Every now and then I stumble upon a hidden gem in the Seattle area that rocks my nature-loving world. It isn’t always the physical attributes as much as the spirit, or feeling I get while amidst wise old trees and densely thick ground covers that usually hold an impassioned version of the color green. My connection, or internal “pop” is what endears me to a particular place where all of me smiles. The happiness I receive outdoors, even in angry downpours of rain, is what powers me to write and share my wisdom of the Pacific Northwest with you. All of my suggestions come from this place of joy attributed with meaningful connections — in this case deep connection to nature. West Hylebos Wetlands Park, in the middle of suburban Federal Way, Washington, is an unexpected treasure focused around a fantastic boardwalk that traverses a rare peat bog.
At just under 100,000 inhabitants, Federal Way, Washington is the 11th largest city in the State of Washington, and located between Seattle and Tacoma. This municipality covers a swath of land that ranges from the beautiful pebbly shoreline of the Puget Sound to bustling Interstate 5. Locals tend to associate this area to Wild Waves Water Park, which is visible from the freeway — a roadside marker on the drive from Portland to Seattle that indicates 30 minutes are left on a podcast before arriving home (in Seattle).
Growing up we had cousins who lived in Federal Way, so we enjoyed the Water Park and walks along the beach at Dash Point State Park, but I never realized there were so many other natural hidden nuggets of “green gold” in the area. Although this post is all about West Hylebos Wetlands Park, check out the Google Map below for my suggested things to do in the Federal Way area.
West Hylebos Wetlands is among the best Federal Way parks and this article explains how to enjoy the magical boardwalk experience
The map below also points out the location of Powellswood (photo above), which is a fantastic botanical garden with a variety of zones that offer beautiful examples of native Pacific Northwest plants combined with more exotic varieties — all folded in together in harmony. I last visited this place just as the Fall season was coming to a close and the last of the red, yellow and orange leaves were slowly falling to an already covered ground. The experience was especially quiet because I was the only visitor, sharing the 40 acre landscape with two gardeners cleaning up the many flower beds. I left wanting more nature and glanced down at the map to see what other parks might be around. A nearby speck of green showed up on my map and I pointed my vehicle in that direction. My car almost blew right past the entrance to the simple parking lot, mostly because it stems from a very busy suburban thoroughfare.
The simplicity and location of this suburban gem makes it easy to combine with other parks in Federal Way, or a great jumping off point from Interstate 5 to stretch the legs before heading on to destinations North or South.
The parking lot is simple and focuses around an oddly placed log cabin, which is the original Denny house, built in 1889 along the banks of Lake Union in Seattle and eventually moved to this location. The Denny family was one of the founding pillars of the European settlement that became Seattle. The restoration seems thorough and once out of the car (parking appears to be free) another simpler log home also appears adjacent to a portable restroom wonderfully disguised as an old time shed. This is the Barker Cabin, which remains the oldest original building in Federal Way. Placards detail the pioneer history of this plot of land and show the early hardships of living in such a remote area, likely covered in mud for half the year.
Log cabins initially feel like an odd way to enter such a bastion of nature, but by following the story outlined in the exhibit it begins to make sense. The property eventually belonged to Ilene and Francis Marckx, who loved their wild patch of marshy nature and donated an initial portion of 68 acres to the State of Washington with the stipulation it live on, protected and offered as a park for the community. I’m happy the Marckx’s saw the value of their plot of ancient nature, including a rare peat bog.
You see, this area used to be a jagged deep lake, carved out by glaciers in the ice age and eventually filled in over time with all kinds of debris that kept compacting — creating dense, nutrient-rich sod. Still, the waters from the lake were kept in giant sink holes that persevered through millions of years and today the area is like a floating organic mass wobbling like a bobble head atop a giant lake. That’s how I see it at least!
A suburban Seattle park best experienced slowly
Start the journey with plenty of time and willingness to go slow. Wander the boardwalk and look for local birds nesting in the trees or foraging for food in the bushes of salal and Oregon grape. Touch the sinewy texture of regal cedar trees that form protection for the vegetation below. Marvel in the way licorice ferns line the mossy trunks of maple trees, happy to be along for the ride. Imagine the murky brown waters flowing up from vast natural cisterns, passing layers of dense peat. Focus more closely on the brown water to understand that it isn’t dirty, but rather rich with nutrients and actually very pristine.
Embark on the magical boardwalk of West Hylebos Wetlands Park
It takes a little walking through some mud in Winter, to wind through what appears the back acres of a family orchard. Eventually, an enchanting boardwalk appears, signaling the beginning of the real adventure. As mentioned in the paragraph above, this area is essentially floating on an underground lake and water pops up everywhere, making the boardwalk essential for getting around while also protecting the rich ecosystem, which feeds off the year-round moisture.
The boardwalk passes through a grove of birch trees (photo above) and as the foliage transitions to evergreen trees a fork in the path offers two choices. I like to take the left option to visit the Deep Sink and Sitka Spruce viewpoints. When the trail comes to another fork, go left and head over a fascinating river that seems to quiver and rush under the bridge at the same time. The Brooklake Viewpoint is peaceful and scenic, overlooking a placid pond. Finally, don’t miss a new section of the walk heading slightly uphill under a forest canopy of middle aged cedar trees. Try the alternate route on the return which passes by uprooted trees — displaying the power of nature, snapping up the walkway with massive fanning roots. Once back on the gravel trail there is also an option to head toward the picnic area which leads to another trail through an orchard-like grove of trees to another lake. This gets very muddy in Winter and offers beauty more akin to a family farm peacefully situated alongside a quiet pond.
The longest version of the entire experience is only about 2 miles, and very flat, making it a wonderfully accessible option for kids and people with limited mobility. Be careful in the Fall, as the fallen leaves mixed with water are a slipping hazard and with Winter the cleared boardwalk remains relatively stable but caution is always advised — especially when temperatures fall around freezing.
Leave no trace and take nothing but memories
Surprises live all around us, especially in nature, and I’m thankful I ran across this magnificent example of conservation amongst the pressures to develop every square inch of our world. Places like West Hylebos exist to offer us a reprieve from daily pressures, if only for an hour or so. I hope this article inspires your own exploration and connection with the world in ways that bring meaning to life.