Point Defiance Park — how to have the best day in Tacoma wilderness
A Pacific Northwest local’s guide to the best things to do in Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park. Zoo, beaches, rhododendon, gardens, water views, and more. Includes three interactive maps, photos, and downloadable checklist.
My mom and her siblings grew up on the edge of a vast green space, where old-growth timber hugged primitive deer trails, and a zoo served up elephants and bears in “old school” cages of concrete and iron. It was wilderness back then when Tacoma’s North End was largely undeveloped. Their log cabin overlooked the flowing lawns of Point Defiance Park and was just high enough in elevation to offer a breathtaking view of the Salish Sea.
She spent her childhood playing in the forests around Five Mile Drive until the dinner call at sunset encouraged her home. Over the years, the routing of the roadways and structures have changed, including the impressive Point Defiance Park Zoo & Aquarium (no more austere iron and concrete cages), but what remains is a pocket of inspiring wilderness hugging the Salish Sea — a gift from Tacoma for all to enjoy.
This article provides you with the best things to do in Point Defiance Park
Tacoma’s largest greenspace seems to have something for everyone. In fact, you could spend days exploring trails, gardens, and the many vistas with views of the Salish Sea. But don’t worry if you’re short on time — it’s easy to cover the main attractions over the course of a few hours. Follow along and pick and choose amongst my favorite things to do in Point Defiance Park.
The list begins with a visit to the Duck Pond, near parking spaces along North Waterfront Drive, just past the Pearl Street roundabout — which is the main entrance to the park. There is no essential order to these features because it really depends on the amount of desired activity.
Overall, there are seven parking areas mentioned later in this article, so don’t forget to read to the end for this information, the interactive map, and even a downloadable checklist.
When you’re finished reading this article, you may want to also check out a comprehensive list of my 18 favorite gardens in the Seattle area.
Table of Contents — things to do in Point Defiance Park
- Brief history
- Duck Pond
- Point Defiance Rose Garden
- Japanese Garden and pagoda
- Salish Sea Promenade
- Owen Beach
- Point Defiance Trails
- Five Mile Drive
- Point Defiance Park Zoo and Aquarium
- Fort Nisqually Living History Museum
- Dog Park
- Dune Peninsula Park
- Nearby restaurants
- Getting to Point Defiance Park
- Point Defiance Ferry to Vashon Island
- Interactive Map
- Downloadable checklist
A brief history of Point Defiance Park in Tacoma
Point Defiance Park is on ancestral Coast Salish Tribal land. It’s believed there were Puyallup fishing camps in the areas around present-day Owen Beach. The Treaty of Medicine Creek, signed in 1854 after poorly communicated negotiations, ceded this land to the United States. Since then, the Puyallup people have continued to advocate for their rights. For more information, or to create your own personal statement of land acknowledgment, check out the Puyallup Tribe of Indians’ official website.
The area received its English name in the 1840s when a naval explorer noticed the high bluff would make a great military position. Development didn’t take off until closer to the turn of the 20th century, with the start of park amenities like a streetcar line, species propagation greenhouse, and octagonal pavilion on the water all coming to life in the early 1900s. Since this time, the park has seen many changes, but one thing remains — inspiring nature flows to meet the Salish Sea.
My own history with the park began when I was born, as we regularly traveled from Oregon to visit the family home overlooking the myriad of colors and textures leading to the water. Early memories include visiting Owen Beach for family reunions, wandering through the cult-classic Never Never Land attraction (which closed in 2001), and long walks with relatives amongst the dense rhododendrons around Five Mile Drive. Today, the park remains a favorite of mine, for the age-old nature and diversity of things to do.
I grew up wandering down the sprawling grassy hill, with bread in hand from my grandmother’s freezer, to toss crumbs to the ducks eagerly awaiting my arrival. While today feeding any wildlife is strictly prohibited, it’s still a joy to watch the waterfowl frolicking in this magical kingdom — made up of rock islands, stepping stones, and layered textures of trees and shrubs. This is the focal point of the large lawn and a great place to locate a bench and take in all the park life.
Point Defiance Rose Garden
Heading North (toward the water), wander through the Zoo Botanical Garden, which is also home to an elaborate Point Defiance Rose Garden — loaded with impressive species. Something in this garden seems to always be in bloom, making for a delightful stroll from spring to fall. As kids we loved to run through the arbor, usually covered in climbing rose varieties mixed with other vine-wanderers. It’s not uncommon to see couples taking engagement photos here — and I’ve attended a few Rose Garden weddings as well.
Japanese Garden and pagoda
Japanese-inspired gardens are a love of mine. Something about the perfect balance between the Pillars of nature calls to me. In fact, I’ve written an entire article on this topic, The most inspiring Japanese gardens in the Seattle area, which includes this Tacoma gem. From the Point Defiance Rose Garden continue past the Visitor Center to the flowing tile roof of a stately pagoda, constructed in 1914 to be the Park trolley station. The surrounding gardens are inspired by gifts from Tacoma’s Japanese sister city, Kitakyushu.
Salish Sea Promenade at Point Defiance
My Irish relatives moved to the tiny town of Ruston (which borders part of Point Defiance Park) in the early 1900s, looking for work around a smelter that operated into the 1980s. They enjoyed various activities along the Salish Sea, including social events at the famous octagonal-shaped Pavilion (torn down in the 1930s), replicated by the modern-day Anthony’s at Point Defiance.
The adjacent Promenade Lane, which follows a seawall along a .8-mile stretch of water, provided a space to stroll in the fresh salty air. While the complex that makes up Point Defiance Marina might look more modern today, the Promenade still offers a refreshing place to follow the sea — the tides flowing in and out. Take in views of the Vashon Island Ferry shuttling traffic across the Salish Sea and keep a lookout for mammals that swim in the water. No matter the weather, the 1.5-mile round-trip walk always replenishes the soul.
Owen Beach — pebbles of the Salish Sea
At the other end of the Promenade is Owen Beach, which can also be accessed via Five Mile Drive. Plenty of parking is available. This beach offers a beautiful seaside retreat among pebbles and driftwood that create pockets for sunbathers and the quintessential Salish Sea beach experience. Popular in the summer and on weekends.
Update: Owen Beach is undergoing a major renovation — the entire site, including parking, is expected to open sometime in Summer 2022.
Point Defiance trails — Rhododendron Garden Loop under the forest canopy
The more developed parts of the park, mentioned above, offer great options to quickly experience nature in a variety of forms. The “second act” of the best day in this bastion of nature is exploring the Point Defiance trails that wind through a large swath of unobstructed forest. Whether you’re coming to strictly hike or want to augment a visit to the other attractions, just the right options exist to slip away into a nature-induced trance.
For hiking only, the area near the Mildred Street Entrance offers a less congested place to park and start. Otherwise, if continuing from the main parts of the park, grab the trailhead West of the Point Defiance Zoo and head into Tacoma’s urban wilderness. The Outer Loop is the longest trail but you’ll find more opportunities to view the Salish Sea. Here are the main Point Defiance Trails:
- Spine Trail – 1.3 miles one way / 2.6 miles round trip
Rhododendron Garden to Gig Harbor Viewpoint
- Square Trail – 4.6 miles Outer Loop
- Triangle Trail – 3.3 miles Inner Loop
- Rhododendron Garden Loop – .52 miles
The shelter is 215 ft. from the road
If you’re looking for a succinct “greatest hits” kind of easy walk try the Rhododendron Garden Loop, which is particularly special in the Spring blooming season and gentle walking. Plus, the stretch of roadway near the picnic shelter (part of Five Mile Drive) is stunning with the massive grove of maple trees seeming to reach up to the heavens (photo below).
There are also about four miles of other trails that are not as well marked and weave in amongst the magical forest of ferns, fir, and maples. No matter which direction you head, it’ll be very difficult to get too lost. Explore away!
Five Mile Drive — a blissful road through Pacific Northwest magic
As the name suggests, Five Mile Drive is a roadway winding around a pristine native Pacific Northwest forest… for five miles. The track is divided into two sections: Inner and Outer loops.
The Inner Loop is open to vehicles and provides access to all the main attractions in Point Defiance Park: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, Fort Nisqually Living History Museum, Point Defiance Marina, Owen Beach, the Gardens, the Pagoda, and the Off-Leash Dog Park.
The Outer Loop is closed permanently for vehicles due to safety concerns (several parts of the drive are on unstable cliffs). While it’s too bad a drive is no longer an option, it’s actually better for bikers and hikers. This part of Five Mile Drive feels more submerged into a true Pacific Northwest forest. Moss and ferns seem to pop out from all directions under an immense canopy of luscious trees. In the Fall this is an amazing delight of colors and textures, but it’s a year-round treasure. When hiking or biking, be sure to find the four inspiring viewpoints — they each face different directions.
While biking is not allowed on any of the hiking trails, use of the Five Mile Drive roadway is allowed.
Point Defiance Park Zoo and Aquarium
When I started visiting the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium the main attraction was a giant Asian elephant named Cindy. She lived right across from the old-fashioned carousel that turned us around while playing Joplin music (it’s still running).
Today, Cindy has gone to live with the angels but the greatly expanded Zoo and Aquarium make for a fun outing. Check out the unique-looking tapir, watch wolves feed, and follow sharks under the water in one of two aquariums. On a recent visit, even in the pouring rain, we spent three hours with the animals.
At the time of this update, (May, 2022) summer hours are generally 9 AM – 5 PM daily, and an adult ticket starts at $20. Check the website for off-season hours. Online tickets are strongly encouraged. They are nonrefundable and valid for single entry anytime within one year from purchase date. The gift shop and cafe are both open, and parking is free.
Fort Nisqually Living History Museum
Fort Nisqually originally stood in present-day Dupont, Washington (about 20 miles SW of Point Defiance Park) as the first “globally connected” settlement in the Salish Sea area. It was used by the Hudson Bay Company as far back as 1833 to foster fur trading in the region.
The current replica was constructed within the park in the 1930s as part of a Works Progress Administration (WPA) jobs project. The location on the bluff facing the Tacoma Narrows offers a dramatic setting to learn about this nugget of local history. Check the website for more inforamtion on hours and admission prices. Tickets can also be purchased at the zoo.
Point Defiance Dog Park
Across the road from Fort Nisqually is an off-leash dog park. This 7-acre area is fenced on a bluff with areas for smaller dogs too.
Dune Peninsula Park
Frank Herbert, the creator of the dystopian book series Dune, was born in Tacoma and inspired one of the newest parks in the North End, Dune Peninsula at Point Defiance. The weaving of organic grasses with harsh industrial metals evokes thoughts about the modern-day climate change crisis. All the while, sweeping views of the Salish Sea in all directions seem to infuse the perfect amount of optimism into the experience. On a clear day, you’re in for a treat with Mt. Rainier rising to the East.
Climb up to the top of a pyramid of boulders to spot the Point Defiance Ferry, shuttling people to and from Vashon Island. Dune Peninsula is connected to the main Point Defiance Park via Wilson Way Trail. This walkway passes by the recent Stairs and Slides installation that combines a practical way to reach the parking lot adjacent to the Ferry Terminal with playful slides — great for kids and those young at heart. Have a toss down the slides and run over to Anthony’s at Point Defiance (a local fine-dining seafood chain) for some grub.
Restaurants near Point Defiance Park
Speaking of food, I recently wrote an article for another site, Foodie Flashpacker, that outlines a number of my favorite eateries in the North End, near the park. The stops are on the Interactive Map below (shown in red) and are proven goodness. WildFin, one of the joints mentioned, is nestled into the sprawling Point Ruston development. Although there is a full-service restaurant, I really love to walk up to the fish bar on the side of the building (facing the cul-de-sac) and take a basket of the freshly fried halibut (there is also cod) over to the public steps leading down to the start of the promenade. If fish and chips are not your fancy, there are many other options in this complex — along with plenty of waterfront walking paths in either direction to burn a little of it away.
Getting to Point Defiance Park
Point Defiance Park is on the North End of Tacoma and is surrounded on three sides by the Salish Sea.
- Driving: The park is about seven miles and 20 minutes Northwest of the Tacoma Dome (Interstate 5). Depending on traffic, Point Defiance Park is typically between 45-55 minutes from Downtown Seattle and 35-45 minutes from Seatac International Airport.
- Ferry: The Washington State Ferries run regular 15-minute services between Tahlequah on Vashon Island and the Point Defiance Ferry landing. See below for more details.
- Biking: There is a mostly flat bike path that runs from Downtown Tacoma to the park via Ruston Way. The distance is six miles and about 32 minutes.
- Walking: An urban hike from Downtown Tacoma would take about two hours each way. The path is mostly flat via Ruston Way, but there is also more challenging terrain to hike through the interesting Proctor District.
- Public Transportation: The #11 bus travels between Downtown Tacoma and Point Defiance Park in about 40 minutes ($2.00). Or, if coming into the Sounder Station at the Tacoma Dome the #41 bus changes to the #11 Downtown and takes about ten more minutes while still costing $2.00. Sound Transit can provide more specific information on transportation between the Seattle area and Tacoma — the journey takes about an hour.
- Train: It’s possible to take Amtrak to Tacoma (the station is also near the Tacoma Dome) and I’ve written an article about this, Seattle to Portland train, with general details about using this service.
Parking at Point Defiance Park
There are 7 main areas (all free except Dune Park) to park your car, just depending on the activities:
- Limited street parking along N Waterfront Drive covers three areas: adjacent to the main lawn and botanical gardens, near Anthony’s at Point Defiance on the water, and the Point Defiance Boat Launch. These spots are the most convenient to the gardens and Promenade and fill up first during busy times.
- Multi-purpose parking lot adjacent to the Vashon Island Ferry terminal vehicle holding area. This is a large overflow lot that isn’t super close to anything, but is reliably available.
- Dune Park (about a mile to the main park). This parking area requires payment made by machines near the Point Ruston shops.
- Point Defiance Zoo parking area. This area is the most central — between the hiking trails and gardens.
- Owen Beach parking area (closed through Summer 2022).
- Parking lot adjacent to Ft. Nisqually Living History Museum. Convenient to the dog park and the museum and hiking trails.
- Street parking near the Mildred Street exit. This area is the least congested and can be a good option for hiking.
Point Defiance Ferry to Vashon Island
Point Defiance is on the North End of Tacoma, which makes for a short crossing via Washington State Ferry to Vashon Island. The ferry terminal is simple and located on the outskirts of the park, near Anthony’s. Since the only way on or off the rural island is via water, the fares are sold in round-trip tickets on the Point Defiance side. At the time of this writing (May 2022) adult passenger fare is $6.10 and youth $3.05 while a standard size vehicle (less than 22 feet) is $26.55 for the car and driver.
The ferry route is known as Point Defiance to Tahlequah and takes about 15 minutes. On a clear day, the back and forth allows awesome views of Mt. Rainier and the Salish Sea from the outside deck and can be a fun activity for kids. It might be helpful to note there are no substantial attractions at Tahlequah and a vehicle or bike would be required to truly explore Vashon Island. The fares listed above also allow for using the Vashon Island to Fauntleroy (West Seattle) route in case you’d like to continue up to the Seattle area.
For more information on a longer road trip to Vashon Island, check out my article Day trips from Seattle — 16 of the best.
Interactive Point Defiance Park map
To help with planning, print out this checklist (or save the pdf to your mobile device) in order to remember all the ways to connect with this nature-rich park.