The web of trails through this wetland park serve as a woodsy playground for the Northeast Olympia neighborhood.
Distance: 1 mile
Time: 30 minutes
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.