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Dec. 3, 2022

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Bluff erosion creates bonus path in Tacoma

Park road closes to cars, opens to pedestrians, bikes

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Tacoma residents Barbara Clark and Al Choy get their steps in along the outer loop of Five Mile Drive in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park.
Tacoma residents Barbara Clark and Al Choy get their steps in along the outer loop of Five Mile Drive in Tacoma's Point Defiance Park. (Gregory Scruggs/The Seattle Times) Photo Gallery

TACOMA — In the shade of a Douglas fir tree, Blake Thomas paused from his bike ride along the outer loop of Five Mile Drive, a scenic road through Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park. On a July day, Thomas was still getting the hang of his new Aventon electric bike on the very stretch of pavement that motivated the purchase.

In May, Metro Parks Tacoma announced that the 2.25-mile stretch through the park would close permanently to motorized vehicles due to erosion on the bluffs that support the roadway, which are sitting on an unstable slope, according to a geotechnical study.

The unexpected closure has opened up the outer loop as a haven for walkers, cyclists and longboarders.

“When the road closed, I was kind of bummed because I’ve always driven in here by car,” Blake said. But when he read about a growing number of cyclists taking to the previously shared road, he bought an e-bike for himself.

His handful of rides along the gently undulating route has given him a newfound appreciation for the road. On his bike, he can leisurely contemplate the old-growth forest canopy in what he calls “one of my favorite parts of Tacoma.”

“It’s so quiet here now with the road closed to cars,” he said.

Metro Tacoma Parks spokesperson Rosemary Ponnekanti explained via email that the road remains open to nonmotorized users because they can be easily rerouted or kept back from the bluff edge with safety fences, whereas roads open to vehicles must be built and engineered to code.

Point Defiance Park is arguably the gem of Pacific Northwest municipal parks, rivaled only by Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. The outer loop, laid out and graded in 1913, traces the thumblike peninsula’s apex. Breaks in the verdant overstory at marked viewpoints offer scenic vistas of Vashon Island, Dalco Passage and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Along the way, a plaque marks the Mountaineer Tree, a 450-year-old Douglas fir over 200 feet tall, a rare specimen along coastal Puget Sound.

All of those attributes, plus a well-paved road and gently rolling terrain, make an ideal route for longboards, a type of skateboard designed to cruise over long distances.

“You don’t have that many closed roads that are open to longboarding — I can count maybe two in Washington,” said Travis Hull of Tacoma’s Alchemy Skateboarding via phone.

Alchemy previously ran skateboard classes on Five Mile Drive for students at Science and Math Institute, a public high school located in the park. Hull is excited about the route’s long-term prospects, from a location for the nonprofit’s free Saturday clinics to the annual Go Skate Tacoma event. “It provides a guaranteed programmable space without cars for everything from push races to beginner clinics to intermediate rides,” Hull said.

Although Point Defiance is crisscrossed by 15 miles of trails, the paved surface appeals to walkers as well. Barbara Clark, 69, walks the outer loop three times per week in the summer as she rehabs from foot surgery, which makes her leery of the roots and rocks she would likely encounter on a trail. Her son first moved to Tacoma, then enticed his mother to eventually move there as well with a trip through Point Defiance Park and along the outer loop of Five Mile Drive.

Clark’s husband, Al Choy, 72, was a fan of the outer loop’s partial daytime closure to cars during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, designed as an effort to create more options for physically distanced outdoor recreation. Although the reason for the permanent full-time closure is different, he relishes the outcome all the same.

“You can walk without worrying about being run over by the cars, which make it difficult and smelly,” Choy said. “For the walkers, closing to cars is great.”

His only gripe? Without cars around, some dog walkers have taken to unleashing their pooches.

As the couple stood in the parking lot of the Bridges Viewpoint, they considered possible improvements, like more seating and shade structures now that the parking spaces are no longer required. But, overall, they didn’t see much need to tinker with the century-old parkway as they gazed out at the twin suspension bridges spanning the rushing waters of the Tacoma Narrows.

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