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Play in Nature at Tacoma’s Fantastic Swan Creek Park

Find many ways to play at a just-updated section of this great South Sound park

Published on: January 24, 2022

A young girl in a blue jacket plays on the nature features at updated Swan Creek park in Tacoma Washington fun for kids families
Natasha Dillinger

A newly improved greenspace has just opened in the South Sound, and it’s ready to welcome families, kids, hikers, bikers, nature enthusiasts, dogs and more.

After investing years into planning and construction, Metro Parks Tacoma unveiled a number of new features to the Lister Uplands portion of Swan Creek Park, an expansive park on Tacoma’s Eastside.

Young girl in blue jacket running on paved pathway at updated Swan Creek Park in Tacoma
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Embedded within the community it serves, the space offers families a variety of opportunities: to walk, play and gather — including with furry canine friends — in a natural setting.

My family and I took advantage of a recent rain break to check out the park’s upgraded features.

Nature inspires creative play

Our family employs an “outing toolkit” system. Let me explain: We visit playgrounds to help my kids play independently while I get a break to catch up with friends. Museums offer learning opportunities and culture. Kid-friendly hikes help us connect with each other and nature. Swan Creek’s new space is like an outing multitool — offering solutions to all of these different needs in one place.

Kids playing on nature play stumps and trees and colored circles at Pause and Play play area at updated Swan Creek Park
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

There isn’t a traditional playground here. But the new “Pause and Play” pathway combines natural materials like tiered stumps and smooth branches along with colorfully painted circles. All together these elements invite exploration and fun.

We met up with another family and indulged in some rare adult conversation while the kids played, but ultimately we couldn’t resist joining in. I no longer fit comfortably on slides, but it turns out I can still show the kids a thing or two on the wooden balance beams! 

Family walking on natural balance beam made of wood among natural play elements at Pause and Play nature play area Swan Creek Park Tacoma
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Creativity and movement

I loved that the play space’s simple layout encourages creativity and movement. Over the course of our stay, my kids pretended the stumps were islands in an ocean, jumped between specific colored circles like a climbing gym route, swirled around branches like a maypole and practiced their gymnastics on the balance beams. 

The park was not busy during our weekend visit, but if you encounter a crowd at the first play space, walk straight ahead towards the bike course where you’ll find a second nearly identical spot.

Girl jumping from stump to circle at Pause and Play play area updated Swan Creek Park Tacoma's Eastside
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Bring wheels, or watch others on theirs

As we strolled down the paved path, we zigzagged around newly planted trees that will eventually provide additional shade in the summer, but also a visual reminder for bikers to slow down as they intersect with pedestrians.

The large picnic shelter in front of the pump track gave us front-row seats to watch kitted-out mountain bikers test out the course. We also saw a tool station available for quick bike fixes. The kids are pumped (mom pun!) to bring their own bikes and scooters on our next visit.

View of mountain biker on Swan Creek Park pump track
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Holy puddle time

Pro-tip: If it has rained anytime recently, bring rain gear. On our visit, the kids spotted an irresistible lake-sized puddle. My toddler managed to get thoroughly drenched in the two minutes my husband and I spent looking through our binoculars at a hawk. 

Playing in a giant puddle at updated Swan Creek Park section called Lister Uplands
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Modern space with historical highlights

Swan Creek is a traditional and contemporary gathering place for the Puyallup tribe and other Coast Salish people. Most research on the park’s name points to John and Jane Swan, Puyallup tribal members who lived on the land near the creek.

We visit a lot of local parks, and I often find myself down an internet rabbit hole whenever I try to find more information on their history. Not so at Swan Creek where the information is front and center. Starting at the entrance from the huge new parking lot (75 spaces), interpretive signs provide information on the park’s indigenous roots. The site’s history also includes use as a logging location and a housing development for workers who flocked to the area during World War II. If you bring bikes or scooters, you’ll even ride along some of the original streets of the war-era housing development. 

View of interpretive sign at updated Lister Uplands section of Tacoma Swan Creek park
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

Bring your pup!

In community surveys conducted during the park’s planning phase, respondents indicated that they’d like opportunities to include furry friends in their recreation. Swan Creek’s new off-leash dog park is a massive four acres! Located adjacent to the first “Pause and Play” area, my kids loved watching dogs run and jump — from outside the fence.

Find the new space, then explore more of the park

The entrance to the newly improved area of the park is a mile away from where Google Maps will deposit you, so use that info mainly as a guideline for transit time. Head south on East T Street past Lister Elementary School and turn left at the end of the road where you’ll find the new parking lot (some sample GPS coordinates are 47°12'50.8"N, 122°24'03.6"W).

View of large new covered picnic shelter at Tacoma's updated Swan Creek Park Lister Uplands area
Credit: Natasha Dillinger

With a toddler who needed a nap, we didn’t get to take the hike through the park I’d planned, but we did go peek at the community garden and beautiful gathering space on the north end of the park. Taking the Lister Overlook trail to where it connects with the Canyon Rim trail and heading north would bring you here on foot. There’s also an innovative food forest where volunteers have created a space for the community to forage freely. 

Whether it’s a full day of hiking or a short stop to play while we ogle the cute pups nearby, we are delighted to add Swan Creek Park to our family’s outing toolkit. 

If you go…

Find it: Navigating on maps programs to Swan Creek Park will put you at a different section of the park than where you’ll find the new improvements. The closest navigation landmark for the Lister Uplands area is Lister Elementary School at 2106 E. 44th Street in Tacoma. Head south on East T street and turn left at the end of the road. 

Open hours: Swan Creek Park is open from 30 minutes before sunrise until 30 minutes after sunset

Parking: Free parking in one of 75 newly paved spaces. 

Facilities: A new accessible restroom building offers changing tables and a water station, but at our mid-January visit, it was not yet open.

Nearby: We stopped for coffee at Lux Perpetua on our way to the park. Check for current hours on the Facebook page. From 1–3 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, you’ll find a mobile farmers market at the nearby Salishan Family Investment Center.

More South Sound fun:

If you’re making a day of it, check out these kid-friendly ideas.

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