If you live in Eatonville, you’re very aware of Northwest Trek. Signs for the place are posted all around town reminding you of what is in store for you and beckoning you to visit. However, those of us who live outside of town are only reminded of this animal oasis with the occasional TV or radio commercial. If you haven’t ever experienced the park or if it has been awhile, you really should.
It’s hard to believe, but Northwest Trek will be celebrating 45 years of operation next summer. When it first opened, it was a game-changer. Though similar, the park has never been a traditional zoo. Instead, the park found a way to showcase different Northwest animals in a safe and natural habitat rather than keeping them in locked cages. Today, other zoos like Northwest Trek’s sister zoo, Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and Woodland Park Zoo, have similar settings, but Northwest Trek continues to be one step ahead.
The Second Happiest Place on Earth
While it isn’t Disneyland, Northwest Trek just might be the second happiest place on earth. At least the employees there seem to think so from what we could tell. Every employee we met on our trip was super-friendly. I’m not kidding. Every employee! We talked to a lot of them and every one of them greeted us with a large smile and all of them were very helpful.
The park is ADA-accessible with graded, paved pathways making it really easy to get around the park with strollers. Wheelchairs can be secured in the trams and courtesy cart is available to transport visitors with mobility issues from Trek Center to the tram tour station. The park is also sensory inclusive offering quiet places, sensory bags and headphones if needed.
The Tram Tour
The park’s biggest draw is its Discovery Tram Tour which is included with your admission. On our recent trip, our tour guide made our 40-minute journey over the 435 acres totally enjoyable. Though he shared tons of facts about the different animals, he did so in a fun way with lots of humor. The kids loved learning about the different type of animal poop or “scatergories” as our guide like to call identifying the different types. If you were able to mix up Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride with Universal Studios Hollywood’s tram tour and throw in some live animals, you’d get the Discovery Tram Tour.
With that said, no two tours are exactly alike. Each guide has his or her own personality. Sometimes the animals are active and moving around while other times they will settle in for a nap. Along the route you are likely to see moose, Roosevelt elk, bison, caribou, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep and trumpeter swans (which was our guide’s favorite).
The biggest thing we noticed at our recent trip to the park was just how excited the kids were spotting the different animals. All kids like animals, but the kids at the park this day LOVED them. They were totally engaged and only used their cell phones to get a good picture. While some of their parents got annoyed hearing “There’s a black tail deer! There’s a black tail deer!” it was really enjoyable to us.
The Pathways to Animals
A lot of other animals can be found throughout the park and are easy to get to because of the paved paths. Still, you’ll want to bring comfortable shoes as each exhibit is spaced pretty far apart from each other. Follow the various paths and you’ll see bears, wolves, cougars a lot of birds. One of the best places to get up close to the animals are the E.H. Baker Cabin which features low-to-the-ground windows via tunnel to spot gray wolves. Inside the cabin, you can talk to a naturist, feel a real pelt and participate in other activities.
My favorite part of the park was the forest and wetland creatures section. Here you’ll find beavers, skunks, otters and more. There are viewing areas up above the animals and down below with windows looking inside various dens – and the animals do hang out there. I could sit and watch the otters for hours. They seem to like the attention.
Along the way down the paths, you might find an animal keeper sharing information on different animals like where they like to live, eat and their favorite movies. (Okay, maybe not the last part.) On our journey we met a keeper who told us about different insects and showed us special condos built for bees, butterflies and other flying bugs. He even had handouts on how to make one of these at home.
The Eagle Passage
The Eagle Passage (opening on August 3, 2019) is the park’s newest attraction. This walk-through exhibit features bald eagles flying above your head or checking you out on a nearby tree branch. The exhibit also explains the eagles’ conservation story from near-extinction 25 year ago to a population that numbers in the thousands today. You can also experience a human-sized eagle’s nest (a great photo opp) and see how big your wings would have to be in order for you to be able to soar.
Two places that are must-see events for families with younger children are the Cheney Discovery Center and the Kids Trek playground. The Cheney Discovery Center is an indoor, hands-on education spot. Here kids can use puppets to imitate animal behavior, touch various fur pelts, try out a bunch of different activities and chat with naturalist who are wonderful with kids. This is also home to various red-legged frogs, gopher snakes, Western toads, banana slugs, newts and rubber boas.
Kids Trek is unlike any other playground you’ve been to. Inspired by nature, kids can hang on a giant “spider web,” climb down a “tree trunk,” and splash around in a “river.” There are rope bridges to cross, ladders to climb, tree stumps to hide in and dens to build. One section features a log cabin village. And while parent supervision is required, we were impressed that the playground is also monitored by a few employees to make sure everyone is being safe.
Big Kid Adventures
For older kids and parents wanting more adventure, you’ll have to check out the Zip Wild Deep Forest Challenge. For an additional fee ($35-$85), you can experience five zip line courses deep in the forest with various obstacles to overcome in-between. The courses include:
Super Kid Course: A low-to-the ground adventure (the highest point is just 5.5 feet off the ground) with two sections of zip lines and nine challenges.
Discover Course: Includes a 14-foot tall climbing wall, ten obstacles and two zip lines.
Sensation Course: Includes something called a Jane Swing (where you grab a rope, jump off a platform, swing out 30 to 40 feet and land on a suspended net), a dozen challenges 80 feet in the air and five zip lines.
Adventure Course: Includes a 30 foot climbing wall, suspended bridges, cargo nets to climbs, a high-wire tightrope above 55 feet in the air and six zip lines.
Aerial Runway: Includes a Trapper Climbing Ladder, two Andes bridges and a 512-foot-long zip line.
Forest Café and Gift Shop
Smartly located near the Kids Trek playground you’ll find the Forest Café housed in a warm and cozy cabin. The food here is a step above what you would expect to find at zoo. The burgers, pizzas, salads and sandwiches are all made fresh on the premises made with local ingredients. Most of the items are made to order. You are given a pager so that the kids can check out the playground and the pager will alert you to when your order is ready.
The food here is very tasty too. The 1/3 pound barbecue burger I had was hand-formed and juicy and came with a huge pile of waffle fries. My wife settled on the personal-sized pepperoni pizza made with fresh dough. There is some seating inside café and the fire place is a very nice place to hang out on those chilly days. There is also lots of seating available outside under the sheltered picnic pavilion. In addition to the café, you’ll find a few other snack options at the Trek Treats stand near the trails.
The Northwest Trek gift shop features t-shirts, sweatshirts, kitchen magnets, bird callers, jewelry, candy, some amazing animal hats (we saw one family of four adults donning these) and lots of stuffed animals to choose from.
Under the various ropes courses, you’ll find five miles of trails, some paved and others “primitive.” The paved ones are perfect for families as they are easy to push strollers. One pathway features 21 different “fairy homes” hidden in the natural surroundings giving kids more incentive to really notice their surroundings. During our trip, we set out to continue on the primitive trails that are easily marked with sign posts. In order to make it all the way through, you’ll need to allow at least 2.5 hours. These trails are not very good for little ones since sections of the trails are overgrown and can be wet. If you do go, watch out for stinging nettles!
Northwest Trek also offers three other specialized tours for an additional fee:
Keeper Adventure Tour: Instead of tram, guests hop aboard a jeep with one of the keepers to get even closer to the animals during the 90-minute tour.
Photo Tours: Still a tram tour, but with a limit of just 13 people and promises to get you up close and personal with the creatures.
Elk Bugling Tour: A two-hour tour through the free-roaming areas during the elk breeding season also known as “The Rut.” During the tour you can expect to hear some bugling calls, see some elk sparring and more.
Visit this link to learn more about these advanced tours.
Admission and More
Tickets to Northwest Trek are $22 for adults ages 13-64; $20 for seniors age 65 and up; $14 for kids ages 5-12; $10 for 3 and 4-year-olds and those under 2 years of age get in for free. Tickets can be purchased ahead of time online or at the park. Parking is free.
Zipline Tours run an extra $35-$85 depending on the course you plan to do.
The park is open from 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. through September 2, 2019. From September 30-January 1, 2020, the park is open from 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. The park is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
A limited number of wheelchairs, electric carts, and single and double strollers are available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis:
Strollers: $10 single/$12 double.
Electric wheelchair: $35
Small lockers are available for rent if you need a place to stash your purse or lunches. Four quarters ($1) are needed to operate the lockers, located past the main admissions area.
Northwest Trek is located at 11610 Trek Drive E., Eatonville WA 98328 and can be reached by calling 360.832.6117.
(Main image: Northwest Trek)
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.