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Two In Tow & On The Go: A forgotten treasure at Point Defiance

Posted on November 3rd, 2023 By:

Hand-powered platform track with Wyatt and Clara.

Today’s adventure brings us across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and over to the wooded wonderland that is Point Defiance Park to explore yet another local playground almost hidden in plain sight.

Sandwiched between the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and the Marina, this little playground is outdated — but also secluded and awesome. Finding it atop a narrow bluff among the trees, the kids and I felt like we stumbled upon a well-kept secret with its hand-powered scoot platform and log-style-construction.

Sure, some of the play equipment is missing while other parts need patching, but I’d say the little picnic park is a nostalgic playspace. (I also heard it’s one of the oldest existing public play structures still being used in Tacoma).

So stick with me through this (notoriously long-winded) story about how Point Defiance’s little picnic park left us smitten – and how to use its older features. (Hint: you’ve probably been using at least one section all wrong). And, if you stay to the end, maybe you’ll pick up on the sentiment that goes beyond my own personal anecdote. And see that, just maybe, older parks aren’t as flashy as their modern updates, but they remain a testament to the enduring charm and significance of public play areas and the memories we as parents – and as children – make within them. The memories we hold tight to.

Cousin Delphi looking out a different window in the aquarium that shows a trail that leads to the playground. Circa 2022.

First off, I had no idea Point Defiance even had a playground, aside from the new nature-y pocket park at Owen’s Beach and the kids climbing zone inside the zoo.

It appears this particular play area, which Metro Parks Tacoma mostly buries under the heading for the Point Defiance Main Picnic Shelter, is more forgotten rather than hidden. Likewise, its climbers and swings are not on the regional park’s main attractions page, either. However, the picnic shelter link does take visitors to a background picture of the playground  — so small clues to its existence are there if you’re looking for them.

At first, I wasn’t.

But then, one time, between chasing Clara and Wyatt from the zoo’s jellyfish gallery to the touch-tanks, I spied the slide’s pop of purple from inside the aquarium’s second story window. Still new to town, I wasn’t quite oriented enough back then to tell where the playground was in relation to me, and everything else for that matter. But I vowed to find out.




The kids and I soon discovered that the towering concrete staircase branching from Point Defiance’s popular promenade near the marina is one of the main paths to this low-key, mostly secluded (at least on weekdays) picnic playground. Finally standing in its actual footprint, it was also clear why the playground isn’t a bright and shiny ad on the Point Defiance homepage. Because, in my expert-mom opinion of having been to an absurd amount of playgrounds, I’d place this particular play equipment at maybe … 20 years old?  It has climbers, monkey bar handles and a cool hand-powered platform two kids can operate when they work together. 

From Paso Robles to Point Defiance

The picnic park also looks exactly like the very first park I brought Clara to, taking mama/baby selfies in the bucket swings when we lived in Paso Robles, Calif., before moving to Washington. That playground, Barney Schwartz Park, opened in 2002 with nearly identical features to the Point Defiance playground. This includes the same blocky purple shell climbers and the track thing. (Which, apparently, a lot of other bloggers don’t know the name of either lol). 

Barney Schwartz Park, Paso Robles Calif.

But, man, we LOVED that Paso Robles playground. I wrote about it three times. It was even my inaugural “two in tow” solo outing with just me, toddler Clara and newborn Wyatt back in 2016.

Charged with the responsibility of keeping two humans alive and entertained, I hauled a double stroller packed with half the contents of our nursery to its wooden bench lined walkways and let 2-year-old Clara run free. All the while hoping she could navigate the old tot lot by herself while I was marooned under a nursing baby.

And she did fine! Thus, the old park was the backdrop for what would be the first of many lessons of being out and about as a mom-of-two. (The official Two in Tow & On The Go posts would arrive a short while later).

Maybe you can see now why this old, worn, and slightly deserted Point Defiance playground gives me all the feels.

Mystery features solved

One of my tricks of the trade of being a family blogger is I usually look for and snap pics of manufacturer logos on playground equipment in order Google the brand and its catalog of real names back at home when I write about the play features  – and how to use them. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve watched parents struggle to figure out how something at the playground really works (myself included). Turns out, we’ve been using some of the play equipment all wrong at Point Defiance and back in Paso Robles – and you probably have, too.

I don’t seem to have brand pics for the Tacoma park, or its Paso Robles twin, but after extensive Google searches of cobbled together keywords like “crank playground platform hand pedals” (lol), it appears both Barney Schwartz and Point Defiance’s picnic park were designed by the same company – BigToys. AND that brand was once based out of Tacoma, according to this Play and Playground Encyclopedia article. Small world! Now owned by Tennessee-based PlayCore, BigToys previously installed two key features at both of sites -the “Sky Game” and the “Turn Across” from its park designs in the early 2000s.

I recognized both of those features immediately when I first laid eyes on them at Point Defiance. In fact, you can still see them in action there today. The “Turn Across” is the hard-to-describe platform thing while the “Sky Game” is a rolling monkey bar/pod contraption BigToys describes here (and is pictured below).

This makes for the perfect case-and-point for why I look up manufacturer play specs like a crazy person:

I always thought the monkey bar pods were intended as handholds to glide across like an overhead railroad track. Except, the gliding motion never fully worked propelled the kids forward, and almost every child I’ve seen using it would ultimately get stuck and annoyed. Heck, I just figured the mechanics of it were old needed some grease. Not so! As it turns out, the BigToys description that I literally just read for this article specifically states “users must lift and push the ‘pods’  along the rails to move from end to end, much like a ‘hand-over-hand’ activity.”  Wow! Never in a million years had I thought to direct the kids to lift and push the pods upward in order to hobble across with their upper body strength. I want to go back and try it for reals now!

However, I’m happy to report that the real use of the Turn Across never alluded us. As I talked about above, two kids work together to operate this play feature. One kid sits on the floor of the little wooden platform while their partner in crime turns the lever on the stationary deck at one end of the track deck to scoot the platform across the rail.

Taking a swing

Not all the play equipment is out of the ordinary, though. Picnic park also has swings, for example. Except, it’s a row of four bucket swings for babies and not one regular ‘ol big-kid belt swing in sight. I contacted Metro Parks Tacoma this summer to see whether we could breathe a touch of new life into the playground by fundraising for the addition of a regular swing attachment. (Because if you’ve ever gotten your big kid stuck in a bucket swing and thrown your back out trying to lift their too-long legs from its circular trap – then you know my pain).

Our belt swing fundraiser concept was well received by The Tacoma Parks Foundation and by the parks district. But, unfortunately, it didn’t work out in the end because the swings’ metal support frame was designed to only hold bucket swings. Sad. But with all the projects going on at Point Defiance lately, I’m sure a new playground on the horizon. But take that as your cue to hurry on over to this Point Defiance Main Picnic Shelter playground to experience early 2000s park culture before it’s gone for good and replaced with new play structures.

I know we will!

See ya out there!

Note: My photos of the picnic shelter park were taken in Fall 2022 

Main Picnic Shelter playground site shown in red; Google Maps


Name: Point Defiance Main Picnic Shelter

Run by: Metro Parks Tacoma

Where: Located near the entrance to Five Mile Drive on Point Defiance’s east side

Open: daily 10 a.m. to dusk

Parking: Parking nearby. Limited number of spaces



Mom and two kids standing with water and boats in the background.


Tonya Strickland is a Gig Harbor mom-of-two, longtime journalist, and Instagram influencer in the family and travel niche. Her blog, Two in Tow & On the Go, was recently named among the 10 Seattle-Area Instagram Accounts to Follow by ParentMap magazine. Tonya and her husband Bowen recently moved to Gig Harbor from California with their two kids, Clara (9) and Wyatt (7). Find her on Facebook for all the kid-friendly places in and around Gig Harbor.