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Tacoma’s Marvelous Point Defiance Park: Best Play Stops for Families

Rediscover all that Tacoma’s signature park has to offer

Published on: April 27, 2023

Young girl held up by her father touching the Jelly Globe
The Jelly Globe at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Image courtesy of PDZA

Point Defiance Park is the crown jewel of Metro Parks Tacoma. If it has been a while since you visited — or if you’ve never been — it is high time to rediscover all this park has to offer. And with the addition of the Wilson Way Pedestrian Bridge, Point Defiance is now connected to Point Ruston, where you can easily spend a whole day exploring its cute shops and restaurants.

1. Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance Park

It is hard to believe that Dune Peninsula park was once one of the most polluted Superfund sites in the United States. It was so bad that it inspired Frank Herbert to write his science fiction masterpiece “Dune” — the peninsula’s namesake. Children will love the large hill with big steps to climb up, while adults will exult at the gorgeous views. Interpretive exhibits installed throughout the park area provide a helpful way to teach children about taking care of the environment — and the consequences when we don’t. Plenty of parking and restrooms are available. Dune Peninsula also includes three other notable features:

Frank Herbert Trail . Named after the famed author and Tacoma native, this paved trail connects to the Ruston Way Waterwalk and the Wilson Way Pedestrian Bridge. Encourage children to search for the embedded medallions emblazoned with quotes from “Dune” and by Frank Herbert.

"Kids at the top of a large slide"
Photo credit: Nikki McCoy

Tacoma’s real-life “Chutes and Ladders”. Swooping down the side of the hill to the marina complex below are six slides with adjacent stairways, affectionally called Tacoma’s “Chutes and Ladders.” Even adults love these slides! At the base, there are a few picnic tables where you can perch for lunch or a snack.

Wilson Way Pedestrian Bridge. The Wilson Way Pedestrian Bridge connects Point Ruston and Point Defiance Park. Be sure to stop at the point in the middle, which is called “The Moment” because it’s the perfect spot to pause and take in the incredible views. Enjoy scenes such as ferries crossing to Vashon Island and all of the activity at the waterfront, Point Ruston and the Port of Tacoma — and don’t forget majestic Mount Rainier in the distance!

"Owen beach"
Owen Beach. Photo credit:

2. Owen Beach

After a 16-month-long renovation project, Owen Beach reopened last summer. More parking, a safer entry/exit road and easier water access make the beach more enjoyable for families. The whole refresh gives the beach a modern aesthetic that highlights the scenic beauty particular to Puget Sound. A new, climbable whale sculpture is a fun feature. For those with mobility issues, there is now access to the beach. New restrooms, benches, and a pavilion for classes and community events complete the upgrade.

Pro tip: Check the Metro Parks Tacoma event pages and filter for Point Defiance Park. During the summer months, an “Explore the Shore” event invites visitors to join naturalists from the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Stroll along the beach at low tide to learn about the creatures that can be discovered in the tide pools. You may have the opportunity to see prickly pink sea stars or hold an ocean crab.

"Young boy standing in a small tunnel that looks like a log"
Playing at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

3. Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium really gives you great value for your ticket price, as not only is there a fabulous zoo to explore, but also the stunning Pacific Seas Aquarium. The new Little Explorers Nature Play Garden, opened in spring 2022, is designed for children ages 3–5 to get their wiggles out, learn, and create with immersive natural activities and materials such as sticks, fir cones and log slices.

Pro tip: The zoo offers a variety of unique behind-the-scenes tours called Premier Experiences. Prices are discounted if you are a member. Memberships are also very reasonably priced and come with a variety of flexible options.

4. Fort Nisqually Living History Museum

The Fort Nisqually Living History Museum invites visitors to step back into the past. Download the self-guided tour brochure to explore 17 different structures within the walls of the fort. Exhibits rotate through the museum’s collections. Currently on exhibit is “Families of the Fort,” which highlights the stories of four families that lived at Fort Nisqually, with the aid of artifacts passed down from one generation to the next.

Events take place throughout the year at the fort and have even included a historic escape room from the past. If you have a small group of children (minimum of eight), consider booking a two-hour small group workshop. These fun and educational workshops are very engaging. “Food and Fire,” for instance, guides participants in helping to build and start a fire, churn butter and make biscuits on a stick. “Light the Night” is a make-your-own-candle workshop in which kids learn about how homes were lighted in the mid-1800s.

5. Five Mile Drive and Trails

Due to concerns about erosion, the outer loop of Five Mile Drive is now closed to all motorized traffic. This makes it the perfect destination for cycling with children. Surrounded by an old-growth forest with plenty of overlooks, this is a very scenic ride. You can access multiple trails from the road, but just be aware they are for pedestrians only, with no bikes allowed. It is common to spot deer and other wildlife in this section of the park.

Don’t miss the epic Mountaineer Tree. This massive Douglas fir dwarfs all of the trees surrounding it. At more than 450 years old, it is 218 feet in height and 7.5 feet in diameter. The old-growth forest at Point Defiance Park is one of too few along Puget Sound that has survived logging.

6. Point Defiance Gardens

Did you know that there are nine Point Defiance gardens within the park? Flowers bloom from spring into early fall. A highlight of the Rose Garden is the rose arbor. Children will love this tunnel of flowers when it is in bloom. The Northwest Native Plant Garden is often overlooked, as it is situated adjacent to the park exit, across the street from the other gardens. If you plan to do any hiking with younger children, this is a great place to introduce them to it. The 1.5-acre garden is designed to feel like you are out in nature miles from urban life. Native plants abound, and the garden also features a peaceful pond and a lovely waterfall. Download the brochure from the website to get more details.

"Family in a boat wearing life jackets"
Rent a boat at Point Defiance Marina. Image courtesy of Metro Parks Tacoma

7. Point Defiance Marina

Point Defiance Marina is a great place to try your hand at fishing and crabbing. The Boathouse at Point Defiance Marina has a free public fishing pier, and there is also the Les Davis Pier on Ruston Way. Rent a rod and reel combo for $10. The marina store sells fishing bait, licenses and everything else you need to fish or crab. If you prefer to get out on the water, kayaks and 14-foot motorboats are available for rent. The marina also hosts events throughout the year, such as the Pier Peer, a unique nighttime event that allows participants to “peer” into the water to see how marine life is drawn to underwater lights.

Point Defiance Park holds so many attractions and things to do with kids — and much of it free. Now that the weather is turning out more sunny days, pack up a picnic and plan to spend a day here.

5 more family hot spots around Tacoma

"Cover of the book "100 Things to do in Tacoma Before You Die"
Photo credit: Amazon

If you couldn’t tell, author Peggy Cleveland is a huge fan of Metro Parks Tacoma! The following park attractions are some of her favorites from her book “100 Things to Do in Tacoma Before You Die.” 

  1. Discover the outdoors at the fun and free Tacoma Nature Center (1919 S. Tyler St., 253-404-3930), an urban nature preserve with 2 miles of stroller-friendly trails. One of the best playgrounds in Tacoma, Discovery Pond features waterfalls, a boulder scramble, a log crossing, a tree house and so much more.
  2. Pick some blueberries at Charlotte’s Blueberry Park (7402 E. D St., 253-305-1000), a unique park that was once a blueberry farm. An active group of volunteers and neighbors saved this park from development. And now, during blueberry season, more than 3,372 bushes of five varieties yield fruit in the park. There is also a playground near the blueberry bushes.
  3. Test your mountain biking skills at Swan Creek Park (3997 E. Roosevelt Ave., 253-305-1000). This 50-acre mountain bike trail system at Swan Creek has options for beginners up to advanced riders. In an unusual take on a typical playground, this park has a “Pause and Play” pathway dotted with natural materials, such as tree stumps, to create elements that invite exploration and play.
  4. Become immersed in history at the Job Carr Cabin Museum at Old Town Park (2350 N. 30th St., 253-305-1000). Job Carr was Tacoma’s first non-Native resident, and a replica of his frontier cabin sits at Old Town Park. During site tours, docents share stories of Job Carr and old Tacoma taken from the family diaries and other historic sources. Period furnishings and interiors add to the historic ambiance. Walk down 30th Street on the sidewalks and take note of the plaques embedded in the sidewalks that commemorate significant achievements of notable Tacoma women.
  5. Be enthralled by the rare plants at the W.W. Seymour Conservatory (316 S. G St., 253-404-3975). Located in Wright Park, a 27-acre arboretum and public park, the W.W. Seymour Conservatory is a Tacoma treasure. It is one of only three public Victorian-style conservatories on the West Coast and is noted on the National Register of Historic Places. The current collection contains ferns, palms, figs, bromeliads, orchids and many other plants, some of them rare. After touring the conservatory, spend some time walking through Wright Park to marvel at its more than 700 mature trees.

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