I’ve found my hidden Tacoma parks treasure; have you?

A pair of boys enjoy a summer day twirling from rope swings across the surface of Tacoma's China Lake before taking the plunge.
A pair of boys enjoy a summer day twirling from rope swings across the surface of Tacoma's China Lake before taking the plunge. News Tribune file photo, 2007

People searching for housing in Seattle are finding costs excessive, even outrageous. Looking south for relief, they’re stoking the recent “hottest in the nation” Tacoma job market.

Aside from our less “You’re kidding, right?” housing prices, people find other draws here. They might appreciate our lack of pretense, the city’s striking natural beauty and real diversity, a developing arts scene, our bit of an edge, some hipster dive bars and actual parking.

However, there is one Tacoma treasure that may take more time to truly appreciate: our Metro Parks system.

Most people are aware of Point Defiance, visited by 3 million visitors a year – more than Crater Lake, the Everglades and Mammoth Cave National Parks combined.

Wright Park is also popular with its surrounding North Slope/Hilltop/Central Tacoma neighborhoods.

But in recent years, I’ve become quite attached to a small, obscure park that’s a bit like Tacoma itself. It’s hidden, though you’ve perhaps seen it. It’s underappreciated – gritty in spots, beautiful in others – and valued by those of us who use it.

China Lake.

You’re from the area but have never heard of it? From my repeated conversations with long- time locals, even outdoor enthusiasts, you’re not alone.

My little respite lies in the middle of town on South 19th Street, across from Fircrest to the south, State Route 16 to the east and Pearl Street a few blocks west. You’ve likely been by it, missing it in plain sight while commuting, going to Rainiers games, shopping at Freddy’s.

What’s to like? I mean, seriously, it’s abuts a freeway. There are only a handful of parking spaces. A homeless encampment sits in it near Highway 16. And yet...

China Lake Nature Reserve, its official name, is mostly undeveloped forest. These woods are crisscrossed by trails, some quite lovely. Yes, you can hear the freeway if you are right below it. However, much of the park is quiet, punctuated only by the sounds of songbirds.

You’ll see a wide range of Tacoma, of humanity, in this hidden place. Dog walkers abound with their happy partners. While some are unleashed, the only times they’ve accosted me was with welcoming licks.

The trails also host hikers, groups of laughing kids coming home from school, nature photographers and more.

In using the park over 100 times a year, I also often encounter homeless folks. Most are benign enough, and I generally acknowledge them. Some have even warned me about sketchier members of their “tribe.”

Overall, though, I see families with kids use the trails daily and have never seen a negative encounter between them and any of the homeless.

Off the trails, in the small parking lot, sometimes there are folks in cars on their phones in intense, perhaps hidden conversation. Throughout the park, there are lovers, young and old, often strolling hand in hand.

I probably average three visits a week, mountain biking on the park’s technical forest singletrack trails. It’s a hidden spot for that passion, unlike Tacoma’s well known Swan Creek Park, though a group of serious mountain bikers has met at China Lake one evening a week for years, even welcoming this old guy to tag along.

I also enjoy observing creatures here. Beyond the dogs, the animals include multitudes of squirrels and rabbits. When I’m biking as dusk approaches, songbirds sweep low along the narrow forest trails, just above the ground a bit ahead of my bike.

Later in the season, geese descend in the darkening sky. Next, ducks alight onto Tacoma’s largest lake. If I’ve stayed too late and it’s genuinely dark, a huge Barred Owl sometimes swoops near me. I feel the air moved by his powerful wings. It’s definitely time to go home.

We diverse members of humanity and the animal kingdom use the park on our own terms and for our own reasons. May you, too, find and savor your own little hidden treasure somewhere in the Tacoma Metro Parks system.

Bruce McDowell of Tacoma is a guest contributor and a former News Tribune reader columnist.