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Tacoma Light Trail: A Beautiful, Light-Filled Family Stroll

Brighten your winter on a free downtown Tacoma “treasure hunt”

Nikki McCoy

Published on: December 27, 2022

Beautiful blue and green lanterns in the shape of hops, part of the Tacoma Light Trail January 2022
Lanterns in the shape of hops flowers are one of the installations along the Tacoma Light Trail. Nikki McCoy

Taking in the wonder of art is a treasure — especially when it also evokes a spirit of community. Luckily, we are no strangers to that sentiment here in South Puget Sound. With the Tacoma Light Trail, running Dec. 31, 2022, to Jan. 19, 2023, Tacoma steps up to the plate to keep that spirit alive.

The light trail, back for its third year, aims to uplift and unify our community during this dark season. The trail features over 40 locations of lighted art in downtown Tacoma buildings. Highlights this year include a nebula of sparkling lights, a glowing castle, an illuminated ballroom and giant sea dragons.

The switch will be “thrown” to first light up the artworks on New Year’s Eve, and they’ll be lit every night from 5–9 p.m. through Jan. 19. It’s free and fun for families to stroll around and enjoy a few or all of the art installations.

A family pauses along the Tacoma Light Trail to view lanterns during this community art project to light up dark winter
Admiring the lanterns at a stop along the Tacoma Light Trail, Jan. 2022. Credit: Nikki McCoy

Light art installations

An impressive degree of collaboration and creativity among Tacoma businesses and artists was required to pull off this urban art event. Installations vary from large elaborate paper projects to more subtle light enhancements, positioned to light up a building’s doorway or an architectural feature.

Each light installation features an accompanying sound piece, accessed through a QR code displayed at each location.

View of hands holding a phone and reading a QR code along the Tacoma Light Trail. QR codes access sound and additional information about each art piece.
Use the QR codes at each light art piece to enhance your experience. Credit: Nikki McCoy

One of my family’s favorites last year was the realistic paper-lantern hops hanging from the ceiling of Camp Colvos Brewing & Pizza. Inside, we got lost in the detail of the craftwork and the rhythmic changing of lights, featuring hues of green. Outside, via the website, we listened to accompanying local jazz artist Kareem Kandi as we made our way to the next location.

Other stops along the light trail showcased glowing stars, illuminated whales and an alien forest. At the Pantages Theater, the display invited even more interaction with its audience — encouraging visitors to use the QR code to submit a piece of writing inspired by the lighted scene, for publication on Tacoma’s Creative Colloquy website.

Birds and bods is one of the light art installations along the tacoma light trail
Light sculpture in the shape of birds and humans feature in one of the stops along the Tacoma Light Trail, Jan.2022. Credit: Nikki McCoy

How it works

Visit the Tacoma Light Trail website to plan your treasure-hunt stroll! The website features a map of the artworks; there’s also a printable map, if you prefer. Admittedly, the online map was a little confusing for me to use, but once I started using the QR code feature at each stop — which included the previous and next stops along the trail — it was easy to get from place to place.

View of hands holding a phone showing a map of stops along the Tacoma Light Trail winter time fun for families
Credit: Nikki McCoy

You can follow the trail by foot, bike, car or public transportation. On our stroll, my kids were playfully running ahead, using their phones to find the next stop.

Activities and special events will take place at Tollefson Plaza on select dates. On Dec. 31, turn up for the parade that starts from the center steps at the University of Washington, Tacoma. Additional events include live performances and a bike ride! (More info on special events below.) All events and activities are free.

Family time

My family visited during the holiday snowfall, so the walk was more slow-going and slippery than your typical trek through downtown, and one of the best parts was warming up inside Zeeks Pizza, surrounded by dozens of colorful lighted lamps.

My older kids enjoyed soaking in the sights of the city; we had plenty to chat about as we followed our phones to the next location — sweeping views of the bay, historical buildings, museums, and boutique shops and eateries. I highly recommend this activity as a cure for the inevitable January cabin fever.

A lantern in the shape of an orca is spotted along the Tacoma Light Trail
Credit: Nikki McCoy

Tips for families

  • Wear gloves with touch-screen fingertips — you’ll be using your phone a lot and it’s cold out there!
  • Use those QR codes, as they really enhance the experience and help you navigate the trail.
  • Even though the light trail activities are free, bring some money and plan to eat as part of your adventure! There are just so many tempting treats and shops along the way.
  • Wear light-up gear if you've got any to make yourselves part of the show.

If you go ...

Where: The Tacoma Light Trail features light-art installations positioned around downtown Tacoma. Check out the map to plan your approach. On foot is probably the best way for most families to experience the trail.

When: The light trail is lit up from 5–9 p.m. nightly, Dec. 31, 2022–Jan. 19, 2023. Note special events listed below.

Cost: Free

Special events:

  • Dec. 31, 5:30 p.m.: Light parade beginning at the University of Washington Tacoma steps.
  • Dec. 31, Jan. 1, 6 and 7, 6–8 p.m.: Live performances in Tollefson Plaza.
  • Jan. 5: A Lighted Bike Ride, led by Downtown on the Go, will tour selected locations. Starts at 6 p.m. at Alma Tacoma.
  • Jan. 12, 13, and 14: Lumens concert, new for 2023!  A series of free concerts of music, dance and art, illuminated by light in beautiful venues. See the website for more details and locations. 
  • Dec. 29: Join a lantern making workshop at the Moore branch of the Tacoma Public Library. Space is limited, so RSVP today! If you can't make it to the workshop, check out the DIY instructions online and try making your own lantern at home  

Editor's note: This article was originally published in Jan. 2022, and has been updated for the 2022–2023 event. 

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