"Unique River Delta on the South Puget Sound" Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge by glabah

Virtually unmarked from busy Interstate 5, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a good place to stop between Seattle and Portland if you like watching birds. It's 60 miles (100 km) beteen Seatle and Olympia, and the scenery along this highway is mostly unattractive. One of the few exceptions is this small preserved river delta between Tacoma and Olympia - yet even to see it properly you have to get off the highway or all you will notice is a brief glimpse of Puget Sound through the trees.

Yet it is a good thing that the refuge remains unmarked from Interstate 5, as it is already a popular and well-known location among Seattle, Olympia and Tacoma area residents, and if it were better marked it would have huge numbers of people visiting, most of which probably really are not that interested in the wildlife the refuge has to offer. There are already a fair number of people who try to treat the refuge as a city park, but in fact the purpose of the National Wildlife Refuge system is that it is set aside first and foremost as a place for the animals. The refuge estimates its annual visitor count at somewhere around 200,000 and you will certainly see that on a warm summer weekend, especially towards the afternoons. On these types of days it is best to aim towards visiting as close to 7 am as possible, when the refuge opens - or if possible schedule your visit around visiting during a weekday.

As it is, the refuge is easy to find and easy to get to for those who are interested in wildlife and bother to do a little of their own research - so don't expect them to erect huge signs on Interstate 5 telling people where this is. There are already enough visitors to keep everyone busy, and those who are interested in wildlife in the region pretty much already know about it.

The variety of wildlife you could see here is pretty extensive, and you won't see everything at one time due to the seasonal nature of the migrations. However, on the list of frequent visitors are wild mink, bald eagles, purple martin (nesting at the Nisqually Reach Center in early summer), great blue heron, and various water birds. In my opinion the worst time to visit is August, as the lack of water pushes wildlife into areas away from the refuge trails, and many of the nesting birds have hatched by then. The exception are the tidal areas visible from the Nisqually Reach Center and the Boardwalk Section of the Nisqually Estuary Trail - where it is possible to see the birds that follow the edge of the tidal water.

What Makes the Nisqually N.W.R. Unique?

How many different ways can an area be unique? The Nisqually River:

+ Empties into salt water, and while that salt water is connected to the Ocean, it is some 200 miles by water to an open ocean due to the tangle of waterways between the river and open ocean.

+ Empites into a passageway that is part of Puget Sound and while it is too narrow for heavy Ocean type weather, (in fact, the waves are little larger than you would find on may small lakes) it is large enough to support ocean-like wildlife, such as its own colony of Orca whales,

+ Has its headwaters in a national park

+ Has its river delta in a National Wildlife Refuge

Those are the unique features of the river that empties into Puget Sound at this refuge. The refuge itself features:

+ This Nisqually River Delta - the last remaining example of an undeveloped Puget Sound river delta.

+ Is bordered by forests on either side, despite being compressed from both directions by intense urban and suburban development from Tacoma, Seattle and Olympia.

+ On many days it has a 15 foot or more tidal swing between high tide and low tide (some days more, some days less), creating a huge ecosystem for all manner of tidal dependent species. This includes salmon, as they need such places to adjust from fresh water to salt water. It also includes a number of small organisms that are important for wintering and migrating birds of all kinds. Shore birds, seals, fresh water ducks, sea ducks, and various others may be found on the mud flats. Look closely and you will see crabs on the mud flats just after high tide during a number of months. Bald eagles, herons, shorebirds, green winged teal, kingfisher, and many others may be found in the tidal waters depending on the season and particular instance.

+ The Nisqually Estuary Restoration Process - hundreds of pages could be written about this (and indeed they were written as part of the public review process), but a quick summary: the outer 900 acres (300+ ha) of the refuge had been turned into farmland in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The refuge inherited this configuration when it obtained the land for this refuge in 1974.

This didn't work well for a number of reasons. Among them included the creation of an extensive set of conditions that promoted invasive species, particularly reed canary grass. Another problem is that an important part of restoring life to Puget Sound involves salmon habitat and salmon need good tidewater areas that are a mixture of fresh water and salt water to perform their transition from a fresh water fish to an ocean fish. The narrowed and tightly controlled Nisqually River no longer offered them this type of ecosystem.

On May 4, 2009, the 5.5 mile Brown Farm Dike Trail closed to allow for removal of the dikes on which the trail was routed and restoration of the natural water processes within the borders of the refuge. By November of 2009, huge expanses of the dikes had been removed, and a portion of the new Niqually Estuary Trail was opened to the public. An entire brochure is available at the refuge with maps that indicate just how huge a project this was to accomplish in such a short time.

Parts of the refuge were retained as freshwater habitat, but this huge section of the refuge has been returned to the powers of Puget Sound and the Nisqually River for management. Every month, changes happen that are part of this once tidal land returning to its original tidal state.

The combination of all these features makes Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge a very unique ecosystem that drives wildlife visits to this very unique remnant of a Puget Sound ecosystem.

To Get You Started at the Refuge....

You can, of course, visit all my tips about the refuge, but here is some basic information on what is in those tips and how to use them:

Your first decision should be on when to visit the refuge. See my Time of Year to Visit tip on that. It all depends on what type of birds you want to see. There are more here than just birds, but the rest are not as seasonal, and are less predictable. You also need to decide on what day to visit based on the tide level at specific times of day (see my Tide Danger Tip for information on where to find tide tables for this area). If possible I suggest visiting in a way that allows you to visit twice - once at high tide and once again at low tide.

When you arrive, you should first stop at the Visitor's Center, where you should pay the entrance fee and visit the open deck to see if there is anything in the wetlands. Go inside (as long as you don't come on a Monday or Tuesday, when they are closed) and at the desk you will find a log book of sightings. Looking in the log book will tell you what has been seen recently, and where it has been seen. After your visit, please consider stopping by again to record your sightings for the next visitor, and for helping research. There may also be some photos visitors have given that show some of what some of the excellent photographers that visit here have been able to find and photograph.

The main trail system is approximately 4 miles (6.5 km) of trails currently open inside the refuge. Doing all of the trails open to the public requires 5 miles (8 km) of walking. Views from the trails include the tidal flats, fresh water marshes, and a small section of the forest beside the Nisqually River.

For a more complete introduction to the trail system, see my Introduction to the Trails tip.

While the main activity here is watching the wildlife, the visitor's center also includes a small set of interpretive displays and there are Various Programs offered, including summer weekend programs and occasional wildlife photography classes and other programs throughout the year.

For a view further out into Puget Sound, take some time and visit the Nisqually Reach Nature Center. They have a great view of the northern end of the refuge and the tidal basin. What you see there depends on the time of year and the tides at the time of your visit. It is an all-volunteer effort, however, and so they are only open very limited hours.

Nearby Locations

Tolmie State Park is located along Puget Sound to the west of the refuge. On good days it is exceptionally crowded, but at other times it is at least possible to find a parking place. There are small beaches (which become much larger when the tide is out) and several trails through the forest.

DuPont is a small town directly east of the refuge, though getting there from the refuge is a bit more round-about than a bird flying there. It has a fairly good trail network for the small size of the town. Some of the parks and the small Puget Sound beach seem to get some overflow of wildlife from the Nisqually refuge.

Nisqually is the small community on the south side of Interstate 5, opposite the refuge entrance. It has a few restaurants, gas stations, farms that sometimes offer seasonal retail of food and plants, and a few other items that may be worth looking into, depending on what your wants or needs are.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Great Wildlife Viewing, Very Scenic on Clear Days
  • Cons:Can be Overcrowded on Clear, Warm days, and many of these visitors treat the refuge as a city park rather than a home for wildlife. When the weather is wrong, the noise from Interstate 5 travels deep into the refuge.
  • In a nutshell:A wildlife refuge in the middle of an urban area with a unique salt water ecosystem that is fairly far from the ocean, and is yet connected to it.
  • Last visit to Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge: Mar 2011
  • Intro Updated Nov 11, 2013
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Reviews (26)

Comments (5)

  • Homanded's Profile Photo
    Jun 6, 2011 at 3:22 AM

    Fantastic tips once again, especially about the birds/wildlife. For a nature photographer such as myself, very good tips!

  • unaS's Profile Photo
    Apr 5, 2011 at 11:56 PM

    Nice, nice page. Thanks for sharing! Really enjoyed it.

  • Jim_Eliason's Profile Photo
    Feb 28, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    nice tips Glenn!

  • goodfish's Profile Photo
    Sep 3, 2010 at 3:19 AM

    Glenn, it appears we both have a love of our hiking shoes in common. :) Thanks so much for sending these along tips - will certainly have to give them a go on our next trip out!

  • balhannah's Profile Photo
    Sep 2, 2010 at 1:08 PM

    A good, informative page. What a nice area this is, so well done with the boardwalks and seating, and I see, you saw plenty of Birds. Great info centre too. Good tip on the tides!

glabah

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