northwest trek bighorn sheep

Northwest Trek: A Stellar Spot to See Animals Near Tacoma and Seattle

Northwest Trek is a Northwest treasure. While there are a few zoos in the area in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, there aren’t really any other places quite like Northwest Trek where you can see a variety of animals in as close to their natural habitats as you’re going to get.

Northwest Trek is located in Eatonville, which is a bit of a trek (haha, see what I did there?) from probably anywhere you’re coming from, but its remote location offers pretty amazing views of Mt. Rainier as you drive out toward the park (just try not to pull over and capture a shot of the mountain on a clear day, I dare you!) as well as a more wild feel to the park. You won’t hear traffic or sirens or city noise of any kind while you’re there.

While Northwest Trek does have some habitats similar to what zoos have, the bulk of its animals are found in the 435-acre Free-Roaming Area – a large swath of land where moose, caribou, mountain goats, Roosevelt elk, bison, black-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, and trumpeter swans roam freely.

However, while the animals roam freely, you cannot. And you shouldn’t want to as the antlers on the moose, caribou, and elk are frighteningly huge – but instead you’ll take a tram through it. When you get your tickets at the gate, you’ll also be asked if you want to take a tram ride and will be booked onto a tram at a specific time.

Northwest Trek Tram
Riding the tram through the Free-Roaming Area is my favorite part. My toddler agreed to disagree with me about that.

Taking the Tram

It takes about five minutes to get from the front gate to the tram, so choose your tram time accordingly. I have always taken the tram on visits and it has always been my favorite part of coming to Northwest Trek, however, I will say that if you have a younger toddler, don’t feel like you have to take the tram ride. We took our two-year-old and thought she’d love it. She’s obsessed with trying to drive our cars, loves trains, and I thought she’d appreciate the freedom from a car seat.

Things I didn’t notice pre-kid is that the tram is kind of loud as the driver speaks over the loudspeaker the whole time as he or she points out animals and offers informative tidbits. There are also a lot of people in a relatively small space. My toddler doesn’t much love lots of people or loud things so she spent the whole time asking, “All done?”

Caribou
Hey, Sven! A caribou hanging out right by the tram route.

That being said, the tram ride is only about 40 minutes long and you will enjoy it even if your young toddler does not. While food isn’t generally allowed on the trams, if you have a young child, you can bring along some snacks to keep them happy. Just don’t throw any out the windows or you’ll likely cause the tram to stop while staff members hunt for what you threw out.

The seven species that live in the Free-Roaming Area can go wherever they’d like within its bounds so you may or may not see every single animal on the list, but chances are high you’ll see most of them. Every time I’ve gone, at least one animal has been right up close to the tram, usually a big horn sheep or caribou or some deer.

northwest trek bears
Seeing grizzly bears up close was a hit with the toddler.

Other Animals at Northwest Trek

What you won’t see in the Free-Roaming Area are the resident predators, but you can see much more than the seven free-roaming species by walking the trails at the park. If you want to see something specific, take a peep at the map they give you at the gate. If not, just wander. There are grizzly and black bears, cougars, lynx, bobcats, wolves, foxes, eagles and other birds, and some smaller critters like raccoons, otters, porcupines and a skunk. While these guys aren’t in a large free-roaming area, their enclosures offer lots of hiding places so you may or may not spot them. If you’re visiting with kids, your best bet is to skip promises about seeing specific animals because you never really know who will be up and about.

northwest trek trails
The animal habitats are located along peaceful, wooded trails.

Don’t Miss the Playground!

If you have kids, probably the best part of a visit to Northwest Trek will be the playground, called Kids’ Trek. Simply put, this playground is amazing. It’s everything I ever dreamed about in a playground as a child, and alas, I am too big to frolic through it now without judgmental side-eye.

The playground is devoid of swings and conventional equipment. Instead, it’s a wonderland of stony-looking structures to climb on and under and through. There’s even a “river” flowing through the center of it and “rocks” to climb on or slide down. It’s fanciful and a little bit wild, and big enough that kids can spread out rather than competing for space on a couple pieces of playground equipment. If your kids are playground age, save some time to play.

Northwest Trek Playground
THIS is the playground. It’s one the best playgrounds I’ve ever seen.

Other Things to Know

You can also grab some food in at the Forest Café near the entrance before or after you explore and play, or bring along a picnic and you’ll find plenty of picnic tables to dine upon.

If you come during a special event, there will likely be additional activities for kids. We visited during Slugfest (it was not planned, just a fortuitous surprise) so there were paper slugs, plush slugs, toy slugs, all manner of slugs all over the grounds, as well as some displays where kids could learn more about this intrepid Northwest critter. Check the events calendar, or just show up and see what might be going on. Perhaps you, too, will be greeted by slugs, slugs, and more slugs!

There’s a gift shop near the entrance/exit. Don’t go in unless you can resist tons of cute stuffed animals!

Northwest Trek is located waaaaay out in the bushes in Eatonville at 11610 Trek Drive E. Map it and you’ll see that it’s not far at all from one of the entrances to Mount Rainier National Park and makes a pretty sweet complement to a trip out that way.


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Northwest Trek Washington State