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Point Defiance

Getting outside in the gritty city

A Japanese Shinto shrine in the gardens at Point Defiance Park. Photo credit: Christina Butcher

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There are some places in the South Puget Sound that hold every bit of charm the Pacific Northwest is known for: long beaches, natural forest, rich gardens and jaw-dropping views of neighboring islands and coastline. In Tacoma, Point Defiance Park is one of those places. The 760-acre park holds some of the city's most-visited attractions, including expansive gardens, hiking trails, waterfront boardwalks, a living history museum, a marina and a zoo.

"The park is a signature of Tacoma," said Erik Hanberg, a Board of Park Commissioners board member with Metro Parks Tacoma. "There's a reason it's the most visited attraction in Pierce County:  There's just so much to do!"

Point Defiance Beach near the marina and boardwalk. Photo credit: Christina Butcher

One of Point Defiance's biggest lures is its extensive trail system, which encompasses the entirety of the peninsula on which the park is located. In total, the park has 15 miles of hiking trails weaving through forests, gardens and coastline. To ensure visitors can take full advantage of the trail system, the park's outer loop roadway closes to vehicle traffic during morning hours. "If you want to enjoy nature, we won't intrude on that," offered Andrea Smith, board president of the Board of Park Commissioners. "That'll always be there, available to visitors to go out on a sunny day and experience what's going on."

Five Mile Drive and the inner loop roadway, two scenic roads winding through the park, remain open to vehicles during regular park hours, allowing visitors to enjoy a relaxed drive across the peninsula.

"Just drive through the park. Go out on Five Mile Drive and see the views," Smith encouraged.

A rose arbor about to bloom at Point Defiance Park. Photo credit: Christina Butcher

Point Defiance also has a multitude of vibrant gardens, including the Japanese Garden (with Japanese cherry trees and lanterns, an oriental footbridge and a tea house), the Rose Garden (one of the most-popular sights at Point Defiance with more than 1,500 rose bushes), the Dahlia Trial Garden, the Herb Garden and the Northwest Native Garden.

The Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is another main attraction at the park. It covers 29 acres of land and provides an incredible array of family friendly events and animal exhibits, all centered around promoting effective conservation of wildlife. Zoo visitors can enjoy sightings of dozens of exotic animals, including elephants, leopards, tapirs, tigers, arctic foxes and polar bears. A new Pacific Seas aquarium will open in the summer of 2018 as well - it will replace the failing South Pacific Aquarium, which has been severely damaged by half a century of salt-water corrosion.

Prior to becoming a park in 1888, Point Defiance was used as an early trading post and later, a federal military reservation. Visitors interested in the history of the land can visit the Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, located in the southwest corner of the park. The museum gives visitors a chance to immerse themselves in an authentic account of the culture, buildings and crafts at the trading post during the 19th century.

Nowadays, Point Defiance pulls in more than 3.1 million visitors each year and continues to draw funding for park improvements. In 2014 alone, Tacoma voters approved $198 million in capital improvement bonds for the park.

"The majority of work recently at Point Defiance has been at the zoo," Hanberg explained. "The projects we are working on right now, like the pedestrian bridge and park on the peninsula, are the largest construction projects we've done at the park in some time."

Despite the ongoing construction at Point Defiance and a rise in urban development along the nearby Point Ruston waterfront, the Board of Park Commissioners remains confident that the planned improvements will have a positive impact on the local community.

"You don't have to spend money to go and visit and have a new experience at Point Defiance," Smith remarked. "These (new developments) will enhance what's already there."

Point Defiance Park, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma,

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