South: History and an island swimming hole in Steilacoom
Early settlers had big dreams for Steilacoom, which became the first incorporated town in Washington state in 1854, and also opened the state’s first post office and public school. Its economic heyday didn’t last long, but this postcard-worthy town on Puget Sound, just a bit south of Tacoma, offers lots of history, views and Puget Sound fun, including a ferry ride to a bona fide swimming hole.
Living history, eats included: Steilacoom is fairly walkable; park in the vicinity of Main Street and you’re set for most attractions. If your kids are into local history, check out the self-guided tour map of historic homes at the corner of Lafayette and Wilkes Streets, and definitely make a stop at the Steilacoom Historical Museum. It has nicely laid-out exhibits of the town’s origins, including a few hands-on exhibits, antique school desks and period dress-up clothes; it also operates The Wagon Shop, a restored wagon-making business and blacksmith shop open on select days. Down the street, Bair Drug & Hardware, built in 1895, is a combination restaurant and “living museum” where you can peruse antique tools and medicine bottles while you sit at the long soda fountain counter and enjoy burgers, fragrant clam chowder and handmade sweet potato fries — or just go straight for the milkshakes.
Island time: Steilacoom is home to a nice beach park just north of town, Sunnyside Beach, where kids will enjoy jumping off driftwood, digging and watching the trains go by. Even better: Add a trip to Anderson Island to your day’s itinerary. Leaving from downtown Steilacoom, the pint-size Pierce County ferry will transport you to a different era. Once on the island, make an obligatory stop at the town’s one general store for staples before you head to the Ol’ Swimming Hole (aka Lowell Johnson Park), a two-dock swimming area on spring-fed Lake Florence (open Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day). A little farther down the island, hit the trail at Jacobs Point Park, where a 2.5-mile round-trip hike brings you past the chimney of an old homestead and, eventually, to a beach with a view of Mount Rainier. Pro tip: Check the ferry schedule, which typically takes a 2.5-hour break around lunchtime. You can buy tickets online.
Other destinations south: About a 15-minute drive north of Steilacoom, University Place is home to one of the South Sound’s most scenic playgrounds, Playground by the Sound. The playground is part of Chambers Creek Regional Park, with trails, a dog beach and more spectacular views.