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

Category Archives: Fresh Water

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.


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.

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.

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.