Winter in the Pacific Northwest can be grueling. It’s not so much the rain and snow as it is the lack of sunshine that makes us all grumpy. It’s a time when getting out of the house is more of an imperative—and here’s a perfect day trip to raise your spirits, regardless of the weather.
The Olympia area, just a short drive from the Key Peninsula, traditionally enjoys a mere six days of sunshine in January. Fortunately, light drizzle and cloudy skies mean it’s perfect wildlife viewing weather during a visit to Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. It’s located via an easy I-5 exit at the southern end of Puget Sound, between Joint Base Lewis McChord and Olympia on the Nisqually River Delta.
Established in 1974, the wildlife refuge occupies a historic spot. In 1854, it was the site of the signing of Washington Territory’s first treaty with Native Americans. The treaty protected game and fishing rights for the tribes, rights that are still exercised today by members of the tribe. It’s also where, in 1904, Alson Brown built a prosperous farm which he subsequently sold after World War I. Refuge visitors can still see remnants of the farm operation, such as the Brown Farm Dike and the Twin Barns.
Today, the area is home to not just a myriad of bird species, including eagles and other birds of prey, but visitors might also see otters, beaver, seals, weasels, mink and other animals that frequent the tide flats and freshwater marshes. The area was recently renamed to honor Billy Frank Jr., a Native American environmentalist, treaty rights activist and a member of the Nisqually Tribe. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his dedication to these causes in 2015, and the refuge was named in his honor a short time later.
Your first stop at the refuge should be the visitor center, open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., to enjoy an overlook of the freshwater marsh and interpretive exhibits and to grab an informational pamphlet. (If visiting in January, you’ll also want to ensure that all trails are open.) Then head out on the half-mile Barns Loop Trail, a boardwalk sitting just above the wetlands, with interpretive signs along the way to help you spot resident wildlife. It leads to the Brown Farm Dike Trail, popular with Canada geese, and the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail, which traverses the delta. If the tide is out, visitors will see a variety of shorebirds; if the tide is in, ducks and other waterfowl abound.
The nice thing about the Barns Loop Trail is that the tree canopy somewhat shelters the boardwalk from precipitation. But watch for ice if it is cold! The Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail has a covered duck blind and a covered pavilion where visitors can rest or take shelter. If you make it to the end of the boardwalk, you’ll find the covered Puget Sound Viewing Platform which provides glimpses of McAllister Creek, the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and several Puget Sound islands.
Since the entrance fee is a mere $3 per car, it’s a great and affordable adventure for everyone. National Parks passes (including senior passes) are also valid for free entrance.
It is approximately 40 miles from the Key Peninsula to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Pets are not allowed. Trails are open dawn to dusk daily. From Interstate 5 southbound, take exit 114. Make a right at the traffic light, go under the freeway and make a right into the refuge. Follow the entrance road to the two public parking lots.
Rachel V. Berry lives in Port Orchard.
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