The large green swath on Tacoma’s eastern boundary has been called Swan Creek Park for decades, but the term “park” might have been a bit misleading.
More accurate was the description used by people like Tacoma mountain biker Sean Canfield: “It was a no-man’s land.” Hike or bike the forested 373 acres and it wasn’t uncommon to stumble across a homeless encampment or drug paraphernalia.
And for a large park less than 2.5 miles from the Tacoma Dome, it seemed few people knew about it. “I didn’t find it until I found this green patch on Google maps,” Canfield said.
But thanks to a 5-year-old master plan developed by Metro Parks Tacoma and a host of volunteers, Swan Creek is finally taking shape, not just as a park but as a place that might someday stand alongside Point Defiance as a vital piece of the South Sound’s recreational identity.
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“It’s really turned around, and I think that’s the greatest thing,” said Marina Becker, Metro Parks director of parks and natural resources. “You see a lot of families out there, a lot of people with dogs, school groups down in the creek … .
“It’s really become sort of a destination for our community to be able to access a bunch of a cool outdoor activities pretty close to anywhere in the city. It’s a treasure.”
The mountain bike trail system recently doubled in size. Regular work parties from the Washington Trails Association are helping improve the hiking trails that travel through and above Swan Creek Canyon. Volunteers are planting a food forest, where visitors will be welcome to visit and sample the offerings of food-producing trees and plants.
There is so much going on. It’s really an incredible resource.”
Marina Becker, Metro Parks Tacoma’s director of parks and natural resources, talking about Swan Creek Park
Bike races and mud runs have been staged in the park the last two years. Swan Creek’s community garden is the largest in the city.
“There is so much going on,” Becker said. “It’s really an incredible resource.”
Canfield spent dozens of hours volunteering with Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance when the organization helped Metro Parks build Tacoma’s first mountain bike park. The trail system opened in 2014 with nearly 3 miles of trails.
Today Canfield has a temporary position with Metro Parks as an excavator helping finish Phase 2 of the bike park. Evergreen estimates the additional work gives the park nearly six miles of trails.
The trails, underwritten in part by a $20,000 donation from REI, were scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, but they are already open for riding.
Canfield says he’s seeing more users on the trails than ever before.
$20,000 The amount REI donated for Phase 2 of the Swan Creek mountain bike park.
The new trails fill the obvious deficiency that came with Phase 1. “It was a great start, but it was not really enough,” said Mike Westra of Evergreen.
More than half of Phase 1 was considered easy trails. This was by design, says Brian Tustison, a Tacoma resident working for Evergreen. It made the bike park accessible to more people. Phase 1 was also highlighted by some challenging jump lines best left to the experts. However, there wasn’t much for the intermediates in between these green and black lines.
The gap is now filled, thanks to new trails with names like “Ground Control” and “Major Tom” in honor of David Bowie, and Murphy’s Law that was named for the nasty weather and other obstacles that kept holding up trail work. Old favorites like “Breaking Bad” and “Hustle & Flow” are expanded.
With the new trails, the bike park now offers a smooth transition from beginner to intermediate to expert.
“Start on Hustle & Flow, the main trail around the outside of the park,” Tustison said. “Then once you feel comfortable, there are trails that break off that are a little more difficult for you to explore.
“That’s one of the best parts. Exploring and getting oriented. It is mountain biking so there should be a little bit of adventure.”
HIKING TRAIL UPGRADES
According to Metro Parks’ online history of Swan Creek, the park’s trails were completed in 1985.
While a walk up the lush green canyon while watching salmon spawn in the creek might make visitors feel as if they’d traveled far from the city, the trails weren’t always in good shape.
I think this movement of WTA getting down to Puget Sound parks is really connecting people. … It’s getting people out there and getting them reinvested in public land stewardship.”
Chris Beale, WTA volunteer and president of ForeverGreen Trails
The Washington Trails Association has helped improve the trails with regular work parties. Volunteer groups typically ranged from 12-30 people.
“The work out there has been pretty important because I don’t think the county and Metro Parks has been able to do much maintenance since they built it,” said Chris Beale, a WTA volunteer and president of ForeverGreen Trails, in a February interview with The News Tribune.
While the trails association is best known for its work in national parks and forests, it has been doing more projects in community parks.
“I think this movement of WTA getting down to Puget Sound parks is really connecting people,” Beale said. “… It’s getting people out there and getting them reinvested in public land stewardship. If we can continue this work, you connect people to trails and you connect them together and expose them to new areas right in their backyard that they might not even know about.”
Volunteers are working to build a 1-acre food forest at the park.
Unlike Swan Creek’s structured community garden where users can grow plants for their own use, the forest would be a meandering open area for the community to enjoy food-producing trees and plants. “It’s a cool concept that we are working on right now,” Becker said.
Of all the accoutrements planned for the park, the continued development of the food forest is among the projects likely to happen sooner rather than later.
Swan Creek Park is 373 acres and Tacoma’s second-largest park behind only 702-acre Point Defiance Park.
Adding a parking lot and a dog park are also priorities, Becker said.
The master plan also calls for a picnic area, a campground, a multi-use building, a ropes course, BMX trails and restrooms.
A rock climbing facility called Liz Rocks in honor of Tacoma climber Liz Daley could be built at Swan Creek or Point Defiance. Fundraising is already underway by a group of Daley’s friends. The group raised $75,000 at its first fundraiser, in September. Daley was killed by an avalanche in 2014.
Pierce County’s proposed Cross County Commuter Connector (Pipeline Road) could make accessing Swan Creek even easier for users from as far away as South Hill.
“That trail would be the perfect way for people to get to the park,” Canfield said. “… It is really exciting to think about what this park will become.”
SWAN CREEK PARK
Acres: 373 (290 owned by Metro Parks Tacoma, 83 owned by Pierce County).
Entry fee: No charge.
Parking: Park near the end of East 56th Street east of Portland Avenue, or on T Street near Lister Elementary.
Trails: An estimated six miles of trails in a designated 50-acre biking area.
Trailhead: On Pioneer Way between the Clay Art Center and Waller Road.
Trails: Hike up the lush green canyon and return along the canyon’s ridge on a 4.5-mile hike with 600 feet of elevation game. The hike can be extended. Visit thenewstribune.com/outdoors for more information on this and other hikes.
GARDEN AND FOOD FOREST
Location: Near the intersection of East 42nd Street and Roosevelt Avenue is Tacoma’s largest community garden. Metro Parks Tacoma is partnering with local groups to build a 1-acre food forest in the area.
What’s a food forest? Metro Parks describes this as an meandering edible pathway open for all to walk and partake of food-producing plants and trees.
Restrictions: While an off-leash dog park is in the works, currently pets must be on leashes. Mountain bikes are not allowed in other areas of the park, including the pedestrian trails in Swan Creek Canyon.
Maps: Online at metroparkstacoma.com/swan-creek-park.