Thrifty Thurston Explores A Winter Wonderland At The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

At high tide, the Estuary trail is completely over the water for easy waterfowl viewing.


By Kate Scriven

It’s cold outside.  And, many days it’s also pretty wet.  But we are Pacific Northwesterners and despite the weather, there are still many wearing shorts with your down coat.  Don’t let the winter months be a time of hibernation for your family.  Get out and see one of our Thurston County gems, the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, with new eyes.

A Bald Eagle perches on a snag watching for his next meal.

Winter at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is a magical time.  Visibility in the forested areas is increased as trees are bare of their summer leaves.  This allows excellent birding throughout the wooded trails.  Flocks of geese dot the lawns around the barns.  There is a hush about the reserve that makes for a bit more subdued visit as you and your family seek out the refuge’s treasures.

What You’ll See at the Refuge

On the day my family visited, we saw countless “LBGs”, or “little brown guys” as my children have named the countless small birds that call our area home.  Winter is the peak season for waterfowl and 4,000 – 6,000 birds winter in the refuge.  Geese flew in V’s overhead, fed in the marshy tidelands and posed for pictures with my kids.  We watched a wide variety of duck species on the waterways and spotted two herons in the marsh.

A highlight was the majestic bald eagle perched atop a snag, watching for his next meal.   The pile of animal fur and bones at the base of the snag was equally exciting and prompted an excellent life cycle discussion.   Winter is also the peak season for Chum Salmon in the Nisqually River and eagles congregate to feed on the fish as they head upstream.  Visiting the refuge at high tide is recommended to see the most wildlife as they tend to follow the shoreline to feed.

This time of year is the only time you might glimpse the rare snowy owl.  Typically only seen every 5-10 years at the refuge, owls have returned for a second consecutive season.  They are elusive and tend to stay at the far end of the viewing boardwalk and are expected to remain through the end of February.

Be Prepared for a Thurston County Winter’s Day

The pathways and boardwalks are maintained well and while sturdy hiking shoes are recommended, kids can leave their rain boots at home.  The inland areas are fairly protected and the light sprinkles didn’t affect us.  However, when you reach the tidal flats, the wind is a factor, so plan accordingly.

The Refuge’s Visitor Center overlooks a pond where waterfowl are abundant in the winter months.

This mom did NOT plan accordingly and had to give up her own hat and gloves to the ill-equipped 7-year-old, so come prepared.  Be sure to bring:

  • Warm clothes in layers including a waterproof outer layer for showers.
  • Hat, gloves, scarves – The wind can kick up when on the boardwalk area.
  • Backpack with water, snacks, and tissues – Once you head OUT, you must come BACK, too!
  • Stroller – If you have little ones, a stroller with a cozy blanket is just the ticket.  Joggers would be great, but regular style strollers can navigate the trails as well.
  • Camera – Winter’s filtered light and the neutral backdrop of marsh grass make excellent photos.
  • Binoculars – Children are more engaged when they can get up close with the wildlife.  Bring your own or check out a pair from the Visitor’s Center.
  • A Field Guide – Budding naturalists in your family will love to browse a field guide to try and identify the ducks and birds by their markings.
  • A Good Attitude – All parents know that a positive outlook is infectious.
  • Hot Cocoa – Ok, this isn’t a “necessity” but a rest stop on the trail or back at the car with hot cocoa makes everyone happy!
The Blue Heron is a common site in the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge year round.

The Details

You can read more specifics about the NNWR and its history and programs here.  Here are the basic details to get you and your family out enjoying winter in the Refuge.  Located just off I-5, exit 114, access is easy and the cost is $3 for up to 4 adults.  Children 16 and under are FREE!  Leave Fido home on this trip…no pets allowed in the Refuge.

The Visitor Center offers a great place to warm up while viewing educational displays about the area’s wildlife and terrain.  Do note that the Visitor Center is open only Wednesday – Friday, 9am – 4pm.  The Refuge itself is open daily from sunrise to sunset.   During the winter months, the final half-mile of the Estuary Trail (the boardwalk) is closed for waterfowl hunting season but will reopen January 27.

In these chilly months when we tend to clasp our latte protectively and hunker down indoors, it’s important to remember that we live in an area full of year round beauty.  You are just a wool hat and fleece (OK….and a down coat, scarf, and some hand warmers) away from an amazing family outing.


Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

100 Brown Farm Road in Olympia


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