For more than a century, Snake Lake and the forested hills surrounding it have been an urban oasis as Tacoma grew around it.
Since it became a park in 1979, the Tacoma Nature Center has become a favored play spot for kids, a great place for adults to go for a quick hike and the land-based nature education focal point for Metro Parks Tacoma.
The 70-acre park and nature center now host children’s education programs, a nature-based preschool, nature art exhibits and events such as the recent native plant sale. It attracts more than 30,000 people a year.
Thanks to an infusion of local and state money, the staff is now creating what by year’s end could be considered a new Nature Center.
In the coming weeks, two new trails will open on the park’s eastern edge. In August, a children’s nature play area will open. In December, the staff expects to unveil new and improved exhibits inside the center.
Here is a look at the changes:
In the next week or so, two loop trails will be added to the existing 2.65 miles of trails in the park. The Hillside Loop Extension will be a quarter-mile long and the Proctor Valley Wetland Loops will be two-tenths of a mile.
The new pathways provide access to the area recently rehabilitated by the Washington State Department of Transportation, as mitigation for work done along state Route 16.
They will provide visitors an expanded trail system on which to stretch their legs, enable the staff to tell the story of the area and serve as a destination for park programs.
“It’s more open and shrubby. It definitely feels different than the forest by the lake, but it’s still quiet and it feels peaceful,” said Michele Cardinaux, the center’s program manager.
“There’s Oregon grapes and salal in the understory, huckleberries, madrone and Douglas fir. It’s kind of the same plants as on the other side, but arranged differently,” she said.
Interpretive signs along the trails will tell the story of how the area changed.
“It was the department of transportation that filled it in back in the ’60s when they built state Route 16,” Cardinaux said.
“For the general public, it will be nice to have something new.”
The area also will make a good destination for the center’s education programs.
“They will make it a day hike, take a picnic lunch. There’s some large meadow areas, kind of a special hideaway,” Cardinaux added.
CHILDREN’S NATURE AREA
Contractors are already working on the $437,000 play area in the corner of South 19th and Tyler streets. Work began April 12 and is expected to be completed Aug. 12. The project is being paid for with money from the 2005 Metro Parks improvement bond and a $350,000 grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office.
When it opens, young children will have a place to safely play and explore the natural world. Among the features will be a shallow wetland where kids can jump across stones, cross an artificial log or use a net to catch critters. There also will be a small tree house kids can climb into, a hollow snag to climb up and peek out the top and a hollow nurse log to crawl through.
“It’s really designed to help avoid what Richard Louv described as nature deficit disorder,” said John Garner, conservation and education manager for Metro Parks. “We’re purposely designed it so kids in an urban area can make those natural connections.”
Garner said Louv’s book, “Last Child in the Woods,” resonated with the staff and people within the community. The book studies how children’s natural experiences affect their growth and how electronics are helping today’s children lose touch with nature. “Within the city, we really are losing opportunities for kids to have direct experiences with nature,” he said. Garner said the area is designed for children in preschool and early elementary school. He hopes it will be a place perceived as safe by parents and not foreboding to young children.
“This might give them the confidence to move on to bigger places like Snake Lake, Point Defiance, Swan Creek, then on to state and national parks and forests,” he said.
“This is something different. It’s not a traditional playground. These are custom design elements,” he said.
The proof will come later this summer when the toughest critics will give it a full test. “We think we have it right, we hope we have it right, but the kids in mid-August will tell us if we got it right. We’ll know right away if we got it right or not.”
This spring, Cardinaux has been gathering ideas for new exhibits within the nature center. She has talked with citizen focus groups and Metro Parks staff.
The design is expected to be finalized in early fall, with installation to take place by December. The bond issue has provided $110,000 for the project.
“That’s not much, so that’s why we’re trying to be creative. So we’re not looking at a completely new exhibit area. One thing that will be staying is the island diorama with all the tanks in it,” she said.
The layout of the current exhibits – a growing mix of dioramas, aquariums and a few interactive exhibits – has not been updated since the center opened in 1992.
“There is definitely an interest in making the whole thing more cohesive. Instead of tanks just sitting around, we want something with a logical flow for a better experience.
“We want to target younger kids, because that’s our target audience. It will be less like a museum and more like a learning center.”
Cardinaux hopes to use multimedia exhibits, such as incorporating sounds as opposed to just touching something. “We’re heading in a direction of what we’re all about, fun and excitement, but also the learning aspect,” she said.
“This, in tandem with our new exploration area, is going to make this a great place to come for nature education. It’s a great place now, but we’re going to make it even better.”
If you go
What: Tacoma Nature Center
Where: 1919 S. Tyler St., Tacoma
What: A 70-acre park featuring trails, Snake Lake and a nature center. The area is home to more than 20 species of mammals and about 100 species of birds.
Information: 253-591-6439, www.metroparks tacoma.org, under “Parks & Facilities” click “Tacoma Nature Center.”