Part zoo, part wildlife refuge, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville is a living homage to the fauna of the Pacific Northwest. A short 2.5-hour drive from Vancouver, and 40 miles east of Olympia, the park is home to over 40 species of animals, all of which are native to the Northwest.
The land, which surrounds Horseshoe Lake, was originally owned by David T. “Doc” and Connie Hellyer, who built a cabin and lived there for decades, raising three daughters while maintaining a pediatrics practice in nearby Tacoma. After enjoying the property for over 30 years, the Hellyers donated it to Metropolitan Park District of Tacoma with the intent of preserving the wildlife found there. Northwest Trek Wildlife Park opened in summer 1975, introducing a unique feature that sets it apart from traditional zoos: a 435 acre free-roaming area where deer, Roosevelt elk, bison, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, woodland caribou and other species peacefully roam free.
Visitors encounter these animals on a 40-minute tram ride through the free-roaming area, included with admission to the park. The ride allows visitors to get up close and personal with the animals, who are apparently unafraid of the familiar trams, and who can be delightfully unpredictable, making each tram ride on subsequent visits to the park a surprise. When my family visited the park in May, we watched from our tram full of fellow passengers as a baby bison ambled next to its mother who appeared to have just given birth. Apart from the animals, views of the meadows, wooded areas, and marshes surrounding Horseshow Lake are remarkable.
In addition to the expansive free-roaming area, Northwest Trek’s other 300 acres provide habitats to many other native Northwest animals in large, natural enclosures. Miles of paved walking trails lead visitors on a journey to discover wetland animals, big cats, birds of prey, and canines. But the star species on the day of my family’s visit was the bears.
Northwest Trek Wildlife Park is open daily 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. during the summer from July 1-September 3 (including July 4 and Labor Day). Hours change slightly in September, and from October through mid-March, Northwest Trek is closed on weekdays but open on weekends with the exception of special openings for Winter Break and some holidays. Go here for all of Northwest Trek’s seasonal hours of operation.