For a summer day trip, Mercer Slough Nature Park - an Ice Age peat bog on the east side of Lake Washington - offers an outdoor adventure in a curiously urban setting.
Its easy and level trails meander through forested wetlands, open meadows and blueberry fields with the high-rises of downtown Seattle and Bellevue in the distance. Operated by the city of Bellevue, its 320 acres make it slightly larger than Whatcom Falls Park in Bellingham, with terrain that echoes the marshes of Tennant Lake and the Hovander Homestead pioneer site in Ferndale.
It teems with plants, wildlife and birds, and offers countless opportunities for youngsters to explore.
A four-mile pathway that's mostly hard-surfaced asphalt and concrete surrounds the park, making for easy bike riding or strollering. Nature trails inside the park are boardwalk or chipped wood, and are well-groomed and easy for hikers and runners except on the most rainy of days. The entire park is linked to other Bellevue parks via a network of urban greenways.
From the park periphery are links to all trails inside the park, and side trails to attractions such as a fish ladder at Kelsey Creek on the north side of the park.
A visitor center with interpretive displays is on the east side of the park, along Lake Washington Boulevard SE (also called 118th Avenue SE). The visitor center is in a complex of buildings that are part of the new Environmental Education Center for classes run in partnership with the Bellevue Parks and Recreation Department and the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. The center is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily with free parking and clean restrooms.
Learn about the park and periodic lectures, guided walks and film programs throughout the summer at bellevuewa.gov/mseec.htm.
On the west side of the park, along 112th Avenue SE (which becomes Bellevue Way) are more parking areas and restrooms, a launching site for non-motorized boats, and a seasonal produce stand and U-pick blueberry farm. There's also the Winters House, a 1929 Mission Revival structure that's on the National Register of Historic Places. Free visiting hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
Blueberry farms will be open for U-pick from early July to late August. For picking hours and dates, go to billpacefruitandproduce.com. Bring a valid Washington state ID as a deposit for a picking bucket.
Visitors can launch their own canoes or kayaks at the head of the Sweyolocken Water Trail that starts and ends on the southwest corner of the park. It's touted as the best way to see much of the park's more elusive wildlife - such as beavers, turtles, river otters, muskrats and a variety of waterfowl.
Rent kayaks or canoes by the hour or day at Cascade Canoe & Kayak Centres Inc. in nearby Enatai Beach. For pricing and information, call 425-430-0111 or go online to canoe-kayak.com/rentals.
Three-hour ranger-guided canoe trips through the slough are offered Saturdays and Sundays through Labor Day (no trips Aug. 2 and 3), beginning at Enatai Beach Park. These trips are for ages 5 and older and canoeing experience is required. Cost is $18 per person for non-Bellevue residents. Find more information at myparksandrecreation.com or 425-452-2565 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
We started our trip at the visitor center, where we examined the exhibits about wetlands and freshwater ecology and obtained a map and checklists of plants, birds and wildlife. From the visitor center, we followed the .8-mile Bellefields Loop to a boardwalk that crosses Kelsey Creek and connects to the 1.1-mile Heritage Loop, which passes the blueberry farm, the U-pick stand and the Winters House.
Or, plan ahead by downloading a PDF map at bellevuewa.gov/mseec.htm. At the visitor center, visitors can borrow a Discovery Backpack that contains such items as binoculars, magnifying lens, a nature guide and activity cards. They are first come, first served for a suggested donation of $5 and require a government ID such as driver's license or passport.
To reach Mercer Slough Nature Park from Bellingham, take Interstate 5 south to Interstate 405 toward Bellevue. In Bellevue, take exit No. 12 (SE Eighth Street) and turn right.
For the visitor center, take the first left (118th Street SE) and look for the parking lot entrance a few hundred yards ahead on the right - its light teal sign is partially hidden by brush and easy to miss. For the Winters House, boat launch and farm stands on the west side of the park, continue on SE Eighth Street a short distance to 112th Street SE and turn left.
Time your trip right and you could miss the worst weekday rush hour traffic altogether, heading south to arrive by late morning and leaving mid-afternoon - or spend all day and picnic or dine out, returning in early evening.