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Want a great spot to go exploring with kids, no matter the weather conditions? Here to help are environmental learning destinations and gardens that dot our region’s urban wildlands. Treasures such as Mercer Slough Nature Park and Tacoma Nature Center offer quiet trails to explore on your own time as well as kid-friendly activities that can spur families to learn about the nature around them, from frog-finding walks and owl prowls to glorious gardens, wildlife watching and more.
After long pandemic closures, visitor centers and education centers are back open, and all of these fantastic nature spots are well worth a visit.
Water wise: Brightwater Center, Woodinville
At Brightwater Center’s 70-acre campus in Woodinville, a wastewater treatment plant coexists with a nature preserve that has been restored to its native landscape, which includes wetlands, meadows and forest. At the center, kids and adults can learn all about our water system through interactive exhibits designed for all ages. Outside, 3 miles of trails meander through wildlife habitat.
Activities: The grounds at Brightwater are free for visitors to roam and are open daily from dawn to dusk. Now reopened to the public, Brightwater Center is accessible Monday–Friday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Check the events calendar on the website for Brightwater happenings, education programs and treatment plant tours (programming is still somewhat limited).
Wetland magic: Bellevue's Mercer Slough
At 320 acres, Mercer Slough Nature Park is one of Bellevue’s largest parks. Its 7 miles of flat trails, which include several tot-friendly short loops, lead hikers through a verdant ecosystem of canals and wetlands — there is even a blueberry farm on the west side of the park. Look for red-winged blackbirds and duck species along the waterways, or downy woodpeckers and black-capped chickadees in the woods. The Environmental Education Center, a complex of classrooms and a visitor center, perches on the edge of the slough; kids will love the tree house, which they can climb via a ladder to peer into the tree canopy.
Activities: The slough’s education center offers a small assortment of displays and natural items to touch and see, and you can go on a self-guided scavenger hunt. Bellevue Parks offers free family nature walks here; search for keywords “Mercer Slough” on the registration page and sign up early.
Stream in: Lewis Creek Park, Bellevue
Tucked away in the hills of south Bellevue near Cougar Mountain, the lovely preserve of Lewis Creek Park protects the headwaters of Lewis Creek, attracting birds and wildlife — as well as little adventurers. A 1-mile loop trail makes for a perfect short hike for families, and there are also two connected playgrounds near the park’s visitor center.
Activities: Visit the spacious, light-filled Lewis Creek Park Visitor Center to thumb through nature books, look at casts of animal tracks or use a spotting scope. Bellevue Parks runs free ranger hikes here as well, including sunset programs and programs just for tots. Search for keywords “Lewis Creek” on the registration page and sign up early.
Into the woods: Seward Park, Seattle
The jewel of southeast Seattle, Seward Park boasts 9 miles of trails that wind through old-growth forest (reported to be the city’s last stand — keep your eyes peeled for the two eagles’ nests), a beach on Lake Washington and a 3-mile paved walk around the peninsula. A nature-oriented playground nearby features a thrilling zip line, a multilevel climbing complex and more play features that kids will love.
Activities: Seward Park Audubon Center is open on weekends, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The center offers birding programs and nature walks, including owl prowls, which fill up way in advance. Stop by the center to browse the nature shop, pick up an Explorer Pack for the park, or take a timeout at the center’s library, which offers nature titles as well as toys and puzzles for little ones.
Frogs and forts: Magnuson Park, Seattle
Seattle’s expansive Magnuson Park holds many draws for families. Definitely do not miss the wonderful Magnuson Children’s Garden among them. At the garden (located at the north end of the park, near the Junior League playground), kids can learn about composting, go on a scavenger hunt or even build a fort from a small pile of logs. Take a self-guided tour of the garden or explore the wider park. There’s a popular dog park, soccer fields and a network of flat trails that are perfect for strolling or low-key bicycling. Birds are abundant; in winter months, you might see bufflehead ducks or a great blue heron in the wetlands. In spring and summer, look for frogs and spectacular dragonflies.
Activities: Check the Magnuson Children’s Garden website for regular free activities, including stewardship sessions during which kids can help out and learn about nature-focused volunteerism.
Garden gem: Kruckeberg Botanic Garden, Shoreline
Kruckeberg Botanic Garden is a gem of a spot located in a residential neighborhood in Shoreline. It is run by the city of Shoreline and is a perfect kid-sized world of native plants, trees, public art and trails. One of the play spots includes an extraordinary burl sculpture (titled “Wood Wave”) that kids can climb on, and another area has a glen that invites kids to build fairy houses from natural materials.
Activities: Kruckeberg’s hours are Friday–Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The garden hosts a wide variety of educational programs and resources for youths and adults throughout the year, including community science and volunteer projects, classes and workshops, and private and self-guided tours. Admission to the garden is free, though a fee and registration are required for some programs, and donations are always welcome.
Nature in the city: Tacoma Nature Center
Tacoma Nature Center is an urban wetland preserve run by Metro Parks Tacoma. This terrific site offers a chance to view birds and other wildlife in all seasons along more than 2 miles of gentle trails. Don’t miss Discovery Pond, a nature-themed play area featuring innovative structures for kids to explore, such as a tree house and a pond with waterfalls.
Note: Some areas of the park will have limited or no access through July 4 while the nature center is closed for building upgrades.
Activities: Families can participate in an abundance of nature programming and walks, including the popular Tiptoe Through the Tidepools and Explore the Shore programs. All-age stewardship sessions take place every month, or families can try out the free Agents of Discovery app, which allows kids to discover the great outdoors by completing “missions” teed up quarterly by the app. There’s also a nature preschool and a slate of fantastic nature-themed summer camps.
Cedar River Watershed, North Bend
Located on Rattlesnake Lake near North Bend, the Cedar River Watershed Education Center is a showcase of sustainable architecture. Imaginative musical water features (rain drums!) and displays are designed to help visitors understand the cycle of water use and the Cedar River Municipal Watershed’s role in supplying drinking water to the city of Seattle.
Activities: The education center building has reopened (limited hours, noon–5 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays, and 10 a.m.–5 p.m. on Saturdays), and it’s well worth a visit. Check its Facebook page for the most current info.
The Rattlesnake Lake Recreation Area is also open. The hiking trail to Rattlesnake Ledge is one of the most popular hiking trails in the region. Exercise caution when hiking with young kids and dogs on this trail as there are a number of sheer drop-offs.
Birder’s paradise: Padilla Bay, Skagit County
Nestled in the Skagit Valley near Anacortes, Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve is a birder’s paradise that affords expansive views of a breathtaking river delta landscape. Walk a short wooded loop (less than a mile in length) at the reserve or drive to Bayview nearby to walk the Padilla Bay dike trail, which runs just over 2 miles one way across flooded fields and tidal flats. Look for river otters, northern pintail ducks and bald eagles.
Activities: The reserve’s Breazeale Interpretive Center is open Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and hosts excellent events for kids and families. Sign up early as these tend to fill quickly. Check the events calendar for upcoming events.
All-seasons bird spotting: Edmonds Marsh
Edmonds Marsh is an easy place for families to espy birds any time of year. Stroll the interpretive walkway through this rare saltwater and freshwater marsh estuary. Nearby, the Willow Creek Salmon & Watershed Education Center and Edmonds Wildlife Habitat and Native Plant Demonstration Garden offer great opportunities to learn about nature. The Willow Creek hatchery is operated by Salmon Solutions, an organization dedicated to providing salmon education programs to schools and families, and the demo garden is run by Pilchuck Audubon, an organization focused on preserving habitat for birds and wildlife.
Activities: The garden hosts regular work parties on Saturdays, and also offers workshops and other events throughout the year. Check its Facebook page for future events. Pilchuck Audubon hosts birding activities; check the calendar for its upcoming events. In the meantime, why not stroll the boardwalk and spot the birds visiting Edmonds Marsh?
More outdoor adventure ideas
Editor’s note: Writer Bryony Angell contributed to this article, which was originally published a few years ago and updated most recently for 2022.