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Padilla Bay National Estuarine Reserve, Mount Vernon

Located near Mount Vernon on former farmland that slopes gently down toward the Padilla Bay estuary, the Breazeale Interpretive Center at the Padilla Bay Reserve is a hub for kid-friendly activities that include hiking, visiting nature displays and exploring the bay's vast mudflats that are exposed at low tide.

When you arrive, go inside first thing to learn about the area at the ecology exhibits and hands-on room. Interactive displays emphasize the importance of the watershed and of the rich variety of life supported by the estuary's abundant eelgrass beds. Most of this is more suitable for older kids, although a mural that covers one wall contains drawers and doors that smaller children can open to find out information about the bay's inhabitants. The well-designed hands-on room contains activities for children from infancy up to about age 10. We hung out for about an hour here; the two 5-year-olds with me played games and examined bones, shells and animal pelts, while the 11-year-old studied the saltwater aquaria.

Check out a children's interpretive booklet from the front desk (binoculars and guide books are also available), then set out on the 0.8-mile Upland Trail loop. The easy loop is an ideal hike for younger children and can be traversed with an all-terrain stroller. You'll see ginger Scottish Highlands cattle grazing the neighboring farmlands, and pass through a pocket cedar grove and brambly open fields with distant mountain views.

Numbered entries in the booklet match posts set at various locations along the trail. Each booklet entry highlights habitat features and encourages kids to think about what they're seeing: Why are these rocks here? Why are Douglas firs so valuable? We found a lot of coyote scat on the trail and an owl pellet under the trees, which gave us the chance to talk about animal diets. The 5-year-olds were extremely motivated by the hunt for each post and ran on ahead, no foot-dragging. (April also happens to be a very good time to look for migrating birds and native wildflowers along the trail; bird checklists and botanical booklets are available at the front desk.)

After your hike, take another trail down to the beach area. You'll pass through a tunnel that goes under the road, and come out at an overlook with expansive views of the bay and a spiral staircase that goes down to the beach. Unlike the Seattle area, which has to experience extremely low tides to expose the beach, even mild low tides at Padilla Bay will open up the flats. During very low tides the entire 3-mile-wide bay is drained of water, a spectacular sight. Don't forget to bring boots.

Food. Brown-bagging it is the best option since the reserve is located in the tiny community of Bayview. You can have lunch on the terrace in front of the Interpretive Center or on benches located along the Upland Trail. There are no picnic tables.

Particulars. All activities at the Padilla Bay Reserve are free, and the trails and parking lot are always open. The Interpretive Center is open Wednesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

For more information, including directions, a history of the reserve and a tide predictor, visit padillabay.gov. To find the link to the tide predictor, click on "Recreational Opportunities" at the menu at the top of the homepage, then scroll down to "Boating."

Want more? Bayview State Park, located a half-mile south of Padilla Bay Reserve, offers camping and a wide, grassy waterside picnic area. A 2.25-mile bike/pedestrian shore path is located one mile south of the center, with interpretive signs, benches and picnic tables. The parking lot is located on Second Street, just north of the trailhead. The reserve also hosts educational activities for all ages. Go to padillabay.gov and download the newsletter for details.

Kris Collingridge is ParentMap's Out & About editor and a diehard explorer of mud flats.

This article originally appeared in the April, 2006 issue of ParentMap.

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