Olympia area has lots more than the capitol — from mystery mounds to a top-notch wildlife refuge.
OLYMPIA — When my husband and I bought tickets to an upcoming event in the Olympia area, we decided to make a weekend of it and explore an area where we hadn’t spent much time. As nature lovers, we always like to work in some outdoor activities whenever we travel — which got me thinking about how little I knew about the Puget Sound’s southern end.
It’s close to Seattle, yet just far away enough that I rarely think of it as a possibility. Bellingham, yes. Tacoma, sure. But Olympia was always just a slow spot in traffic as I was headed to points farther south.
When I started looking into South Sound recreation, my research yielded more options than I’d imagined.
If you go
• Most recreation areas require a pass or a day-use fee. Bring a Discover Pass for state lands, including the Capitol State Forest and all state parks.
• Bring a printed map to explore Capitol State Forest or Millersylvania State Park. Their interlocking trails can be confusing.
• Olympia regional trail brochure: bit.ly/1PhetNU
Unlike the steep stair-climber slopes in the mountains around Seattle, the area around Olympia tends to feature rolling terrain and smaller hills. Plentiful parks make finding a hike easy, and the hikes’ accessibility makes them friendly to families and those with limited time or physical capabilities.
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Take Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, a 635-acre park just south of Olympia, for example. The derivation of its namesake earthen humps is still uncertain despite much study and speculation; theories range from pocket gophers to windblown sediments to extraterrestrials. Trails give visitors various ways to explore these strange lumps in the Earth’s surface. A .5-mile paved trail is ADA-accessible, and easy loop hikes meander among the mounds, which are at their best when wildflowers bloom in April and May (dnr.wa.gov/MimaMounds).
Right next to Mima Mounds, the multiuse trails at Capitol State Forest are often populated with mountain bikers, horseback riders and ATV users in summer (capitolforest.com). But during the rainy season, hikers have the forest mostly to themselves. A 6.5-mile loop whose trailhead is practically across the street from Mima Mounds leads to pretty Mima Falls and connects to a collection of longer and sometimes steeper trails through the forest.
Combine hiking and paddling at Millersylvania State Park, a sprawling camping and recreation spot surrounding Deep Lake (parks.state.wa.us/546/Millersylvania). Interlocking loop trails go past wetlands, through meadows and into forests. Bring a map: When I was there, vandals had removed some of the signs at trail intersections, so getting lost was easier than it should have been. On my recent hike through the moss-draped old growth, I heard the hoots of a great horned owl above me and the low croaks of frogs below.
The park rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards during the summer. Camping is also a possibility year-round: I saw a tent indicating at least one hardy camper was taking that option even as a rainstorm enveloped the park.
You don’t even have to leave the city to get a dose of nature. Some sections of trail in Olympia’s Priest Point Park, bordering Budd Inlet on the city’s northern edge, are surprisingly steep — and pretty (bit.ly/259Dk1W). Tumwater Falls Park is an oasis at what used to be the very southern tip of Puget Sound (until it became Capitol Lake), where short trails lead to nice views of the Deschutes River, the falls and the surrounding landscape (olytumfoundation.org/tumwater-falls-park).
The South Sound’s waters, shallower and often less turbulent — and less full of giant ships — than other parts of the Sound, are ideal for kayaking. During my recent visit, I stayed at the Inn at Mallard Cove, a meticulously kept bed-and-breakfast situated on the water (theinnatmallardcove.com). It’s very close to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, which most people explore via a series of trails and boardwalks that also make a good hiking option (admission is $3 for up to four adults; Interstate 5 Exit 14; fws.gov/refuge/Billy_Frank_Jr_Nisqually). But for a look from a different angle, the inn’s owners, Linda and Don Malatesta, often guide their guests through the refuge on kayak tours.
After a short shore-hugging paddle through the South Sound’s protected waters, kayakers head right up into the refuge to see the Nisqually estuary from sea level. If they time it right, a rising tide will do some of the work for them. They paddle all year, except in bad weather (“Better a delay than a disaster,” Don, an unflappable former pilot, likes to say). Sometimes, they pass baby seals sunning themselves on the shore. Other trips are all about the birds; about 200 species have been spotted here.
If you have your own kayak or other watercraft, it’s easy to put in at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, just to the northwest of the wildlife refuge (4949 D’Milluhr Dr. N.E., Olympia; nisquallyestuary.org). Although the nature center is open only Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, the put-in is on state property and open year-round to anyone with a Discover Pass. If you’re there when the nature center is open, take some time to read the displays and chat with volunteers about the Nisqually River, its estuary, and efforts to preserve and restore areas around them.
Another kayaking option is to rent a boat. Boston Harbor Marina, a short jaunt directly north of Olympia, sits among sheltered inlets and islands perfect for exploration (312 73rd Ave. N.E., Olympia; bostonharbormarina.com). Open year-round, the marina rents out watercraft including kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, canoes and rowboats. The marina’s post-paddle snacks include homemade clam chowder in winter and ice cream in summer.