The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is what some would consider the crown jewel of the Nisqually River (sorry, Mount Rainier). Simply said, there is nothing quite like the Nisqually Refuge within the Puget Sound, with its scenic views of Mount Rainier, its surrounding water and the expansive wildlife viewing opportunities and ecosystem. Sandwiched between the Nisqually Valley to the south and the southern Puget Sound basin to the north, the Nisqually River drains well into and carves the brackish water and land of the refuge, a defining factor that has added to the refuge’s biodiversity.
That being said, it’s a special hike for a special reason. The refuge was created in 1974 to protect its diverse bird and marine wildlife, and for that reason it’s important to keep conservation in mind during your hike. It’s also important to note before we get too far into our expedition that pets and jogging are strictly prohibited on this trail.
One of the first trails I hiked when I first moved down to Yelm from Burlington, Washington, was the Twin Barns Loop Trail — one of a handful of trails on the refuge that curved around the park, providing excellent views of wildlife and flora. I was immediately in awe of how untouched the trail seemed (given that we were a mere 30-minute drive from either Tacoma or Olympia), and how much I was driven to slow my pace and take in every inch of its boardwalk.
Since moving here in November of last year, I’ve visited the refuge about four times, and my appreciation for the preservation efforts spearheaded by the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the federal government has only grown. So coming into my Friday evening hike, I was giddy.
We parked our car at the visitor center parking lot around 7 p.m., having took Reservation Road to get to our location (hikers coming from I-5 should note that Brown Farm Road NE, which leads right up to the visitor center, is easily accessible off Exit 114). After paying the $3 visitor fee at the visitor center (and don’t forget your wildlife checklist), we took to the north trail that hugs the refuge’s service trail, called the Twin Barns Loop Trail.
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is named after Nisqually Indian environmental leader Billy Frank Jr., a grassroots conservationist who fought for native fishing rights.
At the beginning of the hike, a canvas of large trees and foliage provides comforting coverage for the boardwalk leading the trail around. Note the dozen-or-so lookouts and vantage points constructed along the trail.
Coming up to our first break in the foliage, we were immediately greeted to an overlook of the swampy waters of the refuge. I personally took a moment to take in the cheeps and murmurs of the birds, which zipped and zoomed in the shallow canopies above. Looking down, we were greeted by a mother gadwall and her little chicklets. They seemed to be sifting through the water for an evening snack.
It wasn’t long before we came across another discovery during a break in the foliage. Eureka! What’s that large, furry creature grooming him or herself in the high grasses? It looked to us at first to be a river otter, but at closer examination we noted it to be a pair of beavers.
More than 250 species of birds, 95 species of fish, seven species of amphibians and 60 insects have been surveyed at the Nisqually Refuge. Information pamphlets and documents on them can be found at the entrance’s visitor center.
Hikers will come to a junction at the trail leading up to the pair of barns. Twin Barns Loop Trail leads around the refuge and tails back to the visitor center. The Nisqually River Overlook Trail provides small glimpses of the delta of the Nisqually River, and the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail leads nearly a mile out on the murky waters of the estuary giving hikers wonderous views of the head of the Nisqually River, Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountain Range and the sound.
If you’re looking to get some steps in, I highly recommend the Nisqually Boardwalk, then travel back to the junction and finish off the Twin Barns Loop Trail. Trails can range in length depending on which combination you plan on taking. According to information from the Washington Trails Association, the length of the refuge trails tallies around 5 miles. Trails include multiple observation platforms and stationary binoculars for viewing wildlife.
Waterfowl, falcons, beavers, turtles, owls, frogs, deer — there’s no shortage of wildlife viewing opportunities at the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. And depending on when you go, there might be some new visitors just waiting to say hello.
Note that jogging, pets, bicycling, camping and fires are prohibited on the refuge’s site, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services. Officials also encourage visitors to stay on designated trails.
Eric Rosane is a reporter with Nisqually Valley News and a local hiking enthusiast. For story ideas on hikes off the beaten path, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.