Northwest Trek Wildlife Park opened on July 17, 1975. Today, the park embodies the vision of Dr. David T. “Doc” and Connie Hellyer, who donated their land to Metro Parks Tacoma in the early 1970s to preserve it as a wildlife park. If the Hellyers were alive today to walk through the park, they would see 185 animals, including eagles, bison, grizzlies and wolves enjoying the land they left behind just for them. They would also see many of the same towering trees.
The Hellyers knew their lake-and-forest-studded land in the shadow of Mount Rainier was something special, and they dreamed of bison and other animals roaming free in what they saw as a “highest and best” use of the property. A $2.5 million voter-approved bond issue financed Northwest Trek’s development in the 1970s. And when the wildlife park opened on July 17, 1975, then-Washington Gov. Dan Evans did the “ribbon cutting” honors. Instead of scissors and fabric, though, he chewed through a stack of logs with a chain saw.
Over the next 15 years, the park expanded its exhibits, debuting the snowy owl, cougar, bobcat, lynx, wolf and bear exhibits. In 1994, a new grizzly bear exhibit opened, setting a then record attendance of 210,000 visitors that year.
Pierce County residents have shown strong support for Northwest Trek Wildlife Park over the years, approving several park bonds for improvements and additional exhibits. In 2000, Pierce County voters again expressed their support by passing a county-wide sales tax measure, which supports more than 40 percent of the park’s budget.
In 2005, Metro Parks purchased 100 acres bordering the northern end of the park, protecting the tram route from residential encroachment and providing new space for future conservation initiatives. A partnership between Northwest Trek, Pierce County, the Land Conservancy and several generous private donors made the land purchase possible.
Over the past 45 years, millions of visitors have walked through the gates of Northwest Trek, fulfilling the promise as a gift of nature to generations. Many people describe the wildlife park – just about an hour’s drive from Seattle-Tacoma International (SEA) Airport – as the perfect day trip.
Northwest Trek encompasses 725 acres. That includes the 435-Acre Free Roaming Area, where visitors can take a Wild Drive past bison, mountain goats, caribou, elk, deer and other animals.* And at this time of year, there are plenty of babies to see: bison and elk calves, black-tailed deer fawns and bighorn sheep lambs.
Visitors can also take a Wild Walk along paved pathways that lead to the exhibits featuring bears, wolves, foxes, Canada lynx, beavers, river otters, badgers and more. The park also includes the Cheney Family Discovery Center and the Zip Wild complex of zip/line challenge courses and Kids’ Trek, a nature-themed play area.**
The park continues to grow each year. Just this past year, Eagle Passage, a new immersive habitat for rescued bald eagles and a conservation inspiration to all, opened. Rare wolverines Rainier and Ahma made their public debut in their newly renovated habitat. Keeper Adventure Tours took hundreds of guests off-road in the Free-Roaming Area.***
Northwest Trek also continues to be a leader in conservation. The staff’s work to reintroduce the Oregon spotted frog to the wild is known and praised throughout the Northwest. Staff also helped release Canadian fishers into the wild through a decade-long conservation partnership to reintroduce this endangered species to the Olympic and Cascade Mountains. Hundreds of bats at Northwest Trek were counted by staff and volunteers, and wildlife experts examined others to determine that there is no white-nose syndrome in the Northwest Trek bat colony, one of the region’s largest.
In 2006, Dr. Hellyer passed away and in 2012, his devoted wife, Connie, passed away. But 45 years after their generous donation, their passion and commitment to Northwest wildlife and habitats lives on at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.
*Trams are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Wild Drive is available at an additional cost.
**All indoor areas, Zip Wild and Kids’ Trek are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
***Keeper Adventure Tours are currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.