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Originally published Thursday, February 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Soak up poignant history at Fort Steilacoom park

Take a walk at Fort Steilacoom County Park in Pierce County.

Special to The Seattle Times

Trail location: Steilacoom, Pierce County

Length: One-mile loop around Waughop Lake, plus miles of casual trails.

Level of difficulty: Level, accessible, paved pedestrian road around lake; dirt/grass trails throughout park.

Setting: Located across from Western State Hospital, this popular 340-acre park has a unique, multilayered history. Around 1844, the area became a homesteader's farm, then the site of Fort Steilacoom (1849 to 1868), then it was bought for use as an "Insane Asylum for Washington Territory" (the name was changed in 1915). In the park area, hospital residents grew crops and orchards, and raised animals including prizewinning Holstein dairy cattle. Near the parking lot, visit the cemetery where more than 3,000 hospital residents are buried. Go inside the fence (lift the chain at the gate) to view the photos and read the history on the kiosks, and think about those who once lived here.

Highlights: For a good overview of the park, see the large sign with an aerial photo/map just inside the park entrance. From the parking lot, walk down closed-off Waughop Lake Road to reach the lake loop, which has huge trees up to five feet in diameter — the tall poplars were planted by hospital residents.

Come on the first Sunday of the month and visit four buildings remaining from Fort Steilacoom. From the park, turn left onto Fort Steilacoom Boulevard, and turn right at the next light into the hospital grounds. Bear right to the four wooden houses set around a green (free, open from 1-4 p.m. only on first Sundays;

Facilities: Year-round restrooms by east side of playing fields; portable toilets throughout. Off-leash 22-acre dog park includes a small-dog area. Not-to-be missed 15,000-square-foot playground features castles, forts, climbing walls, slides, and swings.

Restrictions: Leash and scoop laws in effect outside of off-leash areas; do not feed the waterfowl.

Directions: From southbound Interstate 5 in Tacoma, take the South 74th Street ramp of Exit 129 and head west (South 74th Street eventually becomes Custer Road Southwest). After 3.5 miles, turn right on 88th Street Southwest, which becomes Steilacoom Boulevard Southwest. After 1.2 miles, turn left at 87th Avenue Southwest/Elwood Drive and then turn right into the park; turn left and go to the parking lot near the red barns. From I-5 northbound, take Exit 125, turn left onto Bridgeport Way and go north several miles. Turn left on Steilacoom Boulevard and follow as above.

For more information: 253-589-2489 or For more park history, see

Renton-based freelancer Cathy McDonald, a former geologist, has written about science and nature travel for 20 years. She's currently a travel guidebook editor at Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door. Contact her:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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