Southernmost Pond Viewable by Visitors
The southern pond at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is only visible by walking south along the paved entrance road. The freeway noise is usually terrible from here, but it will at least let you take a look at what happens to be living in the ponds of the refuge.
To get here, you must walk along the main entrance road, which is narrow but traveled only by those going to the refuge. Also, you only need to walk south along this road from the main parking area approximately 200 feet.
Here, just slightly south of the southern parking area and the education building, you will find a small area where you can get off the road, but entry beyond the wide spot in the road is prohibited. The space beside the road, as seen here, is more than enough to at least take a look at what is out on the water.
Naturally, what is usually here are water birds - usually dabblers of some sort rather than divers.
Visibility of this pond may be eliminated as time goes on, as there are many new shrubs between the pond and the road. If these get tall enough to obscure the view then at some point visibility will be limited.
Nearly Unknown South Loop Trail and Ponds
While hundreds of people visit the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge every day, there is one trail on the main part of the refuge that is almost completely unexplored. This trail is entirely comprised of maintenance access roads, and is broad and flat. Furthermore, because of the gates which state "Authorized Vehicles Only" the area has all the appearances of a place that is closed to the public.
However, the reality is that the place is closed to the public approximately 1/4 of a mile in from the parking lot. It is there you will find the standard Fish & Wildlife signs declaring the area off limits to all visitors.
There does not appear to be an official name for this trail, but it is the southern most part of the refuge that has any sort of trail so I have simply called it the "Southern Loop Trail".
From the Education Center building, one entrance to the loop is located across the entrance road from the branch of the parking lot that is closest to this building. See photo 2. Sometimes the gate is open, as seen in this photo, but almost always it is closed.
The other end of this loop is the road that goes between the main parking area and the Twin Barns area. See photo 3. This is the T shaped trail intersection in the maintenance access roads as seen from the Twin Barns Loop trail. It is very common for visitors to take this trail and turn right at this intersection to get to the Twin Barns. However, to take the South Loop trail, you would turn left at this trial intersection.
The primary attraction of this loop is the pond towards the south side of the refuge that is visible from this trail. There are all manner of wetlands birds that may appear here, and it is an area that is especially popular with the red-winged blackbird population. This pond is seen in the main photo (photo 1, shown above).
The bad part of this trail is that it is close to Interstate 5, and there is little that protects it from the noise of the freeway. It is visible in the main photo, in the far background, but under the right weather conditions the noise is extremely deafening even from this far away.
Beside the Environmental Education Center Building, there is a small playground where some of the materials are natural, such as very large hollow tree logs. There are also artificial materials used in the playground as well, but for the most part the playground is intended to provide a safe place (with a fence around it separating it from surrounding parking lot traffic) for children to enjoy playing outside in a location where they don't have to be on the trails all the time, and can climb on things.
The playground is somewhat hidden by its natural fence, but it is located on the east side of the east parking lot, near the Environmental Education Center Building.
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Environmental Education Center Building
Located on the east end of the east parking lot, the Environmental Education Center building is a much less visited building in the refuge. However, it is not completely unknown as classes of various types are conducted here throughout the year. Some of these are conducted by the local audubon societies (Black Hills in the Olympia area or Tahoma in the University Place area), while others are conducted by the local refuge staff, or education program volunteers, or sometimes by a commercial group (for example, a camera store once in a while will have a free class on outdoor photography).
If you do get a chance to go into the building, take a look at the wonderful collection of stuffed birds that they have. These are some very well preserved examples of local wildlife that you are able to view up close. There are also two new murals, installed in late 2012. These, as well as two other earlier ones, were created by students at the Mariah Art School in West Olympia. Artists ranged in age from 6 to 12.
The best way to find out about events that use the education center is to find a copy of the newsletter in the refuge visitors center, and check the calendar. Also, check the calendar of the Tahoma Audubon Society and/or Black Hills Audubon Society that are located on the same table as the other newsletters.
Nisqually Reach Nature Center
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is bordered on the north and west by land managed by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Serving as the interpretive center for the State part of the lands set aside for wildlife, the Nisqually Reach Nature Center has been providing educational efforts since 1982. Much of that revolves around giving children exposure to the local ecosystems.
Also, since the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge no longer has trails that go all the way out to the edge of Puget Sound, this is the best place to get a view of what is going on at the edge of the Nisqually River Delta and the salt water birds that call this area home. If you are extremely lucky, you will see some of the resident whale population - but they almost never come down this far in Puget Sound any more (in recent years it has been a single visit spanning several days every year or so).
Indoor displays include several samples of live fish and crabs and quite a number of stuffed birds so that you can take an up close look at the wildlife that frequents the area. You will also find an observation deck looking out over the water. The Nisqually Reach Nature Center also has quite and extensive collection of historical wildlife data for the region, which is part of the extensive research programs ongoing at this facility.
Other indoor displays include three dimensional maps of the region, including what is going on under the water. This helps a lot to show all the below-surface items.
Until late 2010, the pier here was a popular sheltered place for fishing, picnicing and watching bird and water life. However, in late 2010 the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife determined the pier to be unsafe and, lacking the funds to repair it, closed it to public access.
There is a semi-primitive boat ramp here, which is difficult to use during extreme low tides but people do use it for smaller boats at low tide. This is also a very common place to launch human-powered craft such as kayaks. However, the only flush toilets are inside the nature center, which doesn't keep extensive hours. There is a basic concrete pit toilet located at the far uphill end of the boat trailer parking area, and that is available for use pretty much any time.
Parking in the parking area requires that one have a Discover Pass or similar state lands pass such as a department of fish and wildlife parking pass.
There are many educational programs here designed for local children, but for the most part those take the form of summer camp and similar long term class type experiences.
It is farily common to see bald eagles hunting for fish in the surrounding waters, and the overlook over the water is a very popular nesting place for purple martin and a few other types of swallows in the summer months. Great blue heron, bald eagles, and other birds explore the sandy flatlands when the tide is out, so don't just look for them on top of the various poles that overlook the water. Sometimes they are right down on the ground.
During the winter months, bufflehead, several types of grebe (especially horned grebe), loons, mergansers and various other wintering birds ride the tide here, and low tide tends to be the best time to see them floating up or down stream as the tide moves them.
This is also a popular place to hunt for clams, and at low tide you can go out on the beach and exposed tidal flats to areas that have a great view of the Olympic Mountains. However, please keep in mid that the tide comes in extremely quickly. Don't get yourself into a spot you can't get yourself out of! (See my Danger Tip about the 16+ foot tide swing that happens here) Also, keep in mind that part of the tidal flats north and west of the boat ramp are privately owned for use by Taylor Shellfish Farms.
The Nisqually Reach Nature Center has an annual fundraiser in September that includes lots and lots of food. Until 2011 this was an "Annual Pig Roast" but starting in 2012 it has become "Feast at the Reach" and features shellfish by Taylor Shellfish Farms.
Address: 4949 D'Milluhr Dr. NE, Olympia WA 98412-2311
How to Get Here: From entrance to refuge, go back out to the Interstate 5 entrance, but don't get on the freeway. Instead, go under the freeway and into the town of Nisqually, and DO NOT GET ON THE FREEWAY. Go west on Martin Way SE. Turn north onto Martin Road NE in about 3/4 of a mile (1.2 km). After crossing the freeway, you will come to a roundabout. You will need to continue north on Martin Road NE, which is actually a right turn of sorts out of the roundabout - exit the roundabout at the first exit point if coming at it from the south. After about 1.5 miles (about 2.5 km) turn right onto 46th Avenue NE. Turn left onto the first major road you come to, which is D'Milluhr Drive. Follow the road around a curve to the right, and go to the far end of the road. Before you drive into the waters of Puget Sound, you will find yourself at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center.
Also, see also the instructions on how to get there on the web site.
- Family Travel
Visitor's Center: Part 3: the boardroom
The rest of the tips about the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Visitor's Center are in the "Things to Do" area, as most people find them. However, very few people seem to wander into the "boardroom". At the very least, take a look at the artwork on the walls. It doesn't change often so isn't something to regularly examine but is worth looking at once per year.
Located inside the visitor's center, the "Boardroom" of the refuge includes a wonderful broad window that overlooks one of the ponds next to the Visitor's Center.
The attractions here are two fold:
+ because of the window you may be able to get closer to the wildlife on the pond than you would if you were on the outdoor observation deck. The window blocks the sound of your feet and the sight of movement, and so the birds are relatively unaware of people inside the room.
+ There are also very interesting and worthwhile displays in the boardroom. At the very least, you should take a look at the display of Junior Duck Stamp artwork. Entries are submitted from all over the state of Washington, and the best of show goes on to the national competition. Washington Best of Show entries since 1994 are on display here, plus typically the current year's best entries in various categories. Plans for ongoing work at the refuge may also be on display, and could prove informative on what to expect on future visits.
When you enter the visitor's center, ask at the desk if it is OK to go into the boardroom. If the door to the room is open (it is on the left side of the desk if you are facing the desk) most likely there is nothing going on in there and a visit to this relatively rare, but interesting part of the refuge, is welcome.
As a significant portion of the artwork here relates to the Junior Duck Stamp competition, here is a bit more about it:
Every year in March, artwork entries from all over the state are submitted by students up to high school age. The entries feature water birds, and must keep in mind that their artwork may eventually become the size of a postage stamp. This competition is designed to inspire students to learn about birds and the importance of wetland convervation, and thus help encourage them to become better stewards of natural resources as they appreciate the animals that live there.
From that year's entries, the judges here at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge select a series of 1st prizes, 2nd prizes and 3rd prizes, and a best in show prize.
All of the best in show prizes go to Washington DC to compete at the national level, and the national award becomes next year's Junior Duck Stamp. The young artist also receives a $2,500 scholarship.
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