Looking for an off the beaten path, nature experience with your child this fall? Just minutes from downtown Bellevue, you’ll find a hidden gem on the Eastside – the Mercer Slough Environmental Center.  Located on a biologically diverse 320-acre wetland nature park, the MSEEC is a collaboration between the City of Bellevue and the Pacific Science Center.

Go:  Rain or shine, the Mercer Slough is a great place for kids of all ages and their grown-ups to explore a truly unique outdoor wonderland. The Mercer Slough Nature Park is the largest of Lake Washington’s remaining fresh water wetlands and is one of Bellevue’s largest parks. You can explore seemingly endless acres of wildlife habitat, agriculture, and freshwater wetland ecosystems on 7 plus miles of trails including a unique canoe trail. The park visitor center (open daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm) focuses on freshwater wetland ecology and offers programs for adults, youth, families and school groups.

Get there: The Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center is located on the west side of 405, just a few minutes from downtown Bellevue, with easy access from Seattle via I-90.

From I-405, you’ll take Exit 12 for SE 8th Street.  Travel west on SE 8th St and then take an immediate left onto 118th Ave SE, heading south.  You’ll travel about a half mile and take a right into the parking lot just before the first MSEEC sign (light blue).  Walk up the path to the front of the Visitor Center.

From I-90, you’ll take Exit 9 for Bellevue Way.  You’ll continue for one mile and then veer right onto 112th Ave SE.  Take a right onto SE 8th and then another right onto 118th Ave SE.  You’ll travel about a half mile and take a right into the parking lot just before the first MSEEC sign (light blue).  Walk up the path to the front of the Visitor Center. 

What to bring:  You won’t need to bring much along to enjoy all that the MSEEC has to offer.  With a sense of adventure and willingness to keep your eyes and ears open, you and your child will have the opportunity to explore the wetlands and discover a diverse range of wildlife such as insects, fish, frogs, turtles, waterfowl, herons, rabbits and more.  Strollers are very difficult to navigate here, so if you have a wee one in tow, a baby carrier or backpack would be very helpful.

How to dress:  This is the Northwest, so layering is always wise.  A sweatshirt, long pants and rain or hiking boots are suggested.  You’ll probably want to bring an umbrella and rain jackets as well, although the canopy of trees along the nature trails does offer some protection from the elements.

What to do:  A fun, interactive way to explore the Mercer Slough is through their “Discovery Backpacks.” Backpacks include all the activities and materials you’ll need to launch a self-guided tour through Mercer Slough Nature Park: binoculars, magnifying lenses, easy-to-use nature guides, and more. Great for families of all ages, backpacks are currently available for Birding, Wildlife, and Wetlands. These are available on a first-come, first-serve basis for a $5 suggested donation.  Inside the visitor center, you’ll find interpretive displays depicting the nature park’s history and wildlife and plants often seen within the park. There is also an interactive library for all ages, including children’s books and adult field guides. The Artist’s Nook features a different artist each month with a nature theme. If it’s a particularly rainy day or you’re just not up for a hike, you can view the slough, surrounding wetlands, and wildlife from the tree house, elevated boardwalk systems, and the many viewing overlooks.  Trail maps are available at the visitor center and a guided nature walk is also offered every Saturday at 2:00 pm.

Lunch Spots:  We recommend bringing a sack lunch along and making it a day of exploration at the Mercer Slough.  Your little explorers are sure to be hungry after hiking around, so snacks and water bottles are definitely recommended.  If you want to go out to lunch before or after your adventure, Factoria Mall or downtown Bellevue are just a short drive away and offer many kid-friendly restaurant options.

Cost:  This truly is a totally “free” day-trip for you and your child!  If you would like to use one of the Discovery Backpacks, you’ll want to bring along some cash for a donation.

Bonus: The MSEEC also offers a special program for pre-schoolers on Tuesday mornings.  Each eight-week series has a different nature theme with its own activities, songs, play acting, and puppets.  Ages 3-5 with an adult. $99 per series.  Fall Series: 8 Tuesdays, September 13 – November 1, 2011.  Spring Series: 8 Tuesdays, March 27 – May 15, 2012.  Time: 10:30 am.- Noon. Call 206-443-2925 to register.

Talk about a unique place for a birthday party!  The MSEEC also offers 2.5 hour parties for children ages 5 and up. Celebrate your child’s birthday amidst the tree tops with themes such as Bug Safari, Animal Mania or GPS Scavenger Hunt (8 years and older). Party packages include: 1.5 hour guided hike, a bug box, plaster animal track or compass clip (depending on theme), invitations, room usage for 1 hour plus thematic room decorations, table cloths, plates, cups, forks and napkins. Just bring your own food and drinks.

Online:  For a complete list of Fall 2011 programs, including after-school and weekend activities for the whole family, visit their website.

— Susan Ossinger