In the Pacific Northwest, salmon are beloved in our waterways, artwork, cuisine, and the occasional crosswalk. The Washington State Recreation and Conservation Office acknowledge that “Washingtonians rely on salmon for food, recreation, jobs, cultural identity, and social tradition. These iconic fish evoke the best Washington has to offer—pristine water, rich landscapes, a healthy environment, and a thriving natural resource economy.”
In Thurston County, these symbols of determination, renewal, and prosperity return to their birthplace to spawn. Stream Team explains that “every fall, something amazing occurs in streams and rivers in the Pacific Northwest: the return of the adult salmon to freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Their strength and determination to get back to their birth place is a marvel to watch and admire. They migrate thousands of miles from the feeding grounds of the Pacific Ocean back to their natal rivers and streams. The finale includes changing colors and shape, not eating any longer, using stored energy for producing eggs and sperm, fighting the forces of water, jumping obstacles, digging gravel, fighting, spawning, and dying.”
Across the region, there are viewing spots to watch this exciting annual event, with access points and visibility levels for all ages and abilities.
Fifth Avenue Bridge – Downtown Olympia
Perhaps the most centrally located viewpoint is the Fifth Avenue Bridge dam and fish ladder in downtown Olympia. From the middle of August through mid-September, salmon are visible from the boardwalk alongside Bayview Thriftway across to the salmon ladder adjacent to Capitol Lake. Stream Team Salmon Stewards are on-site most evenings and weekends to answer questions. Look for the antics of creative, silly seals gorging on their fall feast.
At the downtown Olympia bridge, the migrating salmon are visible all day but the best times are reported to be during the 3-4 hours before high tide. Consult the Budd Inlet tide tables for day to day specifics.
Tumwater Falls Park
From mid-September to mid-October, take your own upriver journey to Tumwater Falls Park. The looping trail makes for easy viewing of migrating salmon, especially at the lower points, and built-in salmon ladder means aerial acrobatics are common. Tumwater Falls Park also has large fish holding ponds where Stream Team reports you can “watch the fish spawning operation on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings beginning the 3rd Monday in September through early October.”
Tumwater Falls Park also has Salmon Stewards available evenings and weekends as well as mornings of fish spawning operations. Both Tumwater Falls and the downtown Olympia Fifth Avenue bridge explorations are family, stroller, and dog-friendly.
McLane Creek Nature Trail and Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail
Leashed dogs are allowed at the McLane Creek Nature Trail but not encouraged during salmon season as they can scare fish and be exposed to bacteria from eating fish carcasses. An easy hike takes you to two viewing platforms and a bridge where eager naturalists can watch wild chum salmon return home. Here, Salmon Stewards are available weekends from 11:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. from mid-November until early December. Reminder: a Discover Pass is required for parking at the McLane Creek Nature Trail.
The Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail is located midway between Olympia and Shelton and hosts thousands of schoolchildren on field trips each year to view the salmon migration. This is a short, ADA-accessible trail open to the public from 10:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m., weekends in November.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has live online viewings which shows holding pools, fish barriers, and even a streaming Salmon Cam. They also offer hugely addicting Wild Watch Cams of bats, owls, harbor seals, and a variety of birds if you have a few hours to squander.
Before you go, scan the Marine Wildlife Viewing Guidelines of safety tips for you and the fish.
Want to become a regional Salmon Steward or habitat volunteer? Stream Team is always looking for volunteers to monitor and restore habitats or educate the public about local wildlife. Sign up online or call them at 360-438-2672 to register.
Enjoy nature at her glorious, fishy finest, rain or shine, when watching the salmon migrating throughout Thurston County.
Thrifty Thurston highlights inexpensive family fun in Thurston County. The weekly series focuses on family-friendly activities throughout our community. If you have a suggestion for a post, send us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more events and to learn what’s happening in Olympia, Lacey, Tumwater and the surrounding area, visit our complete event calendar.