Special Reports

Our big backyard

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Massive ferns and old-growth trees along the Triangle Trail Inner Loop make a prehistoric backdrop to the Defiance runners, which was formed in the 1980s by a group of physicians.

Shortly before he died in a car accident in 1975, North America’s most famous runner fell in love with Point Defiance Park.

That day in Tacoma, Steve Prefontaine leapt over a small stream in the park’s upper Rhododendron Garden as beams of light peeked through the trees. He almost tripped over his jaw.

“This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever run,” the Olympic athlete told his running partners. “You don’t know what you have here.”

Actually, they did. And they still do.

“This is Mecca,” said Tacoma running icon Sam Ring, who followed the trails with Prefontaine that afternoon. “If you run, this is the place to go in Tacoma.”

It’s also the place to go if you walk, bike, fish, bird-watch, sail, beachcomb, sunbathe, scuba dive, kayak or just want to let the kids run wild. It’s a 702-acre recreational treasure unmatched in most urban areas.

Tacomans have long known what Prefontaine felt that day on the trail.

Pastimes have changed – from marathon dancing to inline skating – but the Point has remained the South Sound’s playground for more than 100 years. The park’s caretakers are now planning for how future generations will enjoy Point Defiance.

“We don’t want to focus just on what people want now,” said Doug Fraser, a planner for Metro Parks Tacoma. “We have to remember there are uses for the park that haven’t been thought of yet.”

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Flip-flops and barbecue grills are standard issue in Point Defiance Park come Memorial Day.

Paths to recreation

When the running craze swept the nation in the early 1970s, The News Tribune decided to sponsor a race that would highlight Point Defiance’s charm.

In 1973, the Sound to Narrows was born.

The run, which originally started near the Boathouse, quickly became Tacoma’s most popular fitness event, drawing more than 10,000 participants some years.

The race also let the community in on a little secret.

“People knew Five Mile Drive was a great place to run, but they didn’t know about all the trails,” Ring said.

That changed in 1975 when The News Tribune asked Ring, winner of the first Sound to Narrows in ’73, to write a story about training for the race.

He wrote about running the 20 miles of trails in the heart of the forest and along the banks of the Point. The trails haven’t been the same since.

“It’s seemed like the trail went from zero to 5,000 users overnight,” said Ring, who estimates he’s run more than 3,000 5.25-mile laps around the Point.

The location gets even better on Saturdays, when Five Mile Drive closes to vehicles until 1 p.m. so cyclists, runners, walkers and others can use the road.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A Memorial Day pinic puts a kiddie pool to good use as a cooler. From left is Jerry White, grandson Thaddeus White, cousin Karen White and friend Fletcher Strickland.

“I think Five Mile Drive is one of the best parts of the park,” said Patricia Rodriguez, 67, of Tacoma.

She’s gotten plenty of workouts on the road, including exercising her patience.

In 1993, Rodriguez took her daughter, Lisa, to Five Mile Drive so she could practice driving the family’s Mazda B210 stick-shift pickup. Whenever the pair’s nerves got too frayed, they stopped to pick huckleberries.

In a 2003 survey of park users, Five Mile Drive rated the No. 1 attraction in the park – used by 85 percent of respondents.

Boathouse manager Tim Horton has seen a side of the drive many have not. After heavy snowstorms, he sometimes puts on his cross-country skis for a tour.

“With the snow weighing down the branches, it looks like an entirely different park,” Horton said.

Like Five Mile Drive, the waterfront yields an abundance of recreational opportunities, from picnics to fishing to strolling the promenade. Not surprisingly, Owen Beach comes in a close second to Five Mile Drive in popularity.

Walt Amidon counts Owen Beach as one of his favorite places to scuba dive.

A sunken barge just off the beach and a steep slope in the Narrows known as “The Wall” are favorites for divers. In 1982, Amidon captured an octopus near the barge and donated it to the aquarium.

In the early 1900s, the waters near the marina were a common dumping ground.

“I’ve found some incredible bottles, some almost 100 years old, right near Anthony’s” restaurant, said Amidon. “That’s been one of my secret stashes. There are still a lot of old bottles there.”

Lisa Lawrence, a 42-year-old REI employee, has kayaked, trained for marathons and practiced yoga under the trees ever since she moved to Tacoma from Moab, Utah, in 1988.

“In a lot of ways, Point Defiance is more unique than a national park,” said Lawrence, who worked as a ranger in Utah, Colorado and California. “It’s so close, but once you step foot in the park, you don’t know you are in Tacoma.

“It’s like you’ve been transported to another place.”

Metro Parks Tacoma archives
Family picnics looked much the same in 1913 at Point Defiance Park. This image shows the Point's picnic area, where a woman used a new cast-iron stove to fry steaks and boil water for potatoes, tea and coffee.

Changing times, pastimes

The ways locals use the park have evolved as tastes changed and once-popular attractions and events emerged and faded.

In the earliest years, families camped for weeks in the park, and some even set up summer huts. In 1891 and 1894, the park board attempted to remove squatters but yielded in 1896 by charging $3 per lot. Camping is no longer permitted, though park officials say they still occasionally stumble across people trying to spend the night.

In the 1920s, the park hosted dance marathons where contestants grooved until they dropped. The last couple standing – and dancing – won. Some contests would last three days and couples danced until their feet bled.

Billie Salapka, 85, made regular visits to the Nereides Baths, Tacoma’s first indoor pool, with her older brothers and sisters in the 1920s.

The heated 80-degree saltwater was a popular destination for Tacomans looking for a soak before the baths were demolished in 1932.

“I was only 4 to 6 when we went there,” Salapka said, “but I still remember being in those horrible bathing suits.”

Swimmers rented gray cotton suits because the baths’ owners didn’t want any color to run and dye the water.

“They fit approximately when you first put them on,” Salapka said. “But when you got wet, they sagged clear down to your knees. They still covered you, they just covered more of you.

“I was only in the shallow end, but I remember it was wonderful.”

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Like beached tropical fish, a school of kayaks lines Owen Beach for a sea kayak symposium in May. The event drew hundreds of vendors and participants to the beach, which has long served as a staging area for community events. Water carnivals in the '30s and '40s, for instance, brought thousands to the park for contests and boat displays.

Some of the more popular events in the park over the years were the salmon bakes and weekly concerts at the bandstand, before the public gatherings spawned less-regular concerts and events such as the Taste of Tacoma.

“When I was a kid, I thought the only reason to go to the Point was the zoo or the salmon bakes,” Ring, the runner, said.

Older kids had other reasons to go. The Rustic Bridge, built in 1891 and dismantled in 1933, spanned a gully named Lover’s Lane. In more recent years, young men gathered at Owen Beach to show off their cars.

Nell Leslie, 38, said Owen Beach was the place to meet boys when she was a senior at Rogers High School in 1985.

“We would either park and start up a conversation with somebody,” she said. “Or we would watch guys play volleyball and then drive the loop again. We’d spend two to four hours there. It was relaxing.”

Some of the park’s former attractions were lost to the elements – including fires.

Lois Kuljis-Piercy, 55, still has vivid memories of the August 1964 night when her favorite childhood memories went up in smoke.

She was at home near the Pearl Street entrance to the park when she saw an orange glow through the trees.

Her fears were confirmed when she and her dad ran up the half-mile trail to where the zoo parking lot sits today. The Point Defiance Riding Academy stables were engulfed in flames.

Before the fire, Kuljis-Piercy would hike the trail to the stables. For $1, she could ride on the maze of trails that are now so popular with runners and walkers.

The stables weren’t the only part of the park’s history to succumb to flames.

Bob Kern, 71, has been fishing at the Boathouse since his dad took him for the first time in 1940.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Mother Hubbard's brood trumps that of the Sicilia family, but they sill clamored aboard a model of her shoe during a visit to Never Never Land this spring. Climbing up is mom Shannon, with dad Doug in the background. Kayla, 10 sits on the toe. Vandals and bad weather have threatened the playland over the years.

“It’s just a great place to be,” Kern said. “Even when there is no fishing, you can find 50 or 60 people down here.”

Kern still loves the Boathouse and stores his craft there, even after a fire destroyed two of his boats in 1984.

The site of Gregg Courtwright’s fondest park memories burned in 1974 when a fire destroyed the old waterfront aquarium.

As a senior at Lincoln High in the spring of 1967, Courtwright used to make regular trips to the old aquarium’s attic, which housed a small firing range.

“Not very many people know that was there,” Courtwright said. “But it was something fun to do.”

What comes next

Troy Langley’s business has strong ties to Point Defiance’s past, present and future.

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Sarah Finnell gets her ball through the wicket while celebrating friend Viginia Philbrook's birthday. In the background, from left: Rosie Hutchinson, Philbrook and Julie Westlin-Naigus.

TNT Family Go-Karts, which stands at the park’s entrance, gets as many as 60,000 customers a year, he says.

“We are the only connection to the old Funland,” which closed in the early ’60s, said Langley, 42. He opened the track in 1985 when he got out of the Marines.

Langley’s dream is to sign a long-term lease with the park and expand his business from go-carts, batting cages, miniature golf and laser tag to a larger amusement park. He’s never had a lease longer than five years.

He fears it’s more likely that he’ll be asked to leave the park.

The future of Langley’s operation as well as that of other recreation opportunities in the park will become more clear as Metro Parks forms a new master plan to govern growth and changes in the park.

Fraser, design and construction manager for Metro Parks, is helping draft the plan and hopes to start seeking public input as early as this fall.

“We want to figure out what the community wants this park to be,” Fraser said.

He says the three most common requests are for more gardens, improved beach facilities and mountain bike trails.

Next year, the waterfront area will get $2 million in improvements, including upgraded boat launches to accommodate the 16,500 annual launches. Gardens also are getting revamped.

Mountain bikers have more of an uphill pedal. Their plight demonstrates how, even at 700-some acres, Point Defiance might not have room for every pursuit.

“Mountain biking can be a little harder on the trails, and there is the conflict between hikers and bikers,” Fraser said. “But somebody might step forward to champion that group.”

Jim Grill of Tacoma’s Single-Track Mind riding club would love to see the park’s 20 miles of dirt trails opened to bikes.

“But I’ve pretty much given up on that fight,” Grill said. Park officials “don’t want it to happen.”

Gary Peniston, who runs the Tacoma Mountaineers’ mountain biking program, says the trails would be too tame for most experienced riders, but perfect for novices.

“You can set aside an area where mountain bikers can go,” Peniston, 57, said. “You don’t need a big area to have a good mountain bike trail system. People would use it. Tacoma needs a place for mountain bikers.”

Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Biting fish and a cup of coffee are all Sung Kim, 78, needs to be up at sunrise to cast off the dock at the Point Defiance Boathouse Marina. He saves the flounder for his three cats and leaves the rest for the birds.
Drew Perine/The News Tribune
A bicycle built for two lets dad do the hard pedaling during a Saturday morning ride. Five Mile Drive closes to vehicles on Saturday mornings.

The park’s first master plan was drafted in 1911, long before mountain biking was invented. The park wants to cultivate more foresight this time around.

The new plan could bring big changes.

Former recreational hot spots such as Never Never Land and the tennis courts are seldom used now and could be replaced, but not without resistance.

“It would be a real shame for the courts to disappear,” said Mark Strand, 55, of Tacoma. “Point Defiance is the perfect place to play tennis. You can watch the ferry and the birds and listen to the (zoo’s) wolves howling while you play.”

Park officials will also consider the sometimes-mentioned and always controversial idea of closing Five Mile Drive to cars.

“It’s extremely popular on Saturdays when it’s closed,” Fraser said. “Maybe we need to find something else to do with Five Mile Drive.”

Some would like to see a skate park. Others want a dog park. Lois Kuljis-Piercy would like to see days when the park is open to horses again. And planners envision a new front door to the park by connecting to Ruston Way via the redeveloping Asarco smelter site.

Even amid all the possibilities, park officials are careful to emphasize the work to preserve and enhance what’s best about the park in its present form.

“We are not looking to open this up as a free-for-all,” Fraser said. “We have to remember, the park works now and that’s great for the community.”

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497