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Saturday, July 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Capitol ideas for the kids

Seattle Times staff reporter

For most summer activities, the advice is to go on a weekday to avoid crowds. But the weekend is a great time to take kids on a day trip to Olympia. Parking at the Capitol campus is free, few attractions are overrun and, most important, there's no need to factor in Interstate 5 rush-hour traffic through Seattle and Tacoma. (A caveat: This weekend the city will be busy with its summer festival, Capital Lakefair, which includes children's activities today.)

Located 60 miles south of Seattle, the state capitol offers tours of our elegant Legislative Building, a super children's museum, a fun fountain for staying cool and a lively farmers market. Nearby, families can visit wolves, check out a funky outdoor art collection, and spy birds and butterflies at natural areas.

It's a lot to do in one day, so here are three suggested itineraries depending on children's ages and interests.

Younger kids

Plan to spend at least a couple hours at the Hands On Children's Museum, which targets infants through kids in early elementary school with an outstanding building area (boasting a moving crane and wood strips to make a playhouse); a two-level boat with galley; and a large room just for the under-3 crowd filled with art supplies, sensory table and padded area for crawlers. It's not as large as Seattle's children's museum but it's well-designed with different activities.

The nearby Capitol campus offers lawns and gardens for walking; the size and grandeur of the Legislative Building will likely impress tots, but skip the organized tour unless they're unusually patient. Instead, look up under the dome, then head up to the second floor to rub George Washington's nose (on his bronze bust).

Another don't-miss is the popular Heritage Park fountain, which shoots up bursts of water from the ground in (seemingly) random patterns. The trick is to come either before it closes at 1:30 p.m. or after it reopens at 3:30 p.m. Bring a bathing suit or a change of clothes.

If little legs are up for it, there is a nice boardwalk along Percival Landing Park, which starts across the street north of Heritage Park and ends at a viewing tower near the farmers market. From the level, nearly milelong walkway, kids can look out at the boats in the harbor. There are restrooms and a great playground at the southern end; a small beach graces the northern end by the viewing tower. To keep the walk manageable, send an adult ahead with a car to the free farmers-market parking area so it's a one-way trip.

For lunch, both formal sit-down restaurants and informal delis line the boardwalk, but a recommended option is to end at the farmers market for takeout and entertainment. Stalls sell everything from pizza to Asian noodles to Mexican and Indian food, plus breads, pastries and fresh fruit. It's also a good spot for a treat such as ice cream or shaved ice.

If you prefer to picnic, head three miles north of downtown to Priest Point Park off East Bay Drive. Even on hot days, the forested park is shady and cool, with lots of picnic spots (some offer neat wood swings as well as tables). Kids will love playing at the bright ship-themed playground.

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Elementary-school age

The inhabitants of Wolf Haven International tend to get lazy in the hot afternoon, so try to arrive for the first tour of the day at 10 a.m. for more activity. Home to 47 captive-born wolves (and a few hybrids and coyotes), Wolf Haven is about 13 miles southeast of Olympia. The 45-minute guided tours go past some of the animals in their wooded enclosures, surrounded by chain-link fences. While there's no interaction (nearly every kid begged to feed the wolves), young visitors still enjoyed watching the sleek creatures. The guide welcomed questions, even carrying gift-store coupons to give out if anyone stumped her.

Another six miles or so east of Wolf Haven, families will find an odd but intriguing stop at the Monarch Sculpture Park. With admission by donation, trails — some better maintained than others — lead to sculptures at nearly every turn. The more than 100 outdoor sculptures range from huge, solemn concrete figures to a whimsical giant croquet set to an enormous hand holding colorful pick-up sticks. Kids will enjoy the sound garden with music-making artwork.

Back in Olympia, older kids might learn something from the free, hourlong guided tour of the Legislative Building, with an inside peek at the chambers where representatives and senators vote and the Reception Room used for formal state ceremonies. The public tours aren't geared to kids (there's a lot of information about the building's beautiful marble and the Tiffany chandeliers), but guides are friendly.

Nature enthusiasts

Summer isn't the best time for viewing wildlife, but three spots near Olympia are peaceful places to walk. Try to visit early in the day if it's hot.

The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, famed for its spring- and fall-migrating birds, is north of Olympia just off I-5. With seven miles of trails, a good option for kids is the level, milelong Twin Barns Loop Trail, a boardwalk through woodland, grasslands and freshwater marshes with a stop at an observation platform. From the visitor center, families can check out binoculars and Discovery Packs with activities for grades three to six.

For an unusual landscape, head southwest of Olympia to the Mima Mounds, a 445-acre natural preserve of grass-covered bumps 6 to 8 feet high. A paved half-mile nature trail goes to a viewing platform, then loops out onto the prairie and back through the forest. Though the spring rush of wildflowers is over, look for native blooms and butterflies through August.

If you're not worn out after that, head to shady Priest Point Park. The 300-acre nature park features the three-mile Ellis Cove Trail, which passes through forest and along the shoreline. Even those tired of walking can appreciate views of the Olympic Mountains and downtown Olympia.

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com

or 206-464-2091.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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