Jutting into Commencement Bay, this hilly, 702-acre park surrounds Five Mile Drive with lush picnicking fields and patches of forest. Hiking trails, bike paths, and numerous gardens draw crowds year-round, particularly during summer festivals such as the Taste of Tacoma, in June. The park begins at the north end of Pearl Street as you drive toward the Point Defiance Ferry Terminal, where vehicles depart for Vashon Island just across the Sound. A one-way road branches off
the ferry lane, past a lake and picnic area, a rose garden, and a Japanese garden, finally winding down to the beach.
A half-mile past the gardens is Owen Beach, a driftwood-strewn stretch of pebbly sand near the ferry dock and a wonderful place for beachcombing and sailboat-watching. Kayak rentals and concessions are available in summer. Continue around the looping drive, which offers occasional views of the narrows. Cruise slowly to take in the scenes—and watch out for joggers and bikers.
Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. One of the Northwest's finest collections of regional and international species, this winding and hilly site includes tigers, elephants, tapirs, and gibbons in the Asian Forest Sanctuary, where paw-print trails lead between lookouts so even the smallest tots can spot animals. The aquariums are also fun to explore, including a glass-walled, floor-to-ceiling shark tank; seahorse room; touch-tank marine area; and open-topped, two-level Pacific Northwest reef display. Other areas house such cold-weather creatures as beluga whales, wolves, polar bears, and penguins. Thirty-minute animal shows, run two to four times daily, let different creatures show off their skills. The fantastic playground area has friendly farm animals running between the slides, and seasonal special events include a Halloween trick-or-treat night and the famous nightly Zoolights holiday displays around Christmas. Point Defiance Park, 5400 N. Pearl St., 98407. 253/305–1000. www.pdza.org. $15. Daily, but hours vary from month to month, so call ahead.
Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden. On Five Mile Drive, this is a 22-acre expanse of more than 10,000 plants—some 700 species—which bloom in succession. It's one of the finest rhododendron collections in the world. 2525 S. 336th St., 98407. 253/927–6960 or 877/242–2528. www.rhodygarden.org. $8. Tues.–Sun. 10–4.
Ft. Nisqually. This restored Hudson's Bay Trading Post—a British outpost on the Nisqually Delta in the 1830s—was moved to Point Defiance in 1935. The compound houses a trading post, granary, blacksmith's shop, bakery, and officers' quarters. Docents dress in 1850s attire and demonstrate pioneer skills like weaving and loading a rifle. Queen Victoria's birthday in August is a big event, and eerie candlelight tours run throughout October. 5400 N. Pearl St., 98407. 253/591–5339. www.fortnisqually.org. $6.50. Mid-May–early Sept., daily 11–5; May 1–mid-May and early Sept.–Sept. 30, Wed.–Sun 11–5; Oct.–Apr. Wed.–Sun. 11–4.