Often overlooked as places to hike in late winter or early spring are Washington's network of wildlife refuges and wildlife areas. This is one of the best times of year to see migrating birds, deer and much more.
Our state features 21 National Wildlife Refuges - most of which offer hiking or walking opportunities. Washington's Department of Fish & Wildlife manages more than 900,000 acres of land for wildlife, and county parks also manage public land for wildlife. Many of these places are accessible to hikers and offer a range of opportunities - from rugged settings offering solitude to barrier-free boardwalks and trails in more developed areas.
Each of the six hikes below are good bets for seeing a variety of wildlife during the spring. Bring your binoculars!
Skagit Wildlife Area
Location: near La Conner
Distance: 2 miles
Type of Trail: dirt trail
Best Season: Winter and spring; stay clear of north section Oct-Jan for hunting season
Management: Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife; Vehicle Use Pass required
Type of Wildlife: snow geese, trumpter & tundra swans, pheasants, bald eagles, Chinook salmon and more.
Why Go: Come to see the gorgeous migrating snow geese, trumpeter and tundra swans. The Skagit Wildlife Area allows you to walk dikes along the shores of Skagit Bay. Before you go, read up about the birds and the migration journey they make. No wonder they are hungry! For several months, Skagit dikes and fields are full of the white birds feeding, soaring, and landing. The humming and whirring sounds they make are fascinating, but on a clear day your reward will also be the views of the North Cascades and Mount Baker hovering above the bays and mud flats.
Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge
Location: Olympic Peninsula near Sequim
Distance: 1 mi. r.t. to beach; up to 10 miles r.t. to the end of the Spit
Type of Trail: dirt, rock and driftwood
Management/Passes: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service; $3/family entrance fee
Best Season: Year-round
Type of Wildlife: shorebirds, harbor seals, orcas, eagles, snowy owls and more
Why Go: Extending more than five miles out into the Strait of Juan De Fuca, the Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. And it's still growing! The Spit provides shelter from the currents and wind for all sorts of creatures. Seals regularly haul themselves up onto the beach, and since it extends so far into the Strait, hardy hikers can sometimes spot orcas.
Getting down to beach isn't hard. But if you're trying to get to the lighthouse at the end, be sure to consult tide tables and pack the Ten Essentials. The Spit is so narrow in places that high tide can breach it, and it can be challenging to hike on sand, rock and driftwood. It's really just a terrific place to wander and explore!
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Location: North of Olympia
Distance: 4 miles roundtrip
Type of Trail: Most is barrier-free boardwalk
Management: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Best Season: spring & fall
Type of Wildlife: bitterns, herons, seals, salmon, rabbits, geese and ducks and lots more.
Why Go: A three-year project to restore the Nisqually estuary has culminated with the opening of a new one-mile boardwalk that runs atop the tidal estuary and offers hikers an unprecedented window into the way the tide changes the landscape and provides excellent opportunities to spot wildlife and birds. A 4-mile round-trip from the visitor center, the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail has several viewing push-outs and a special viewing platform at the end that provides a 360-degree view of McAllister Creek, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and several islands in Puget Sound. Spring is one of the best times to visit - mammals and birds are particularly active after the long winter.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Location: Near Vancouver, WA
Distance: Oaks to Wetland Loop - 2 miles; Kiwa Loop - 1.2 miles
Type of Trail: Oaks - rocky & uneven undeveloped terrain; Kiwa - barrier-free crushed gravel
Management: US Fish & Wildlife Service; $3/vehicle entrance fee
Best Season: Oaks - all year; Kiwa - May to September
Type of Wildlife: sandhill cranes, songbirds, migrating Canadian geese, swans, hawks, and more
Why Go: More than 5000 acres of marshes, grasslands and wooded areas are home to more than one hundred species of birds, waterfowl and fish. Two trails and a loop road provide public access to this serene area just a few miles west of I-5. Spring and fall are the best seasons to see migrating songbirds and shorebirds, but summer offers the additional attraction of the barrier-free Kiwa Loop Trail.
Umtanum Canyon - LT Murray Recreation Area
Location: South of Ellensburg
Distance: 6-10 miles roundtrip
Type of Trail: Primitive trailbed
Management: Washington State Department of Natural Resources; $5 day use parking fee (BLM)
Best Season: Spring
Type of Wildlife: Big horn sheep, rabbits, marmots, quail, grouse, beaver, rattlesnakes (in summer), ticks (always!)
Why Go: If the possibility of seeing big horn sheep isn't reason enough to go, then how about spring wildflowers (peaks in May), a desert creek, beaver activity and solitude? This is truly a desert gem that doesn't get a lot of foot traffic.
The trail starts with a suspension bridge over the Yakima River and winds up a canyon. The creek is a big draw for wildlife, and about two miles up the trail you may just run into the resident herd of big horn sheep. But that's not the only attraction. Keep your eyes on Umtanum Creek for beavers; they've been quite busy along here building dams. The trail is well-maintained for the first three miles but becomes brushy thereafter. It also criss-crosses the creek several times, so you may opt to turn back at this point. Or camp! This is a nice place to do an overnight.
Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge
Location: near Spokane
Management: US Fish & Wildlife Service; $3/vehicle access fee
Type of Trail: smooth & level
Best Season: spring
Type of Wildlife: moose, elk, tundra swans, western bluebird, pintails and more
Why Go: More than 200 varieties of bird and waterfowl have been identified in the wildlife refuge and moose, deer and other smaller mammals are often spotted in the Amber Lake area nearby.
Hikers can stick to several short interpretive trails within the refuge or opt to traverse the 23-mile railroad right-of-way that is managed by Washington State Parks. The Columbia Plateau Trail State Park bisects the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and passes through channeled scablands, lakes and high desert sage country. Chances for seeing a variety of wildlife is high, especially early in the morning or in the evening.