Loop trails through the beaches, woods and prairies near Olympia, Washington

Ellis Cove Trail

An adventurous path that emerges from a dense creek valley onto a spectacular beach.  

Distance: 2.5 miles

Time:  90 minutes

Steep:  Yes, but managebale

Challenging:  Yes: the trail can be steep in places, and down on the beach you may have to navigate past downed trees.  I recommend visiting when the tide is low.

Trailhead:  3302 East Bay Drive NE, Olympia WA

The Ellis Cove trail may have my vote for best walk in Olympia.  It comes packed with all the goodies you want:  quiet old forest, unexpected wildlife and gorgeous shoreline.  The trailhead, accessed from East Bay Drive within Priest Point Park, drops you down into the verdant valley surrounding Ellis Creek.  The trail goes up and down frequently, with wooden railings and bridges to help you along.  It’s a great way to get your heart and lungs pumping in the fresh woodsy air.

The trail next follows the contours of Ellis Cove, keep your eyes open for the many bird species that come here to feed or relax.  Perhaps you will hear a deep “KWAUK” from a heron or the rapid “CLICK CLICK CLICK” of a kingfisher.  When you are on the far side of the cove, the trail goes up, up, up again.  Alongside the trail you’ll see a lot of downed trees, their mossy bark already sprouting new flora.

Keep watch for a smaller trail that departs to your left, down to an info board about local wildlife.  Continue past this sign, and down onto the gray rock beach.  Head to your right, admiring the enormous drift logs and scattered remnants of smashed shells, left from many a seagull’s lunch.   Rounding the headland, the view opens up, and you have arrived at one of my favorite places in this city.  The wrap around vista of Budd Inlet here is just stunning.  Madrona trees, high up, cling perilously to the sand bluffs behind you.  The Capitol building and downtown are to the south, the West Bay log yards to the front of you.  The Vine Leaf Maples along this shoreline turn a stunning red in autumn, making it an extra nice place for a seasonal picnic.

When the tide is low enough, 10 feet or less, you can navigate around the trees that have fallen from the cliffs onto the beach.  Just keep walking north along the water until you see the ‘Park Boundary’ sign.  There is a rustic stone stairway that helps you up into the woods, and there you will connect with a wide gravel path.  The path out is canopied by a hall of wonderful old trees, including Big Leaf Maple, cedars and Douglas Firs.

The gravel path brings you out to a parking lot on Flora Vista Road, adjacent to East Bay Drive.  To complete the loop, you take a right on East Bay Drive and walk back to your car.  It’s not as quiet out here on the road, but the beauty and peace of your adventure to Ellis Cove will stick with you long into the day.


Mission Creek Nature Park


The web of trails through this wetland park serve as a woodsy playground for the Northeast Olympia neighborhood.

Distance: 1 mile

Time:  30 minutes

Steep:  No

Challenging:  No

Trailhead:  1700 San Francisco Ave NE Olympia, WA 98506

The trails through Mission Creek Nature Park are not the most captivating Olympia has to offer.  Rather than getting away to the solitude of the woods, it’s more like romping through a neighborhood’s gigantic backyard.  And that’s what makes Mission Creek so great.  This is the kind of park that reminds me of the woods I would play in as a little boy, my friends and I going out to play ‘Army’ or ‘Indiana Jones.’

The 37 acre park is ringed by homes and dead end streets, and every one of them seems to have its own entrance.   On my recent journey through its winding trails, I encountered no less than a father and son out on a mountain bike ride, an older couple coming back from birdwatching, a younger couple picking blackberries, and a new mother with a baby on her back walking her dogs.  Here at Mission Creek you will see rope swings hung from ancient Douglas firs, remnants of kids’ forts cobbled together with alder branches and what I can only presume is a dirt bike jump.

Mission Creek is not without its natural charms, however.  The park is built around a sizable marsh in the center and you will see countless deer trails exiting the human trail to get down to the wetlands.  Impressively thick cedars and firs survive in these woods, serving as wizened anchors to an otherwise young forest.  As you walk along the trails, you can often hear rustling from deep within the brush.  Have you startled a bird? A garter snake? A beaver?  They usually don’t let you know the answer.

I like to enter the park at the San Francisco Street entrance, there is ample parking and it is clearly marked.  The trails through Mission Creek are a little chaotic because there are so many entrances, but you can make a loop trail by going left at the entrance, and then following a general oblong loop inside the boundary of the park.  If your trail has led you to a street or someone’s backyard, do a quick backtrack and continue clockwise on the main trail.

Mission Creek Nature Park is a great place to explore with your kids or your dog.  If you grew up with woods in your backyard, you may reappreciate the afternoons of adventure it continually offered.  Wander around (maybe even get lost a little bit)  but know that you are safe, because around the bend a friendly neighbor is bound to come along and point you in the right direction.

Woodard Bay Conservation Area

A winding journey through young forest delivers you to a dazzling shoreline rich with beauty, history and wildlife.

Distance: 2.5 miles

Time:  1 hour

Steep:  No

Challenging:  No

Trailhead:  6998 Woodard bay Rd NE Olympia, WA 98606

Woodard Bay lets you know you’re somewhere spectacular as soon as you pull in to the parking lot.  It seems like just minutes ago you were driving by houses and cars and people, but now all the eye sees are giant trees, blue water and herons on the mud flats.  Peaceful and beautiful, the Woodard Bay trail is one of the best Olympia has to offer.

The trail begins on a paved service road, heading north.  Soon, you’ll see a trail on your left that heads into the woods.  This trail meanders for over a mile through young Douglas Fir forest with a canopy that sparkles green on sunny days.  As with many northwest woodland trails, you can never see very far ahead.  There is a calming disorientation in just letting the trail bring you where it will, this way and that, through the abundant displays of sword ferns, salal and salmonberry.

The trail you’re on will emerge once again onto the service road, and you should take a left here.  Not far away, the view slowly opens up into an amazing 270 degrees of picturesque Chapman Bay.  On center stage, a mighty old railroad trestle stands in the water, unused by man since the 1980s.  It has found a new use, though, serving as Washington State’s largest known bat colony.  Every night around dusk, during spring and summer, you can see Yuma and Little Brown bats flying out to hunt for insects.

Deeper out into the bay there are floating log booms among barnacle-encrusted pilings, also remnants of Woodard Bay’s industrial past.  You may hear strange sounds coming from this direction.  Groans, grunts and cries that echo across the water.  Looking carefully with binoculars you’ll see that the floating logs are being used by hundreds of Pacific Harbor Seals resting here, sharing lounge space with black cormorants.  Occasionally, you’ll also hear a loud squawking to your left, in the woods by the shore.  Great Blue Herons build their giant stick nests in these trees and can often be seen flying in and out of the tree cover.

Woodard and Chapman Bays had a pivotal role in the local logging industry for most of the 20th century.  The company Weyerhaeuser owned this land from the 1920s through to the 80s, using it as a shipping off point for timber cut in Thurston and Lewis counties.  The logs would come in by train and get plopped in the water, to be floated up to the mill, far north in Everett.  As transportation and technology advances changed the industry, the Woodard Bay property became unnecessary and was sold to the state of Washington, which protects it as a Natural Resources Conservation Area.

You can take the service road all the way back to your car, a short walk beneath towering Big Leaf Maples festooned with moss.  Woodard Bay is as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the ears.  A powerful quiet exists here, broken only by the surprising sounds of its animal residents, living amongst the once mighty structures that we left behind.

Scatter Creek Prairie

A gorgeous expanse of rare Northwest prairie adorned with every color of wildflower.

Distance: 2.25 miles

Time:  45 minutes

Steep:  No

Challenging:  No, but you might choose to wear long pants because of scratchy trailside plants

Trailhead:  17900 Guava Street Rochester, WA 98579

After living in the Pacific Northwest for a while, you may realize that our greatest natural treasure, the trees, can create a feeling of being hemmed in.  You can never see very far because everywhere you look, trees are blocking the view.   An awe-inspiring remedy exists just 20 minutes south of Olympia and it’s called the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area.

This little slice of Big Sky country offers 500 acres of wide open, natural prairie.  Early summer is a stunning time to visit as the prairie around you has come alive with wildflowers galore.  White daisies, purple aster and blue camas all dance in the breeze as orange butterflies float by.

The easy-to-follow trail begins next to an old blue farm house and abandoned red barn.  Taking the trail counter-clockwise, you come alongside a grove of Garry Oak that line the creek.  The acorns produced by these oaks are an important part of the food chain here on the prairie.  You emerge from the grove quickly enough and are confronted with a truly comforting view:  tall grass and flowers as far as the eye can see, bordered by wooded hills to your north.

As you walk along you may startle little Savannah Sparrows from their hiding places in the brush.  Pairs of hawks cruise overhead, their tails made orange by the sunlight.  The trail stays flat and easy as it rounds the oak grove in the middle of the loop, and pretty soon you can spot the roof of the old red barn.   Just keep following the tire tracks through the grass and you’re back to the trailhead.

After an hour of light and color, you’ve come back to the Little House on the Prairie from whence you began.   Your breathing is expansive and your heart’s a little more open, like the vibrant fields of Scatter Creek.

Tumwater Falls Park

Built along a series of crashing waterfalls, it’s hard to beat this short walk when you need scenic beauty ‘now.’

Distance:  .6 miles

Time:  20 minutes

Steep:  In a few places on the trail and on the optional stairwell to the lower falls

Challenging:  No

Trailhead:  110 Deschutes Parkway Southwest, Tumwater

Tumwater Falls Park is at the top of my list for out of town guests because of its accessibility and raucous beauty.  As soon as you emerge from your car, you are greeted by the soothing sound of the Deschutes River as it hurtles over the upper falls.  The grounds are gorgeous and recently enhanced by native plant gardens.

There’s a lot of history here, too.  It was the site of the first American settlement on Puget Sound, where the settlers used the river to power their mills.  The now closed Olympia Brewery looms overhead, once a powerhouse of American beer production.  Aside the parking lot are the fish ladders and tanks, installed in 1952, to capture and harvest spawning salmon every autumn.

The trail is a loop, and you can choose to travel clockwise (go left of the river) or counter (by going right).  I usually go right, and begin my walk on the footbridge across the river.  You can look far downstream, with the rushing river nicely framed by the other bridges atop it.

The earthen wall to the right of the trail is hung with ferns, berry shrubs and often miniature waterfalls.  The Deschutes River, to your left, is studded with rock formations emerging from the water.  Many of them have had bowls carved out of them, created by the tireless erosion of this powerful river.

At the base of the trail, you can travel down the stairwell to get up close and personal with the lower falls.  They are tall and loud and wonderful, spraying you with a watery mist redolent with rainbows when the sun is out.

Traveling up the other side of the river bank, you get a closer look at the fish ladders that allow salmon to bypass the insurmountable waterfalls.  In October, it’s quite a show to watch these enormous fish jumping at the base of the falls, and then, exhausted, choosing the ladders instead.

There is a recently installed native plant garden towards the end of the trail, with a legend of all the species they used.  Above this garden is Falls Terrace restaurant, where folks are enjoying the same view as you, except with white wine and Caesar Salads.  With the sparkling river pounding, the tall trees blowing in the breeze and the mighty salmon jumping, what a great view it is indeed.

St. Martin’s Prairie

An idyllic retreat of duck ponds and expansive prairie, tucked inside a busy urban core.

Distance:  1.1 miles

Time:  20 minutes

Steep:  No

Challenging:  No

Trailhead:  Park at the corner of Abbey Way SE and Father Meinrad Gaul Dr SE in Lacey, Washington.  The trailhead is about 200 feet back down Abbey Way.

This land, also known as the College Regional Storm Facility, is owned by St. Martin’s Abbey, a community of Benedictine Monks who have lived and worked here since 1895.  They also administer the university next door.  In the woods around the parking lot, you can see interesting brick and wood statuettes hosting the 12 stations of the cross, an artistic representation of Christ’s last hours.

If you’d like to explore a little more before your walk, go north of the parking lot and find the paved service road that leads into the forest.   A short walk takes you to a very old graveyard that holds the bodies of monks and brothers that have been members of the Abbey.  The stone and metalwork of this somber graveyard is mossy and medieval, transporting the viewer far back in time. I highly recommend this quick detour.

Down the hill to the trailhead you will find a much more light-hearted and secular experience.  Three man-made ponds grace this patch of earth, built to retain storm water runoff in 2008.  The water, and its rich perimeter of cattails, have attracted a wealth of sonorous wildlife including Mallard ducks, Red Winged Blackbirds and bullfrogs.

Around the ponds spreads a pretty prairie ringed by forest.  Whether this is a true prairie or not, I’m not sure, it does get mowed as would a field, but either way it’s a great open look up at the sky.  A foot path rings the prairie, and if you just stay on the perimeter as you loop around the prairie, you can turn the walk into a mile, enjoying the riffle of the Quaking Aspen in the breeze.

Depending on when you go, you may be joining other walkers from the nearby Lacey City Hall and Department of Ecology who have also discovered this green expanse, tucked away behind busy College Street and the even busier Interstate 5.  Like the lifestyles of the monks nearby, this prairie offers solitude and calm amidst the rushing distractions of everyday life.

McLane Creek Nature Trail

A wildlife lover’s paradise, this walk boasts a beaver pond rich with birds, a creek that fills seasonally with spawning salmon and a multi-generational cedar grove.

Distance:  1 mile for the standard loop or 1.5 miles if you add in the wind damaged, but adventurous, upper trail

Time:  30 minutes for the standard loop or 45 minutes for the extended (and damaged/ adventurous) loop

Steep:  Moderately

Challenging:  The standard trail, not so much.  But, you can add in the upper trail which involves hopping over, or ducking under, a few fallen trees and crossing a stream upon a thick log due to a missing bridge.

Trailhead:  Coming from Mud Bay Road/ Harrison Avenue go 3.4 miles west on Delphi Road until you see the sign for ‘Department of Natural Resources/ McLane Creek.’  Go down the driveway until you come to a parking lot and a picnic shelter.

This trail is named after a creek, but in my opinion the show is stolen by the voluminous pond that greets you after your first hundred feet of the trail.  Head out to the overlook bench at the end of the first walkway and take a seat.  The waters are covered in lily pads that bloom yellow in spring, and Red Winged Blackbirds sing their distinct song as they jump from the swinging cattails.  The knocking of woodpeckers in the woods to the west resonates across the water.

Ducks (and in spring, their ducklings!) meander through the water, and if you look carefully you may spot reddish Roughback Newts half floating, half swimming, through the water.   Blue dragon flies chase each other affectionately.  All of this is thanks to the mighty beavers that have dammed McLane Creek in several places.  As you return on the far side of the trail you can see their handiwork, alder tree stumps sharpened like giant pencils.

The trail continues away from Beaver Pond and into the shade of the woods.  You soon come along side McLane Creek and the viewing platform built to keep curious folks out of the creek.  Folks were going into the creek to get a better look at the annual autumn spawning of chum salmon.  And it is quite an event!  Hundreds of sharp toothed exhausted fish have just returned from the Pacific Ocean and are now vying for mating rights in this narrow creek.  After weeks of courting and splashing and fighting, the eggs are laid and fertilized and then all the parents die, right there in the creek, to disintegrate back into the earth.

On the western edge of the loop trail, you come to a fork in the trail.  For some reason, they have not marked this fork, but basically if you want the standard loop experience you go right.  If you would like to add a little adventure to your hike, go left.  Going left takes you across the bridge and into the country above the pond.  You will need to duck under some fallen trees, and climb over others, but it’s very manageable and very fun.  This ‘extended’ part of the trail switches back and forth a few times, and then brings you back to the creek, but behold!  This bridge is missing, destroyed in one of the many nasty winter storms that blow alder trees down like toothpicks.  Thankfully, there are several thick gauge trees laying across the creek, and with some good focus on balance, you can Tom Sawyer your way across.

You’ll notice that you just got set back about a 1/3 mile from where you left the ‘standard loop.’  So hop to it and get back to where you left off, by continuing clockwise.  You will descend lightly into a fascinating area, full of ancient cedar stumps and the younger cedars growing out of them.  The stumps, some 8 feet in diameter, will be marked by axe marks where the loggers placed their standing boards perhaps a hundred years ago.  The younger trees growing out of the stumps shoot their roots down the side and through the middle of the stumps, so that when the stumps eventually crumble, the new tree stands on stilts.

Coming around the north end of the trail, you see that you are on the far side of the Beaver Pond.  Now is the time to look down at the shoreline for beaver’s work.  This swampy area holds impressive Skunk Cabbage, whose leaves can grow 3-4 feet in length.  They bloom yellow in early spring, and you can smell them from yards away.

Up a little hill and you’ve returned to the parking area and the bottle of water in your car.  Feel free to go back and sit at the pond a little while longer, watching the cinematic display of birds as they call for mates and chase down lunch, in all their many colors and calls.

William Cannon Footpath

This short stroll provides stunning views of undeveloped salt waterfront and changes dramatically as the tide rises and lowers.

Distance:  3/4 mile

Time:  20 minutes for the walk, but I highly recommend stopping on the shore awhile to spy for Great Blue Herons and Bald Eagles

Steep:  No

Challenging:  Not particularly, but woe is the explorer that decides to walk into the mud of Mud Bay.  You can sink up to your thighs, so stay high on the shoreline.

Trailhead:  In the rear of the WSDOT Park ‘n’ Ride lot, adjacent and west of Mud Bay Storage at 510 Madrona Beach Road, Olympia

Do not be dismayed by the large parking lot, the industrial park or the busy traffic of Highway 101 roaring by.  What waits for you at the end of this little gravel trail is a beautiful sight that could be one hundred, or one thousand years old.

Walk along the trail towards the water and enjoy the wild daisies and rose bushes…the butterflies and bumblebees certainly are.  Mud Bay is one of the many salt water inlets that make up the southernmost reach of Puget Sound.  To your left, you will begin to get glimpses of one of this bay’s many smaller inlets.

Poking out of the water, you will see barnacled pilings that once held a railroad trestle.  Look out farther into the bay, and you can see the remaining skeleton of the trestle, slowly eroding.

When you get to the big tree by the water (a Douglas Fir), which not too long ago sported a rope swing, hop down towards shore.  The bank is partially covered in a fascinating ground cover plant that spends much of its life underwater during high tide.

And now: take a deep breath and take a full sweeping look at this place.  The Black Hills rise in the west, and across the bay are hundreds and thousands of Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir and Madrona trees, all hanging languidly over the water.  Look along the near coastline for a Great Blue Heron, standing like a statue waiting for prey to wander too close in the shallow water.

If you’d like, you can turn around and pop out the way you came.  Or, if you feel like stretching your legs, continue east along the trail, which hugs the shoreline.   Yes, on your right you may be distracted by the sounds of power tools in the industrial shops, but you’re also walking along their back lots.  This is where many of their old multi-colored Ford pickups are parked, and they lend a feeling of mellowed old age to the area.

The trail releases you back onto Madrona Beach Road, so turn right and walk the couple of hundred yards back to the Park ‘n’ Ride.  And next time, why not bring a picnic for a timeless afternoon under that big Doug Fir on Mud Bay?

Grass Lake Refuge Trail

A nice woodsy stroll on Olympia’s west side, the Grass Lake Refuge Trail loops through young forest resonant with bird song.

Distance:  1.6 miles

Time:  30 minutes

Steep:  No

Challenging:  Nope, except that your legs can get intimate with blackberry bushes and other stickies growing on the trail side.

Trailhead:  814 Kaiser Road NW, Olympia

The trailhead shares land with one of Olympia’s municipal wells.  Well #1, in fact.  On your left is a luxurious bank of Himalayan Blackberry, a favorite picking spot for neighbors in the late summer.

Heading into the woods, you are faced with an immediate fork.  The fork left is a short, one way jaunt down to Louise Lake.  If you’re quiet, you may catch a turtle sunning itself on a log.  We have also spotted otters frolicking around in the water.

Backtrack to that first fork and now take the other direction.  Walk to the end of this alder grove, past the pink foxgloves (if they’re in season) and find your next fork – this is where the loop trail starts and ends.  I like to travel clockwise on this trail, and so recommend going left here.

Now, over the next mile and a half, you will be traveling through pretty and lush woods.  This is not an old forest, most of the Douglas Fir trees are pretty thin still, but the underbrush has grown tall and thick, giving a charismatic feel to the area.  Salal, sword fern and salmon berry all populate the trail sides.

Much of the bird song you will hear comes from the massive wetlands to your north, which is the true Grass Lake.  Want to take a look?  Determining where the shore begins is tricky, as the ground quickly devolves into marsh as you leave the trail towards the lake.  Look for signs of beaver industriousness while you’re exploring, they’ve felled some impressive trees here.

On a sunny day, and if you’re up for it, it’s fun to balance your way out onto a log hanging over the lake to watch for birds flitting around.  As far as the eye can see, it pretty much looks like a lake full of trees.  Grass Lake’s big secret seems to be that it is, in fact, a marsh.

On the return side of your loop, you may notice a substantial clearing and an incomplete tract housing development to your left.  It’s worth a quick look at this in the interest of building your appreciation of how nice land is when it hasn’t been flattened for tract housing.  But don’t worry, there is a thick buffer of trees between you and the houses most of the way.

The trail will take you up and down little hills, which makes it a fun jogging trail, by the way.  When you pass an enormous old oil tank on your left, left behind by who knows what, you are near the loop trail’s start/ finish.  On your way out of the woods, before you get back to the wall of blackberries, take a moment to look up and appreciate the cathedral feeling bestowed by the towering alders.