Summer is looking quite a bit different for kids across central Washington this year. The coronavirus pandemic continues to alter our lives, turning homes into makeshift classrooms, offices, gyms and restaurants. And as the importance of staying six feet apart persists into the warmer months, the typical summer activities kids look forward to each year may not be available. With movie theaters, bowling alleys and community pools closed — or reopening at reduced capacities — finding activities to keep the kids busy this summer may be more challenging than ever.
Luckily, Washington activity businesses are getting creative. They’re coming up with fun and educational experiences for kids to enjoy, such as Northwest Trek’s Wild Drive tour, which officially launched on May 27 and is expected to run through Labor Day weekend.
A popular Pacific Northwest attraction for families and couples alike, the 723-acre park is near Eatonville, about a three-hour drive from Yakima. And the route through U.S. Highway 12 and the White Pass Scenic Byway offers the opportunity to make a day of it, celebrating Washington’s stunning sites along the way.
Northwest Trek has come up with a way to experience their beautiful land and offer an opportunity to view animals, all from the comfort of your own car.
“We developed Wild Drive as an innovative way to connect our guests with nature and wildlife while keeping everyone safe and healthy,” says Whitney DalBalcon, marketing and communications manager for Northwest Trek.
Established in 1975, Northwest Trek has been an important conduit in educating Washingtonians and travelers alike about native animals to the Pacific Northwest. As stewards of conservation and education, Northwest Trek has been devoted to helping and providing safe habitat for a wide range of animals from black bears and cougars to mountain goats and American bison — and you can get to know all of these animals during a visit to the park.
Typically, the tour is operated by inviting guests onto one of their trams, which travels through the free-roaming area. But now, with social distancing measures in place, the park has opened a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to drive your own car through the 435-acre, free-roaming area, allowing the whole family to venture through areas of dense forest, wetlands and prairie.
The Wild Drive tour requires online reservations ahead of time, allowing for no-contact check-in. Visitors pay per vehicle, and up to eight household members are welcome to attend, making it an economical option for the whole family.
“It is unlike anything we’ve ever offered before,” says DalBalcon.
Once you arrive at the staging area and check in, it’s time for the adventure to begin. A Northwest Trek naturalist guides you through the free-roaming area from their own vehicle, sharing educational information about the park and its animals through an FM radio station along the way.
As you begin your tour and head through the first forested section of the free-roaming area, you might spot fluffy white mountain goats on the side of the road, relaxing in the shade by the lake. As you continue down the road, finding large-and-in-charge American bison is common — perhaps you’ll even spot one sunbathing by the road. The Wild Drive lasts just under an hour, as you travel throughout the park, spotting black-tailed deer, moose and bighorn sheep in the evergreen forest along the way. As you make your way past marshland, you might see a trumpeter swan sitting on her nest as she tends to her babies. Toward the end of the route, caribou with stunning, intricate horns could be munching on grass or leaves.
Do you know how Roosevelt Elk got their name? Do you know why it might be important for mountain goats to be relocated if they start becoming hostile in an environment? As you wind through the park with your guide, be sure to listen as they offer fascinating details on the types of habitats each of their animals live in, and the ways in which Northwest Trek has helped to make accommodations for these Pacific Northwest animals to live their best lives. Overall, it’s an educational experience, all in the name of fun. Hopping back and forth between windows in the car as you try to see all the animals along the way is a blast. And best of all, it’s an option for family fun and a bit of normalcy when it seems that everything else for summer has been canceled.