Less than an hour from Seattle, the venerable park seems a world away.
Editor’s note: Got college loans to pay? Are Seattle rents pinching your pocketbook? This recurring feature, $99 Road Trip, is for anyone on a budget. We’ve taken a day trip from Seattle to see just how much fun two people can have for less than a hundred bucks.
TACOMA — Shangri-La exists, and it’s in Tacoma. Yet few Seattleites I know seem to have visited Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, a huge wooded promontory jutting out into Puget Sound. It has the mystical feel of another time, with its old-growth conifers and its reconstructed 19th-century fort.
We set out on a recent Saturday to sample a day’s worth of attractions. On $99, including gasoline, admission to two attractions, meals, souvenirs and sales tax, we had a grand day out. (Dress with the weather in mind; you’ll be on your feet a lot, mostly outside).
Choreographing a full day in this venerable urban park (officially established in 1905, but it’s really been a park since 1888) required some advance planning, to take in the zoo, the fort, a beautiful drive and a couple of scenic walks.
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For the zoo, I checked the times of the animal-keeper talks for maximum education/animal sightings. I noted the fort’s hours. I saw that a major portion of the park’s Five Mile Drive, with its overlooks and hiking trails, was closed to cars until 1 p.m. on weekends.
Not far from home
Because the park was less than an hour from the Seattle area, we slept in (hey, it was Saturday!) and left about 9:30 a.m. Just after the park entrance, we stopped near the kiosk on the right to pick up a map of the park and brochures on the zoo/aquarium and Fort Nisqually (park visitor center open weekends only, Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day).
In flower season, you can cross the street to wander the spectacular rose gardens (or the adjacent dahlia gardens in late summer). We drove farther and took the first right down to the parking lot by the boathouse to walk the paved promenade along the water to Owen Beach (. 8 mile).
The rocky beach strewn with drift logs is a popular place where people stroll, picnic and rent kayaks (second parking lot at Owen Beach). We kept track of time, since we wanted to make a zoo talk at 11:30.
We waited in line at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium with our prepaid ticket number (with the online discount, it was $15.95/adult x 2 + $1 order charge = $32.90, which saved us $3; pdza.org). Later, we found out that had we printed out our voucher or used a smartphone, we could’ve skipped the line and scanned the voucher’s bar code at the entrance. By the time we reached the polar-bear exhibit, the keeper talk had started (zoo map lists the talk times).
Bears and tigers and wolves (oh my)
A polar bear paddled by my head, separated only by the tank’s clouded Plexiglas. A boy perched on his father’s shoulders was mesmerized. “He walks under the sea!”
According to the keeper, the bear was named Boris. Age 30, Boris had been in a Russian zoo and then in a traveling Mexican circus. I have mixed feelings about zoos but concluded that an American zoo was better than a traveling circus, whatever its nationality. The exhibit showed signs of wear, but the zoo’s building plan includes a new polar bear exhibit.
At Red Wolf Woods, a pair of wolves curled up on warm rocks facing away from the path. We heard yipping, and then realized it was from kids at the nearby observation deck. After a few minutes, the kids and their adults wandered off, leaving us alone on the deck. The larger wolf lifted his head to turn around and stare at me, as if to say “Gads! Have they finally left?” before settling back for a more peaceful nap.
$99 Road Trips
- Langley on Whidbey Island
- Soothing sights on Olympic Peninsula
- A maritime day in Gig Harbor
- Million-dollar Anacortes views
- Zoo, fort and forest of Point Defiance
- Art, food and beer in Skagit Valley
- To Ellensburg for history and a good steak
- A Yakima Valley fruit loop
- Whiskey and fritters on Olympia's back roads
- Lutefisk tacos in Scandinavian-flavored Poulsbo
- On the road to Mount Rainier
We read how red wolves, once roaming the eastern third of the U.S., had been nearly exterminated by early settlers. Due to the zoo’s breeding efforts, they are being reintroduced to wildlife refuges in Florida and North Carolina.
We arrived at 12:25 at the Asian Forest Sanctuary a few minutes before the next talk. I noticed three young girls nearby who looked similar enough to be triplets. One shoved another playfully. They were beautiful, with thick, gorgeous red hair. Or technically, fur, since they were Sumatran tigers.
According to the keeper, these 18-month-olds were indeed sisters, born at the zoo, and today was their (and our) lucky day, since it was their first day of “meatball tossing.” Splat! A keeper landed a raw meatball inches from one of the tigers.
“There are more visitors here at the zoo today than there are Sumatran tigers in the wild (only 300-400),” said the keeper, who described zoo efforts to preserve tiger habitat in Asia.
Around 2 p.m., we grabbed a quick lunch at the zoo’s Plaza Cafe. After asking about crowd favorites, I chose a pulled-pork panini sandwich called a Cubano Press (combo included decent waffle fries and a small drink; $11.25 + 9.5 percent sales tax = $12.32). For my friend: the pulled-pork sandwich combo (coleslaw on top, fries and a drink; $9.75 + tax = $10.68). We ate on the deck with a nice view of the Cascades looming above the Sound, and then played with the arctic fox stuffed animals at the gift shop (two sizes, cute/even cuter; $10.99/$17.99; but we resisted).
Running total for this budget day trip: $55.90.
Carousel and history
After exiting the zoo, we spied the park’s antique carousel pavilion just inside, so we scanned our ticket stubs to re-enter (admission good all day). The circa-1917 carousel had been lovingly restored by volunteers; its new animals include endangered and Northwest species (tiger, red wolf, tapir, polar bear, slug) along with classic prancing ponies (rides = $1.50; we decided to try it next time).
We left the zoo’s parking lot for Fort Nisqually Living History Museum. (To navigate within the park, you need to: refer to your park map; watch for signs to your destination; and — because all the roads are one-way — forgive yourself if you miss a turn and have to loop around and re-enter the Pearl Street entrance and try again). Be careful not to turn onto Five Mile Drive unless you really want to, or you’ll have a 5-mile-longer drive to where you want to go.
We entered Fort Nisqually 45 minutes before it closed, not nearly enough time to properly explore ($7 adult x 2 = $14; fortnisqually.org). Luckily, at the Sales Shop we met re-enactor Mike Preston, who told us the fort’s history. Established in 1833 as a British Hudson’s Bay Company outpost, the fort was originally located farther south in present-day DuPont, near the Nisqually River delta. During the 1930s, federal work programs moved the fort’s two remaining buildings to the current site and the rest of the fort was eventually reconstructed. Special events held at the fort sounded intriguing.
“Come back in October, for either the Candlelight Tour or the ‘Bonfires, Beaver Pelts & Bogeymen’ event close to Halloween, when I’ll be telling ghost stories,” said Preston.
At the gift shop, I bought a postcard with a Native American design ($1 x tax = $1.10).
Running total for this budget day trip: $70.90.
Milkshake and scenery
Literally closing down the fort at 4 p.m., we had more to see, but first we needed a snack. Following signs out the Pearl Street entrance/exit, we drove three blocks to the funky Antique Sandwich Company for one of their famous 24-ounce milkshakes, plenty for two to share (5102 N. Pearl Street., antiquesandwichcompany.com). After parking, we got distracted by the tiny antique store across the street (Ruston Galleries), which had an English teapot from the 1950s that caught my eye ($15 + tax = $16.43).
Resuming our milkshake quest, we asked the counter attendant her favorite flavor. She hesitated. “Well, I like to blend flavors together,” she said. Like what? “Peanut butter … we use Adams’ natural kind … and chocolate — we make our own syrup.” For us, resistance was futile ($5.45 + tax= $5.97).
Running total for this budget day trip: $93.30.
Back in the park, we followed Five Mile Drive as cute raccoons begged on the shoulder (ignore them; there’s a $532 fine for feeding park wildlife). For a walk, we stopped at the Mountaineer Tree, one of the park’s massive old-growth Douglas firs, grabbed our park map and took the trail behind the tree (foot traffic only on trails; leave no valuables in cars). Along the path were spurs off to the bluff’s edge, with glimpses of the water far below (we stayed back — the park’s bluffs are piles of dirt and rocks left by ice-age glaciers prone to landslides). We looped back to the car via the central Spine Trail (where we startled a deer), and left the park’s old-growth trees and its fort and the quiet and the Sumatran tiger girls to drive back to King County and the 21st century.
The only thing left to tabulate was the cost of gasoline, for 80 miles of driving round-trip from Seattle. If you get 32 mpg (based on a Subaru Forester, one of Seattle’s best-selling cars) and pay $2.34 per gallon, the metro area’s average price at this writing, the bill at the pump = $5.85.
Grand total for the day’s outing for two = $99.15, plus tips where appropriate.
If you go
From Interstate 5 in Tacoma, take Exit 133 to I-705 and follow signs to Schuster Parkway/Ruston Way. As Ruston Way ends, continue straight through two roundabouts, zigzag up the hill, turn right on Pearl Street and drive three blocks straight into the park.
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Tips, discretionary by nature, aren’t included in this accounting. Keep some extra bucks in your pocket to show appreciation as you go.