Stretching over twenty miles through the prairies and forests of Thurston County, the Chehalis Western Trail is a local gem. Ideal for a day of walking, biking, riding your horse or running, the trail is full of history, incredible local beauty and, above all, makes for an ideal way to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. With deer, birds, butterflies and a plethora of wildflowers and local plants to enjoy, this classic rails-to-trails path is sure to reconnect you with the incredible surroundings found all around Thurston County. Whether you adventure along the entire trail or stick to your favorite scenic stretch, the Chehalis Western Trail has something for everyone and provides a perfect way to get outdoors, no matter the season.
Today, we take this 21 mile trail for granted, often giving it only a glance before searching for something more out of the way to walk or bike along. However, the Chehalis Western Trail is part of the reason why we are all here, why our communities grew strong and why the South Puget Sound is populated and developed. Before the trail became a family-friendly recreation destination, it was once part of Weyerhaeuser’s mighty timber infrastructure, connecting the South Puget Sound with the lush forests of the Cascade Mountains and foothills.
Operating as a functional train route from 1926 until the mid 1980s, the route now, just as it did then, runs from Rainier to Woodard Bay along the Puget Sound. Before the railway the region was sparsely populated; Olympia had just 7,000 residents in 1920. Once the railway was completed, however, Olympia’s population nearly doubled, and the region never looked back. Thurston County’s population went from 17,000 in 1910 to 31,000 by 1930, demonstrating the impact that the timber industry had on the region. Once the 1970s rolled around and the timber industry slowed, the railway now known as the Chehalis Western Trail become less used, eventually closing for good in the middle of the 1980s.
Wide, paved and accessible to nearly all, the Chehalis Western Trail is easy to get to and perfect for walking, biking or just hanging out and enjoying a picnic lunch. There are four trailhead facilities that offer parking, restrooms and picnic areas, with the most appealing two found at Chambers Lake and Woodard Bay. The rest of the trail is mostly amenity free, with a few sporadic restrooms scattered along the trail. Otherwise, the trail is mostly untouched, weaving through neighborhoods and nature, reinforcing our close relationship with the wild. As Thurston County’s website says, “With spectacular views the trail system provides excellent opportunities for users to enjoy a tranquil and refreshing outdoor recreation experience any time of the year.”
While each of us may find our favorite location for scenic beauty along the Chehalis Western Trail, there are four scenic highlights that need to be observed in every season of the year. From South County up to the Sound, these beautiful and unique destinations are perfect for the family, helping solidify the natural and cultural value of the trail.
Woodard Bay and Blue Heron Rookery
We start with arguably the most popular destination – Woodard Bay and the Blue Heron Rookery. At the northern terminus of the CWT, the trail reaches the old port section of the logging railroad, now a transformed natural wonderland that is home to seals, otters, eagles and a nesting ground to blue herons. Next to the end of the CWT, there is a seasonally-opened path leading to the water, passing under a blue heron rookery. Across the bay the trails and viewpoints of Woodard Bay await your short jaunt and exploration.
Not to be overshadowed, the Chambers Lake section of the trail is pretty gorgeous, especially on still days when the water beautifully reflects the trees, blue sky and puffy white clouds drifting by. For nearly a mile, the trail passes along the waterway, providing access to Chambers Lake Park and all of the amenities found there. This is also a great place to park and use as a starting point for a more urban exploration of the miles of trail.
Monarch Sculpture Park (now closed)
If you long for more open air and a less noisy section of the trail, head south, away from the cars and people. Down here the prairies of south Thurston County offer open air, fantastic birding, wildflowers, butterflies and a slice of solitude. The southern end of the Chehalis Western Trail leads to dramatic views and side trips, including those found by the Monarch Contemporary Art Center and Sculpture Park. While still closed until new owners renovate the area, the park reveals a few sculptures visible along the trail, encouraging a desire for the area to open soon.
Finally, those hoping for river views full of bird and deer sightings should drive out to the Chehalis Western trail near East Olympia Elementary. Heading south from this parking area, the trail reaches the Deschutes River in a few short and scenic miles, offering benches and viewpoints to gaze out at the flowing waters of our local river. Between miles 12.5 and 15.5 the trail is typically empty, aside from the wildlife that calls the more forested region its home.
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.