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

Category Archives: Salt Water

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.


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.

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?