The basics of the trail system isn't too complicated at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. There are basically 4 miles (6.5 km) of trails open to the public on the main part of the refuge. Doing all of the major trails open to the public requires 5 miles (8 km) of walking. There are a few scattered appendages to this trail system that are short...more
While it isn't something that can really be listed as a "Thing to Do" here, it is a bit of vital information about what is going on at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and certainly it is one of the important "Things to See" while visiting here.It is, however, a very subtle "Thing to See" so it is worth taking a bit of space to explain....more
Due to the popularity of the refuge and its proximity to many populated areas, there has been an extensive effort to create interesting and educational programs where people can learn more about the area.These programs include information on the bird life of the refuge, plant life, history of the area (including a program on the Medicine Creek...more
While the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge itself doesn't have kayak launch facilities, it is possible to find both a boat ramp and suitable beach at the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, which isn't exactly part of the refuge but is located on State of Washington lands immediately to the north of the refuge. From here, it is possible to explore the...more
When to visit the new walkway, which provides viewing access above the tidal mud flats of the Nisqually river delta? My suggestion is to plan for several trips out to the end: one at high tide and one after the high tide has dropped a bit. This gives the wildlife that feeds on creatures left behind by the tides a chance to get close to the walkway...more
A very short branch of the Twin Barns Loop Trail leeds to the edge of the Nisqually River, and allows a view of the river through a gap in the trees.The river moves fairly quickly most of the time, and this is the home to a number of diving birds, including cormorants and mergansers. However, you will have to be very fortunate to see them, as they...more
Displays inside the interpretive part of the visitor's center include fun facts about wildlife, a life size cross sectional model of the tideflats and its wildlife that form part of the refuge, a miniature 3-dimensional map of the entire Nisqually River, and a video presentation system that can play any of six recorded programs.Most educational to...more
Just slightly past the junction of the Twin Barns Loop Trail with the branch trail to the Twin Barns Overlook, you will find a grove of large trees right at what was once the entrance to the Twin Barns. This area is equipped with several picnic tables, and a gravel road that leads back to the visitor's center.The memorial stone reads:The Founders...more
Upon entering the refuge, the first and foremost thing to do is to stop at the Nisqually Refuge's visitor's center. This first stop serves multiple purposes:1. The first thing to do when visiting the refuge is to pay the US $3 entry fee to visit - unless of course you don't actually plan on going out into the refuge but just stopped in to say "Hi"...more
Having opened after several months of very rapid hard work, the first segment of the Nisqually Estuary Trail has been built on top of a new dike constructed to maintain a smaller selection of wetlands, while allowing the natural tidal and river flow to return to as close to their natural state as possible.The new dike runs east to west, from just...more
As the name implies, this overlook is on the north side of the Twin Barns, and provide an elevated observation area of the newly restored Nisqually River Delta area. There are several marshes nearby, including one that is near the base of the overlook. Therefore, watch carefully near your location, as what you want to see may not be that far...more
A 400 foot (125 meter) boardwalk above the sometimes-flooded forest next to the Nisqually River leads to an observation deck located near a small pond in the forest.There is a good possibility of finding various wood-dwelling birds here, including various woodpeckers and certain ducks (such as bufflehead, wood ducks and mergansers) that prefer...more
Open Wednesdays through Sundays (except certain holidays), the refuge store helps visitors by selling bird guides specifically aimed at the Puget Sound and western Washington region. It is located inside the visitor's center, between the main entrance and the interpretive displays.
What to buy: Birds of Puget Sound - bird watching guide
T-Shirts and Hats
various educational tools
nature-themed greeting cards
There are several different bird call players to help identify birds by their sound. I'm not convinced of the usefulness of these. One version has special cards that are inserted into the machine and then you can select the bird by button, and another system uses a book of bar codes to play the song. I was unable to get the bar code reader type to work, and the card type seems like the contacts would become worn out fairly quickly. You may have better luck with a bird call CD and converting the sounds to MP3 files for playing on your computer or MP3 player.
There are guides to all manner of birds here, including some very specialized guides, such as birds in molt.
There are also guides to the various bird watching routes throughout the state of Washington.
What to pay: Prices in the store are what you would pay at any other store for the same item, if you can even find one available - some of these are fairly unique gifts.
The ancestors of the current Nisqually Indian Tribe at one time used parts of the Nisqually River delta for their daily supply of food and materials, and was also at one time home to the council grounds. It is also possible that a small community existed here, though the records indicate there was another village near what is now DuPont.
Born to a Yakima mother and a Nisqually father along the Nisqually River somewhat upstream from the river delta, Chief Leschi was shown at an early age to have the abilities of a leader. He was frequently called upon to serve as a judge between fellow tribesman.
In 1853, Governor Isaac Stevens decided to rearrange the way tribal lands worked in order to establish reservations and allow settlers to own formerly occupied by the various tribes. As part of this process, the governor needed signed treaties, and thus needed a chief for each tribe. Chief Leschi was declared to be chief of the Nisqually tribe in order to sign the various treaties.
However, in 1854, Chief Leschi refused to sign the Medicine Creek Treaty as the proposed reservation did not have adequate resources for the Nisqually people. Instead, he worked towards trying to keep the peace between the government, the settlers, and the Nisqually while at the same time working to obtain a reservation that was more suitable for his people.
The Medicine Creek Treaty was finally signed, and the location of the signing was towards the southwest corner of the refuge along McAllister Creek.
This led to a long series of unfortunate events involving murders, brutality, and many broken promises.
On February 19, 1858, Chief Leschi was hanged for murder of a soldier, though he claimed his innocence.
Five old trees served as a landmark for the signing location, and the last of those, known as Treaty Tree, died in 1979 and was blown over in a wind storm in 2006. Seeds from this tree, however, were planted to create a new grove not too far from the original site.
After some years of work by the Nisqually tribe, Chief Leschi was officially exonerated by the state for his crime in 2004 - so perhaps that old snag was kept as a witness to the injustice just long enough to see it reconciled.
The areas of the Nisqually River Delta that were recently restored (starting in 2009) were a place once known very well by the Nisqually pepole and Chief Leschi. During the long effort towards the exoneration hearing, members of the Nisqually River Council and the Nisqually Indian Tribe started asking the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge about naming some feature of the refuge in honor of Chief Leschi.
Ultimately, the decision was made to name the longest remaining slough in the restored tidal area after Chief Leschi.
Though the Nisqually Tribal Council agreed with this proposal, it took about a year and a half for the proposal to be completed, complicated by the legislative elimination of the state board of geographic names - the board responsible for maintaining the names of geographic features. Ultimately the application had to be forwarded to the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, and in October of 2011 they approved the naming of Leschi Slough.
For more information about the life of Chief Leschi it is best to get your hands on the book Leschi, Last Chief of the Nisquallies by Cecelia Svinth Carpenter.
The vast majority of Leschi Slough is not visible to visitors to the refuge, but it is possible to see a very small part of the southern portion of it from the gravel portion of the Nisqually Estuary Trail, located about halfway between the new boardwalk over the tidal mudflats and the Nisqually River.
The slough is tidal, and at low tide it is only a mud-bottomed trough. At high tide it is full to its edges and overflows its banks. Frequently, it is very muddy as the tidal action of Puget Sound in this area is still rearranging the mud and debris of the newly restored tidal flat. Only time will tell how this will all eventually look once the entire area is more settled. In 2009 it was a very artificial looking channel, but by 2012 the tidal action has severely altered the edges of the waterway, creating a far more natural course with sloped edges.
Various bird life may be seen in Leschi Slough. These may be large waders (I have seen Great Blue Heron and Great Egrets in the slough), or the occasional diver (pie billed grebes at high tide, for example), or any number of smaller birds hiding along its banks, hunting for insects, or larger birds hunting for smaller birds (there is a certain tree not too far away from Leschi Slough that draws Bald Eagles for that very purpose!).
About the Photos:
Photo 1: July 7, 2012 shows Leschi Slough at a few hours after high tide, in the morning. Summer has just arrived, and the high tide plus river overflows caused by spring runoff hitting the high tide are drastically reduced. Areas along Leschi Slough are now covered in wild flowers.
Photo 2: May 5, 2012 shows the mud bottom of Leschi Slough at low tide. Only a very small trickle of water sits in the bottom of the slough, caused by controlled release from the fresh water wetlands section of the refuge.
Photo 3: May 5, 2012, only this time in the afternoon when the high tide is in, plus the spring runoff from the Nisqually River hitting the high tide is causing fresh water to overflow into the slough from the river. Leschi Slough is overflowing its normal banks as well. This photo also shows the proximity of Leschi Slough to the gravel portion of the Nisqually Estuary Trail.
Wooden boardwalks are one solution to giving people access to the wetlands. However, they can also be extremely slippery, and therefore use caution when walking on them.When leaves fall on the boardwalk and partially decay, and are then rained on, the mixture produced seems a lot like ice when you step on it. It is extremely slippery. Most of the...more
Sometime in late April of 2012, a child was bitten by an Eastern Grey Squirrel at the refuge. Most likely the child and parents / guardians were attempting to feed it.These are wild animals, not pets.It should be understood that Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is, in fact, a wildlife refuge. Wild animals live here even though the area is rapidly...more
If you go out to the Nisqually Reach Nature Center it is possible to get down and dirty in the tidal flats that border the northern edge of the refuge. Some people hunt for clams there, and others just explore the huge expanse of sand.However, be careful where you go, make sure you are able to get back to land, and be sure to be headed back when...more
Due to the distance at which many of the birds are from public trails or viewpoints, telephoto equipment (not just camera lenses, but also binoculars, spotting scopes, etc.) will be very helpful. Only certain view points have permanent spotting scopes available.
Please see my Telephoto Equipment Tip which is located at
This tip covers an assortment of telephoto equipment that I have used on a number of trips to a variety of areas, and therefore is not specific to use at this particular refuge.
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...more
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...more
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...more
As it is positioned on a migration route, the time of year to visit depends on what you are most interested in seeing.
Winter is the best time for waterfowl of all sorts, including geese, hooded mergansers, goldeneyes, and various ducks. Shovelers are also here, as are widgeons. Very few of these stay around in summer.
This is also true of shore birds and raptors. However, osprey migrate, so you will not see any of those in winter at all, if that is what you want to see. Osprey start arriving in March or so.
There is a bit of an oddity with certain shore birds (dowitchers, snipe, yellowlegs, etc.): there are a few individuals that come through here in the mid-summer months if there is enough water, and after breeding season is over. This leaves the food sources in the nesting grounds for more of the younger birds. However, it is doubtful you will see any of them in August, as many of the water bodies near the trails that seem to be favored by the shore birds have dried up by August.
Song birds reach their peak in spring and fall duirng the migration, and a few spend the summer here, including swallows that feed off the insects in the marshes. Swallows also nest in the rafters of the visitor's center, despite efforts to keep them from doing so. If you are lucky, in July you might get to see the swallows fledge, and these little guys are quite entertaining when first learning to fly.
However, summer can also be a very frustrating time to visit the refuge. The weather is warm and it is located close to large population centers, so a number of people use this as a city park and really don't care about wildlife or bird life. This means that they make quite a lot of noise, and make it hard to trace birds from the calls, or worse scare the birds and other wildlife into hiding.
Yes, that is another problem with summer months: there is a lot of greenery into which wildlife can hide, especially the bird life. For best results here in summer it is best to be very familiar with the calls of the birds you are trying to find.
Due to the crowds on summer weekends, it can be a really good idea to schedule your visit here during weekdays if possible.
Heron and bitterns are at their peak in the summer, but little else is at its peak then. Bitterns are hard to see anyway, but they don't spend too much time close to the trails. Herons are sometimes visible from the trails, but in summer months seem to congregate in huge numbers out on the tidal flats, and the best spot to see them is the Nisqually Reach Nature Center. Scan the shoreline between the National Wildlife Refuge looking south and southeast from this nature center, and you may find huge groups of heron. There were some 40 or so visible in the afternoon of August 20, 2010 as the tide was coming in.
There are several salmon runs in the Nisqually River and McAllister Creek, and the seals and sea lions feed on the fish in the moving water, and are quite visible at those times.
All other animals are extremely unpredictable, including the whales in Puget Sound, foxes, mink, and various others.
Spring and summer, going fairly deep into July, are also good times to see the wild flowers in bloom. Some of them are also weeds (wild flowers that are invasive species) but the mixture can be a pleasant burst of colors in places in the grasslands on the refuge.
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