This has been a long winter, hasn’t it? If, like me, you enjoy exploring the Northwest’s peaks and valleys, but aren’t keen on hiking in snowy conditions, you might be experiencing a bit of cabin fever by now. Since early December, the snowline has been continually dropping. Even relatively low-elevation hikes are buried under a winter’s worth of snow. What to do?
It’s easy to forget that we have access to some lovely pockets of nature right here in Tacoma. No need to stuff a backpack with the ten essentials or set aside a full day for the latest alpine adventure. Plenty of hikes boast a Tacoma zip code. Better still, urban hiking can be done year round.
Most people know about Tacoma’s gems. There’s Point Defiance Park, a 702-acre urban oasis that draws more than three million visitors a year. Its amenities include miles of crisscrossing trails in an old-growth forest, which is home to bald eagles and mule deer, among other wildlife.
There’s Swan Creek, a rugged 290-acre greenbelt perched on Tacoma’s eastern boundary. Hikers climbing its wooded canyon can trace the contours of a salmon-bearing stream beneath the cool shade of towering cottonwoods, alders and maples.
There’s Snake Lake, a nature preserve bounded on three sides by busy arterials and Highway 16, and nearby China Lake, also sandwiched between noisy roads and the highway. If you can tune out the adjacent traffic while visiting either destination, you might notice a garter snake slithering across the trail, a coyote disappearing into the understory or a hooded merganser scooting across the water’s glassy surface. Both lakes host a never-ending parade of water fowl, from solitary great blue herons to migrating flocks of geese.
And there’s Puget Park, whose main trail cuts through a deep, astonishingly quiet ravine that leads from the Proctor neighborhood to just a few blocks short of Ruston Way and the waterfront. A salmon-bearing stream runs parallel to the main trail.
But have you explored all of Tacoma’s nooks and crannies?
Susan Gordon at Metro Parks Tacoma offers some insider tips on three local favorites. The most popular is Titlow Park, which provides spectacular views of the Tacoma Narrows, not to mention those two engineering marvels that span it.
“Try the Hidden Beach Trail,” she suggests, “a 1.3-mile loop that snakes through the woods to and from Hidden Beach, treasured by Metro Parks insiders as a peaceful, quiet refuge of escape from the city.”
How about a workout that simulates a ridge climb in the mountains? Visit McKinley Park, one of Tacoma’s oldest green spaces.
“If you’re looking for a place for strenuous exercise, the McKinley hillside is for you,” Gordon says. “Do it at your own pace. Leave slick-soled street shoes at home. Among McKinley’s trees are some old-fashioned varieties, such as horse chestnuts, likely planted in the years following the park’s creation more than 100 years ago. And because McKinley is mostly wooded, it offers a great escape from summer heat. While you’re there, say thank you to vigilant park neighbors, the folks Metro Parks credits for the park’s restoration and continuing upkeep.”
Hikers with an interest in geology might want to pay a visit to Wapato Hills Park.
“This big hill in South Tacoma is what geologists call a drumlin, a lump of stuff moved along by a glacier and left behind when it receded,” Gordon explains. “It’s a climb up and down, but you’ll find a wetland and native Oregon white oak trees up on the flat top. “
Intrigued? Grab a map of the city and start exploring. Every neighborhood, it seems, hides a greenbelt or two. Some are more developed than others. Some are better situated or more picturesque. But all of them have one thing in common: they offer a temporary escape, however brief or imperfect, from the concrete jungle. No road trip required.
Matt Kite is an avid hiker and masters runner in Tacoma. Check out “3 Minute Hikes,” his hiking channel on YouTube.