’s perfect for skipping rocks, lounging, building driftwood forts, picnics. We even saw two brave swimmers in bikinis — brrr!
To be sure, this is a Puget Sound beach. The surface is mostly rocky and the water is chilly.
More to do in Point Defiance Park
Point Defiance Park is so big and offers so many activities, that it’s easy to make an entire day of it. Here are other spots we love inside the park:
Rhododendron Garden: Rhodies are the state flower of Washington, and the specimens here are spectacular. Some of them are as tall as trees! The garden is just across from the pedestrian entrance to Owen Beach, and it’s a nice, shaded walk through the forest.
Slides and steps: There’s a 50-foot-tall pedestrian bridge linking Point Defiance Park to Ruston Way, and a steep drop to the marina level below. Some creative genius dreamed up a series of slides and steps built into the hillside. My kids were thrilled with this real-life Chutes and Ladders. Bonus: Great workout! You also get to watch the ferries from Vashon Island docking.
The slide and steps are about a mile from Owen Beach, a lovely walk along the promenade. Or you can drive between the two attractions; there’s plenty of free parking at both places.
Dune Peninsula: Tacoma took a former Superfund site and turned it into a beautiful park. You have to see it to believe it.
Outer Loop of Five Mile Drive: Last month, a stretch of road along the park’s bluffs closed permanently to cars because of erosion and slope instability. You can still walk it or bike it, though. Take the 2.25-mile trip around the tip of Point Defiance and you’ll be rewarded with phenomenal views.
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium: Even if you’re a regular at another zoo in our region, PDZA is well worth a visit. There’s a brand-new kids’ play area, a theater show (featuring Professor Dumbledog!) and an enormous indoor aquarium. We think PDZA deserves an entire day’s visit all by itself! So plan a separate trip just to see the animals.
See? Point Defiance Park is everything.
If you go...
Find it: Owen Beach is at 5605 N. Owen Beach Road, inside Tacoma’s fantastic Point Defiance Park. It's centrally located for Tacoma and greater South Sound residents, and well worth the trip from points farther afield. It's about 40 miles from Seattle or Bellevue, about an hour’s drive without traffic. Get directions here.
Open hours: Tacoma parks are open a half-hour before sunrise to a half-hour after sunset.
Cost: The park is free to visit and parking is free, though there is paid admission for other attractions, such as Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. (These spots also have their own hours.)
More to do around Tacoma and beyond: