Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a Good Place to Take a Break

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center

We’d driven I-5 between northwest Washington and Hank’s Columbia River home country many times. About halfway to our destination, we always looked out over the Nisqually River Delta and thought how it seemed to beg exploration. We knew dike removal had been done there in 2009 to allow the tides of southern Puget Sound to restore the estuary.

As we drove back north this time, fighting heavy traffic about 8 miles east of Olympia, I wondered out loud if there might be some place to take a break down there on the delta. Hank swung onto Exit 114. Signs directed us under the freeway and into a different world. The road ended in woods that opened into fields and watery areas. There’s a Visitor Center and Nature Shop, from the deck of which visitors can view a freshwater wetland as tree swallows swoop around them.

Come take a walk with me!

The Refuge has 4 miles of trails. We followed a handicapped accessible boardwalk trail along the freshwater wetland, then detoured out toward a couple of large barns and back along the edge of the saltwater wetlands, where various waterbirds fed in shallow water. If we’d had time, we could have followed a boardwalk trail out across the estuary, where fresh and saltwater combine to form habitat rich in nutrients for over 300 species of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. There are a wildlife viewing tower and platforms along the way where visitors can watch hawks, owls, and other raptors hunt in the marshes and fields. Shorebirds search for food in the mudflats, and harbor seals haul out in the salt marshes. Salmon and steelhead use the estuary in their passage to and from freshwater, and for nurseries for their young.

Most major estuaries in Washington have been filled, dredged, or developed, but in 1974, Nisqually River’s was set aside for wildlife with the establishment of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  More than 760 acres have been reconnected with the tides of Puget Sound. It’s the largest estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest.

It not only provides respite for migrating wildlife and a permanent home for other species, it’s a peaceful stopping place for human travelers who need respite from the rigors of the road.

Freshwater wetlands from the Visitor Center
Twin Barns and wetlands, with newly planted native vegetation in foreground

Saltwater marsh with feeding ducks

For more information about the refuge, go to or call 360/753 9467.

Reusing Wastewater at Sweetwater Wetlands

A secluded corner in the Sweetwater Wetlands

 The Sweetwater Wetland is well known to Tucson’s birders. Located in the midst of an industrial area, between I-10 and the usually dry Santa Cruz River, Sweetwater is a man-made wetland constructed in 1996 to help treat secondary effluent and backwash from the reclaimed water treatment system at adjacent Roger Road Wastewater Treatment Plant. Not only does Sweetwater provide habitat for a wide variety of wildlife, it serves as an environmental education facility.

Away from the rest of the world        

Wide, level paths wind around ponds and streamside habitats, past informational signs and viewing platforms. Twelve-foot tall banks of rushes and cattails, cottonwood trees, and thickets of saltbrush give solitude to wild residents and human visitors alike. In the early morning the air is alive with the calls of birds. Flocks of ducks pattern the sky overhead. Birders with binoculars and cameras try to add rare species to their lists. More than 250 species have been reported at the wetlands, as well as amphibians, insects, and mammals such as bobcats.

A coot preening in the morning sunshine

Large recharging basins at one side of the complex not only attract thousands of waterfowl, they allow treated water to rapidly percolate down to the water table, where it can be recovered by wells and delivered for use in irrigating public spaces such as golf course , lawns, and roadside plantings.In 1940, the area’s water table was at 40’ below the surface. By 1998 it was below 100’. Reusing waste water is an idea whose time has come.

Shoveler ducks
Boat-tailed Grackle

Anna’s Hummingbird