Olympia Things to Do Tips by glabah Top 5 Page for this destination
Olympia Things to Do: 40 reviews and 86 photos
thousands of mounds dot the Mima Plain
NOTE: As of July of 2011, it is required to have a Discover Pass or pay a day use fee for Washington public lands.
Local Native American tribes tell the story of a girl that refused to wash her face, due to the possible severe repercussions such a washing might have. When they were finally able to convince her that she really should wash her face, a thunderstorm formed after the washing. This storm caused the formation of thousands and thousands of mounds of earth south of Olympia. These mounds, regularly spaced, mostly round, and most of them six to eight feet tall, remain on the flatlands south of Olympia to this day - except in places where development has removed them.
Scientists have argued about what caused the Mima Mounds (named after the Mima Prairie on which they sit) south of Olympia to form for many decades, and still there is no good explanation as to what has caused these odd soil lumps to be created. In the absence of a good scientific theory, the Native American legend is as good as anything else that has been proposed.
Early American explorers thought they might be burial mounds, but discovered after digging that all they found inside, beside, and under the mounds was more dirt, and sometimes rocks. Also, the Native American traditions do not treat this as a holy or forbidden place of any sort, and so most likely it has nothing to do with any creation of the First People.
Today, decades of urban development and farmland creation have left only a portion of the Mima Mounds remaining, and one of the best preserved examples of this odd geological formation is located in the 636 acre Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve, owned by the State of Washington.
The natural preserve has approximately two miles (3.3 km) of unpaved trails, a 1/2 mile (0.8 km) paved trail, a small parking area, and an information kiosk with an elevated viewing deck that is only accessible by staircase. Resroom facilities are limited to a pit toilet.
A slightly elevated wooden platform with a ramp up to it exists along the paved trail, about halfway around the paved loop.
Dogs, horses, and bicycles are not allowed into this or most other locations managed by the Washington State Fish and Wildlife.
The trails are almost entirely within the unshaded section of the plain, and therefore on a hot sunny day this area is also going to be uncomfortably hot.
If you hear a lot of gunshots, try not to worry too much. There is a firing range on the other side of the natural preserve, but the gunfire is supposedly aimed away from the natural preserve.
The wild flowers here, though being put to the test by various invasive species, are a very special feature of the mounds. This includes camas (which was a very important plant in the diet of local Native American tribes) and several very rare wild flowers that only grow in the Puget Trough (the narrow band of land in which Puget Sound sits).
There is a bike rack here for those who arrive by bike and wish to lock up their bike while they walk the trail. Bikes are not permitted on the preserved prairie, even on the trails.
For a few additional photos, see my Mima Mounds tip in Littlerock and my Mima Mounds tip in Washington.
Address: Waddell Creek Road, Littlerock, Washington 98556
Directions: West on Maytown Road SW through Littlerock, which briefly assumes the name 128th Avenue just west of town before coming to an end. Turn right onto Waddell Creek Road. Preserve is on left side after 0.7 miles.
1911 Capitol Building on Left plus Capitol Lake
The above photo shows Capitol Lake from the trail that surrounds the northern part of the lake. To the left side it is possible to see the dome of the "new" (as of the 1910s) Capitol Building. The northern part of Capitol Lake and the forests surrounding the lake dominate this scene.
Many years ago, a dam and dike were constructed across the mouth of the Deschutes River, creating a fresh water lake at the former tidal flat and river delta. This created an artificial lake that was to be an attraction and benefit for the people of Olympia.
The creation of the lake was proposed as part of an architectural plan for creating the "new" (for 1911) State Capitol building. The lake was proposed to serve as a large reflecting pool for the capitol building, which was built on a small rise directly above the lake. While construction of the Capitol Building and campus was started just after the plan for it was in 1911, it was not until 1951 that the dam across the mouth of the inlet was created, forming the new lake.
Such massive changes to the natural landscape were common in the early 1900s as part of the "City Beautiful Movement" and creating the architectural style called "American Renaissance", which involved buildings but also modifying the landscape to fit the buildings.
Today, the lake is split into two sections. The northern part, closest to the dam creating it, has a 1.5 mile (2.5 km) trail around its perimeter. There are two parks around the edge of this northern part of the lake, but unfortunately approximately 1/3 of the loop around the northern part of the lake right next to a busy road (Deschutes Parkway). The remaining 2/3 of the loop around the northern part of the lake include some park land that is heavily developed, but the land that is closest to the "new" (for 1913) Capitol building itself is maintained in a reasonably natural state.
The trail around the north part of the lake has a number of memorial stones in it, which commemorate each county in the State of Washington. This wall is called the Arc of Statehood. The trail also features a number of signs that give a little history about the area, as well as some plans and ongoing disputes about the future (for example, what should be done with Capitol Lake today, as it is slowly filling up with silt and in a number of ways functioned best as a tidal salt water estuary).
During the winter months, the lake has quite a number of different waterfowl that winter on it. This includes canvasback, ring necked duck, bufflehead, scaup, and coot. Bald eagles are year-round residents in the forests around the lake. Kingfishers are also year-round residents but live closer to the edges of the lake. See my Capitol Lake Bird Life travelogue and December 28th Photos for a few photos of the birds that are found here in the winter.
The section of the lake that is south, which comprises some 2/3 of the actual lake body, does not have a loop trail as the land on the east side of the lake is private. The sidewalk along the road on the west side of the lake (Deschutes Parkway) is somewhat unpleasant to walk along due to the amount of traffic on the road, but there are enough breaks in traffic that there are periods of rest and going early in the morning on a Sunday or some other very low traffic time will make the visit more pleasant here. However, even during the higher traffic periods there are brief interludes where it is possible to hear birds in the lake and in the surrounding forest, which give glimpses of what the area was like before it was a popular thoroughfare. The very south side of the lake has busy and loud Interstate 5 along it, making it also somewhat unpleasant, but the forest surrounding it at least muffles the freeway noise quite nicely - and in some places the trail on the south side of the lake is more pleasant that the one along Deschutes Way.
The southern part of the lake icontinues south all the way to the city of Tumwater and the falls located in Tumwater Falls Park. After passing along the north side of the fill created by Interstate 5 the trail then passes under the freeway and through Tumwater's Historical Park. See my Tumwater to Olympia Trail tip.
If you follow the sidewalk south along the lake you will eventually come to a place where it branches off to the east. If you follow this, it runs along the south side of the lake, passes under Interstate 5 at a bridge, and then enters Tumwater Historical Park, connecting the cities of Tumwater and Olympia. You can then continue up the hill on a trail in this park to get to Tumwater Falls Park. See my Tumwater - Olympia Trail and Tumwater Historical Park and Tumwater Falls Park tips for more information.
Unfortunately, there are many problems with the lake. There is an invasive snail that inhabits the lake water, and there have been infectious diseases spread by people dumping human waste into the lake. Therefore, all access (boat, swimming, etc.) has been cut off from the water of the lake itself.
The web site below is for Heritage Park, which is as close as one can find for an official web site about the lake itself.
Directions: Access is available from the state Capitol Building campus, Heritage Park, and Marathon Park. Bus routes 43 and 44 operate on the east side of the northern section of the lake, and have bus stops on the trail.
Chehalis Western Trail is Paved Bike Path
In the early 1980s Weyerhaeuser decided it was time to cease operation of its railroad between its properties in the Cascades foothills and Puget Sound. Parts of this railroad remained in operation into the 1990s, and one shop facility stayed open until around 2005.
However, today, there are some 35 miles of ex-logging railroad that have been converted into a bicycle trail. Much of the route is fairly suburban, but other areas are reasonably rural. The right of way is paved for much of the distance.
Far from being only an Olympia thing to do, the trail goes through Lacy, passes near Tenino, the community of Rainier, and reasonably far into the forest. At milepost 21, the trail intersects the Yelm to Tenino Trail. The section past this junction is not very well developed.
The trail also intersects the Woodland Trail, which runs east to west somewhat south of Interstate 5, between a suburban area of Olympia and a suburban area of Lacy.
The north end of the Chehalis Western trail is located on Puget Sound on Woodard Bay. The trail head and parking lot are just south of the intersection of Woodard Bay Road and Lemmon Road. See my Woodard Bay Trailhead tip, located in Boston Harbor (the closest community to that location). It has a reasonably nice paved parking area in heavy shade and a portable toilet, but to go south from there on the trail you must cross several busy roads at grade.
Another trailhead exists near Chambers Lakes, towards the south side of Olympia. See my Chambers Lakes Trailhead tip. This trailhead features flush toilets. Here, there are also road crossings but there are also a few bridges over the worst of the roads.
One short section of the trail does not exist and requires the use of local roads to complete the trail as the railroad route has been completely obliterated due to road expansion and real estate development. This is the section from Pacific Avenue (which is busy and not easy to cross - and an obstacle has been placed in the middle of the road in order to prevent people from crossing here) to the Woodland Trail - a distance of about 300 feet / 100 meters.
Various other trailheads exist, scattered along the length of the trail. Currently, only the four or five major trailheads have restroom facilities and developed parking facilities.
The trail passes right next to the Monarch Sculpture Park, which has led to the suggestion that the entire trail be populated with various works of art along its entire length.
Milepost markers are located approximately every 1/2 mile so that the map of the trail may be connected with your actual location along it.
In my opinion, the section from Pacific Avenue north to Woodard Bay is probably the less interesting part of the trail, as it is mostly suburban development. The more rural areas that are further away from the suburban sprawl provides more unique areas to pass through.
The Capitol Building and its Grounds
In the very early 1900s, there was a movement to create artificial and massive classical public works as part of the "City Beautiful" efforts. This era reached its pinnacle in such structures as the 1911 designed (and not completed until the late 1920s) Capitol Building in Olympia. The plan called for the capitol campus to overlook a freshwater lake created from a former tidal marsh (completed in 1951 and now called Capitol Lake) and many other features inspired by mixing American culture with European inspired classical architecture.
100 years after it was designed, the Capitol building still dominates the skyline of Olympia. The top of the capitol dome is visible from Interstate 5 in both directions as the freeway comes down the hill towards downtown Olympia, but remarkably the freeway and its noise has been mostly hidden from the capitol grounds. The dominating effect of the building has much to do with its position on a small hill overlooking the city and surrounding area, making the building seem much taller than it actually is.
The grounds are fairly extensive, especially when you include the surrounding park lands such as Capitol Lake, and there are a number of monuments on the grounds as well. This includes the World War I and World War II monuments.
Naturally the main attraction here is the huge Capitol Building itself. There are self-guided and guided tours of this structure. Tours of this structure operate on weekdays and weekends, but not on major holidays. For those interested in architectural details, the huge chandelier, which is about the size and weight of a large automobile, should be visited. The closest you can get to it is from the upper level balconies, but this is close enough to get an idea of the sheer size and huge amount of ornamental details on this light. (See photo 2).
However, many of the other public buildings on the campus of the capitol are also open for touring on your own, but they are only open on weekdays. Thus, my suggestion to visit the capitol campus on a week day if possible due to the possibility of visiting these other buildings if you are interested in them.
Unfortunately, one of the great landmarks of the Capitol Campus was removed in 2010: The Chief William Shelton Story Pole had decayed beyond safe limits and therefore had to be taken down, after serving as a reminder and monument to First Nations and settlers peaceful relations. It was dedicated in 1940.
There are over 17 different smaller artworks and memorial sites scattered through the Capitol grounds, and in my opinion the state has put a much better and extensive effort into documenting this for its tourists than the State of Oregon capitol building and its campus.
The web site below requires some exploration to find everything, but it is the best source of information about what you will find here.
The Bottom of the Three Falls of Tumwater Falls
Olympia and Tumwater are cities that today essentially form one urban area. At one time downtown Tumwater was slightly south of Capitol Lake. However, much of what was once downtown Tumwater was destroyed over the years due to construction of what is now Interstate 5. The two are very close, and in fact today it is very difficult to distinguish the borders of one from the other. Walking south on the trail from Capitol Lake, you pass from Olympia to Tumwater without really realizing it has happened.
For many years, Olympia's most famous tourist attraction was actually in Tumwater: the Olympia Brewery was next to the Tumwater falls of the Descutes River. Unfortunately, the building has been up for sale since 2003 as Olympia Beer is now made in California by new owners SAB Miller. Tours are no longer offered of the building as it is no longer an active industry.
However, Tumwater remains an interesting little town that is worth a look if you are visiting the Olympia area. What little of the old downtown area that has survived has been preserved in Tumwater Historical Park.
The falls of the Descutes River that sparked the community and the industry that started the town are now surrounded by Tumwater Falls Park
This little park offers a loop of trails that go down the hill on which the falls occur, with a total length of somewhat less than 1 mile.
See My Tumwater Page for more information on this city that makes up part of the Olympia - Tumwater - Lacy urban area.
Directions: Downtown Tumwater is approximately 1 mile south of downtown Olympia. Just follow the road on the west side of Capitol Lake, don't get on I-5, and eventually you will go through downtown Tumwater.
Priest Point Park entrance on Right: note Big Sign
Located just north and east of downtown Olympia, Priest Point Park was set aside around 1904, and was the first land purchased for the construction of a city park. Prior to this, the park was owned by logging interests, and there are still some very old and very large tree stumps in the area that testify to the logging of the land over 100 years ago.
Today, much of the park is preserved second growth forest, and as such is the home of a fair amount of wildlife. As the park has a fair amount of shore line, it is also possible to see wildlife out in the water as well. For example, on a visit to this park on July 21, 2011 there was a harbour seal only about 100 feet out in the water from one of the viewpoints, eating a huge fish - almost as large as he was. He was having to dive from time to time in order to protect his prize catch from the various gulls that were determined to obtain pieces of fish with little effort of their own.
Also present in the park during that visit was an osprey nest with one young bird that appeared to be nearly ready to fledge from the nest, plus two adults hunting for fish. There was also a bald eagle attempting to hide in one of the trees, though the local crow population was not tolerating his presence at all.
The park has a number of trails through it, many of which have short steep uphill and downhill sections. One of the trails is closed due to blow down from trees. Unfortunately, the park does not appear to have a good map of the complete trail system, but instead the maps of the trails are located at various points on the trail system, and feature only a detailed view of the trails in that local section of the park.
There are several picnic shelters throughout the park, and these are set up similar to camp sites with a few dedicated parking places for them, but overnight camping is not allowed in the park. The shelters are really nice structures that include food preparation areas, nearby water faucets, and electrical outlets. Restrooms are close to some shelters and farther away from others.
A huge new playground has been recently opened near an open grass area just west of East Bay Drive Northeast. There is also a small rose garden. Information about the local ecosystem and area history are scattered through the park along the various trails.
Getting to and into the park by private automobile is fairly easy, and fairly elegant as a light weight bridge has been built over East Bay Drive. This allows those entering and exiting the park to do so only by making right turns from and to this divided road, and is a huge help during busy traffic periods as there is no way to make a left turn onto this busy road, nor is it desirable to do so. From the north or south as you approach the park there is a fairly good sized entrance sign where you turn right. If you exit going back the way you came, you drive across the bridge and turn right onto East Bay Drive. There are a number of signs pointing the way to the park once you get downtown. While East Bay Drive is not extremely pleasant to walk next to due to the high traffic volume, the speeds are not extremely high (or at least shouldn't be due to a 30 mph speed limit) and there are sidewalks beside it from downtown Olympia all the way to the park - which is slightly over 1.5 miles (2.5 km). The nearest bus service to the park is bus route 21 at Bethel Street and 26th Avenue, which is east of the park some distance.
Priest Point was named after late 1840s Roman Catholic missions in the area, primarily aimed at ministering to local First Nations tribes. With the First Nations population being consolidated at reservations on an island northwest of Olympia in the 1850s and the establishment of urban areas by white settlers, the mission had no reason to exist at this point and the land was sold to logging interests.
Address: 2600 East Bay Drive NE, Olympia Washington
Directions: East Bay Drive is a primary road running north along the east side of Budd Inlet direct from the downtown area. Closest bus service to park is bus route 21 at Bethel Street & 26th Avenue.
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