Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge a walk in nature near Olympia, Washington

A blue heron standing along the water at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge presents beautiful views like a blue heron resting along the shore.

One of the things I’ve grown to love about trips to the Pacific Northwest (besides spending time with my daughter and grand puppy) is that nature seems to be only minutes away from any city. Located midway between Tacoma and state capital Olympia, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge offers close-up views of wildlife along a 4.5-mile trail.

The trail takes visitors from freshwater spots along the Nisqually River Delta to the southern edge of Puget Sound, which contains salt water. The waters combine to create an estuary that provides rich nutrients for the soil and sea creatures, such as crabs and shrimp which serve as food for animals. The federal government designated the Nisqually estuary as a protected area for its habitat.


A view of a pond at Nisqually
A view along the freshwater trail at Nisqually.

As you walk along the trail – consisting of boardwalks and gravel paths – you’ll encounter birds, geese and other animals. I enjoyed being able get close to the wildlife, especially blue herons. At one point, I was about 10 feet from a large heron. Usually, the jittery animals fly off once you get about 100 feet from them. More than 200 species of birds visit the refuge annually.

A blue heron walking in the water
I was about 10 feet from this blue heron, who was searching for food in the water.

Snakes, amphibians and mammals also call Nisqually home. I’m pretty sure I saw a couple of otters at one time, but they didn’t want to stop long enough to pose for a photo.

Refuge history

The refuge’s environment runs from ponds along the river trail to mud flats near Puget Sound. The daily tide from the Sound flows into the area, leaving behind the sea life and nutrients that feed the area.

The Niqually estuary mud flats.
The Niqually estuary mud flats.

Nisqually’s history dates to 1904, when a five-mile dike was built to protect the Brown family farm. The dikes destroyed the habitat for birds. The refuge was created in 1974 to provide a safe area for wildlife. About 10 years ago a new dike was built behind the Brown dike to replace about four miles, thus opening the area for the mud flats.

Barns that belonged to the Brown family.
Barns that remain from the former Brown family farm.

In 2015, President Obama signed a bill into law renaming the refuge after Billy Frank Jr., a Nisqually tribal leader and Native American treaty rights.

If you love nature and great views of wildlife, Nisqually refuge needs to be on your list of things to do in Washington. I loved my visit. I had planned to spend about 90 minutes, but spent about four hours taking in everything. For more information, visit the website for Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.