Growling bears, hissing cats, snorting beavers, splashing otters, howling wolves, calling eagles, screeching sandpile cranes, bugling elk…these are the sights and sounds that accompany you on your tour through the various native species of the United States Pacific Northwest when you visit Northwest Trek.
Located near the foot of Mt. Rainier not far from the town of Eatonville, about 1 1/2 hour drive from Seattle, is the unique wildlife park, Northwest Trek. Founded with a family land donation to Pierce County, Northwest Trek has grown to become one of the best animal rehabilitation and education centers for wildlife native to the area. They have helped restore many animals near extinction back to the wild while preserving others unable to return. Their educational programs are outstanding, done around the state in classrooms as well as at their facility. They even offer training courses for teachers and nature professionals and enthusiasts.
Visiting Northwest Trek is always an adventure. It is an unusual zoological park as they have worked from the beginning to create natural “cage-less” habitats for the wildlife. Visitors walk along wooded paths to step into a small enclosure across the water from the wildlife or from up high enough to allow easy viewing of the animals below while maintaining a distance for their safety and yours. The wolves can be easily viewed from a walkway that passes over part of their enclosure. Manmade barriers are few, and those that are present are usually hidden behind vines or other plants. The animals wander through natural vegetation and ground cover, nesting or resting in trees or areas that are “natural” and not made of cement and man-made materials, giving you a sense of peeking into the real “wild” world.
Plan to spend a whole day at Northwest Trek. The park is divided up into several areas for exploration. The walking tour covers the wildcats, owls and eagles, bears, wolves, otters, porcupines, and many others. A hiking area provides a variety of trails to explore typical Pacific Northwest habitats and creatures where you can spend a few minutes or a couple of hours. Helpful signs identify the different species of plant and animal life. The Cheney Discovery Center provides children and visitors with a chance to get up close and personal as they learn about the different wildlife and how they live. There are hands-on displays and many different exhibits to help visitors better understand the animals and their reliance upon their environment and the responsibility we have to protect it for them.
Eatonville WA 98328
web site: www.nwtrek.org
Hours: The entrance opens at 9:30 AM year around and the closing time varies dependent upon the season. All facilities are open at the same time. Check their web site for specific seasonal details.
Getting There: Northwest Trek is located 55 miles south of Seattle and 35 miles east of Tacoma. Exit I-5 to access State Route 161. You will find the entrance on the east side of State Route 161, 17 miles south of Puyallup and 6 miles north of Eatonville.
Best Time: Spring is excellent for baby mammals and birds in breeding plumage, as well as for migrating birds in general, such as the sandhill crane. Summer is very popular for visitors and can be very crowded on weekends. Fall is great for good looking mammals. Beware of hibernating animals being unavailable during the winter.
Famous for: Close access to animals native to the Pacific Northwest and housed in fairly natural settings. Excellent educational information and facilities.
How to visit: The best access for photographers is to participate in a photographic tour, available for professional photographers as well as for photographic groups. On your own, arrive early and be ready to enter the facilities immediately. Take the first tram at 10:00 AM as some of the larger animals may still be hanging around their feeding grounds, allowing for closer viewing. Then explore the Core Area walking tour before the crowds arrive. During the busiest times, near lunch, avoid the crowds and seek out the shaded areas of the hiking trails to capture interesting closeup subjects, patterns, and textures. Return to the Core Area walking tour late in the day for a chance to catch some of the animals who come out later in the day.
Habitat: The area represents much of the habitat found in the Pacific Northwest, with excellent samples of forest and marsh lands, as well as some open pasture land.
Wildlife: Grizzly, otter, black bear, wolves, skunk, elk, deer, bison, beaver, raccoon, lynx, bobcat, cougar, badger, owls, eagles, turkeys, sandhill cranes, and a variety of native birdlife.
Equipment: Long lenses are highly recommended to get decent images of most of the animals and birds. A moderate lens will work for the closer exhibits. Avoid wide angle lenses as they tend to take in too much of the background and man-made surroundings. A flash with an extender is recommended. A tripod is best for working with the many low light situations. Bring binoculars and/or spotting scopes for bird spotting and viewing distant wildlife.
Most popular is the Tram Tour which leaves every hour on the hour (April – October) from the Tram Station. This open window tram takes visitors on a ride through the largest part of the park, 435 acres, passing through woodlands, open fields, and wetlands. Visitors get a chance to see the animals safari-style, meeting elk, deer, bison, and others, as well as many birds, especially the native wild turkey which tend to put on quite a show during mating season. Sandpile Cranes love to hang out by the Tram Station during migration season, making a huge racket of honking and screeching sounds.
For the photographer, the walking tour, hiking areas, and tram are the best bets for excellent photographic opportunities. For excellent photographic access from the tram, you can participate in a photographic tram tour led by a wildlife specialist and/or wildlife biologist from the park. They can provide excellent educational information as well as bring the tram close to the wildlife for the photographers. Contact Northwest Trek and check their web page for more information.
Fall and Spring are the best time to photograph Northwest Trek. A high overcast day is even better, providing even light on your subjects. Fall offers mammals with their healthy winter coats and fattened up bodies ready for winter. Spring offers great opportunities for baby mammals and birds. These are also prime bird migration times, and many pass through Northwest Trek taking advantage of the water, food, and resting areas.
A tripod is a must, as the light in western Washington State is often low, even during the day. The dense foliage of the forest in and around the park and the trails also make for low light levels. A flash, especially a full-powered flash with a long range and a “flash extender”, is recommended, especially for the dark burrows and caverns for photographing “underground” or night creatures. Working with fill flash helps to overcome some of the shadows found on a bright sunny day, and to add some punch to the overcast days. When working under low light conditions, we recommend pushing 100 speed film 1 stop to ISO 200 or using one of the new higher speed films, but for normal conditions, using ISO 100 should be enough.
Long lenses are preferred for the larger mammals and the eagles and owls as they tend to stay further back in their enclosures. Shorter lenses are needed for the burrowing and smaller creatures as they are closer to the enclosure barrier.
Working with the burrowing creatures, Northwest Trek has provided underground viewing for many of them with glass barriers between you and the animal. The beaver dam is a prime example with a wonderful viewing window into their burrow, a sight rarely seen. Working with glass as interference, you will need to work with an off-the-camera flash cord and hold the flash at an angle to the window to prevent reflection of the flash into the camera.
The access to various owls and the two native eagle species is excellent, allowing visitors to view and photograph birds rarely seen in the wild. The owl enclosures recreate habitats comfortable and familiar to the birds, and the barn owls perch on the facade of an old bar, much as they have become accustomed to do in the “wild”.
A photographic trip to Northwest Trek means arriving early. Organized photo tours usually begin before the park opens, often following the feeding trucks around to get access to the more reclusive animals. If you come as an individual, be one of the first to walk in when they open at 9:30 AM (year around) during the winter so you can take advantage of some morning light. Closing at 3:00 PM during the shorter days of the year in the late Fall through early Spring, you can take advantage of the warmth of sunset when it sets early, if weather permits. It happens fast so you need to be prepared for the light. Storm-light also offers wonderful lighting opportunities for photographing at Northwest Trek. The ever-changing light, sometimes soft, sometimes unusually warm, creates some great challenges and chances for great photographs.
As with all such parks and preserves, watch backgrounds for signs and man-made objects, as well as bright lights or highlights can cause distracting elements in your images. Many animals have been rescued and are injured and unable to return to the wild. If you are photographing images for future sale, take care to avoid ear tags, scars, or other “unattractive” elements unless you have a particular market for such images.
Northwest Trek is also very suitable for organized groups and photo club excursions. Arrangements must be made in advance and they take extra special effort when working with photographers to transport them around before the park opens during the feeding of the animals, bringing the wildlife closer to the trams. Naturalists accompany the group tours, providing extensive information about the wildlife and habitat and answering questions.
Visit the Northwest Trek web site for more information and instructions on how to get there and take advantage of the wonderful facilities they have to offer.