Next time you’re strolling through a concrete and brick air-conditioned mall in a booming community near a major metropolitan city, imagine a stream—older than anything above the ground—flowing under your feet. That’s the story of Hylebos Creek and the West Hylebos Wetlands Park. And the Commons Mall in Federal Way, Washington is only one of several locations where the creek travels underground beneath communities south of Seattle. Ultimately, it empties out into Puget Sound’s Commencement Bay.

It may sound trite and overused, but there is nothing more well-designed, to my mind, than a diverse ecosystem and the West Hylebos Wetlands provides a perfect example of this natural design in action.

Wetlands are hotbeds of biodiversity. We just completed a interpretive planning project that dots a one-mile boardwalk amongst the 120 acre West Hylebos Wetland. It’s easy to get to from both Seattle and Tacoma, and offers a haven from the hectic pace of city life. The biodiversity the park sustains is mind-boggling, from tiny species of moss and lichen to gigantic Douglas fir and a rare ancient Sitka spruce that we were told began its life just around the time the Mayflower reached Plymouth Rock.

If you spend more than just a little bit of time there, you’ll probably spy some of the one hundred bird species that frequent the park. One of our favorites is the jazzy red pileated woodpecker, a true “designer’s bird.” On our many planning visits, we were never lucky enough to spot the elusive red-legged frog or the flying squirrels which we’re told glide frequently above the tree canopy. I guess we’ll just have to keep going back. There’s also a mysterious place to explore called the Deep Sinks—a water-filled hole about 20 feet deep, formed by the decomposition of peat soils during the last glaciation 10,000 to 15,000 years ago. It’s a great draw for bored kids on a summer’s day. Just don’t tell them they have to stay on the boardwalk until you arrive. By then, they’ll be hooked.

Looking at the area today, it’s good to remember how hard it was to design and create the West Hylebos Wetlands Park when it was proposed in the 1980s. Back then, elected officials and park planners didn’t always value protecting “swamps” which is essentially what wetlands like West Hylebos used to be called. Even with local support, it took seven years to approve funding for the park. Now the areas is collaboratively supported and maintained by public and private funding, including the amazing organization Friends of the Hylebos.

Come visit sometime soon!