By the time March rolls around in Thurston County, most of us are ready to get outside and get some fresh air, despite the misty rain and chilly temperatures. Olympia’s Watershed Park is a beautiful and thrifty place to do just that.
Encompassing 153 acres of temperate rain forest on Olympia’s Eastside, Watershed Park was once the source of nearly all of the city’s drinking water. Private wells were built in the Moxlie Creek Springs Basin in the late 1800s and subsequently bought by the City of Olympia in 1917. These wells were operated until the 1950s, when a new municipal water source was established. Remnants of pipes and pumping facilities from the old operation can be seen today along the 1.36 G. Eldon Marshall loop trail that circles a section of the creek in the center of the park.
The city had planned to log the park and sell the property in 1955, but the outcry from local citizens was so great that the case went all the way to the Washington Supreme Court. Margaret McKenny, a local environmental activist and naturalist, led a group called Citizens for the Future in an effort to save the watershed and its natural treasures from logging and development. The group circulated a petition calling for the area’s preservation, and although the City Commission refused to back down, the State Supreme Court issued an order to stop the logging. Finally, on December 13, 1955, Olympians voted overwhelmingly in favor of saving the watershed and preserving it as a park for future generations.
Thanks to these efforts, today the park features a stunning old growth forest of Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, Western red cedar, Western hemlock, red alder and big leaf maple. The temperate rain forest habitat requires at least 50 inches of rain per year and provides a nutrient-rich environment for a variety of local plants, including native mosses, ferns and lichens, as well as skunk cabbage, salmonberry, huckleberry and devil’s club. Dead wood from fallen trees provides food for new trees and other plants to grow. These so-called “nurse logs” can be seen in multiple places along the trail.
The environment here also provides a rich habitat for birds like owls, robins, wrens and woodpeckers, and mammals like foxes and squirrels. Salmon and trout live in the creek.
With all of this wildlife and natural beauty, Watershed Park is a great place to go for an easy family hike. The G. Eldon Marshall trail winds through the heart of the park, with sections of boardwalk over wetlands and bridges that cross Moxlie Creek, and plenty of scenery to enjoy along the way.
Lia Nicolas, 14, likes to come here to walk her dogs and spend time with her family. “It’s a calming walk, and there’s lots of green,” she says. “There’s lots of beautiful things to look at and share with the people you love.”
Pat Stanley likes to take walks in the park with his two sons, ages two and six. “Once every couple weeks, we walk the trail,” he says, “usually the upper part because it’s a convenient walk from our house.” As his older son Milo rolls a soccer ball around in his hands, he adds, “It’s nice and quiet here. People are really courteous. It’s a pretty easy win for the whole family.” Milo says he likes the forest and seeing people, and he likes kicking the soccer ball and bringing his baby brother.
Watershed Park’s trails can be steep in parts, and some sections are even stepped, but there are more accessible crushed rock sections of trail near the pedestrian entrances on Henderson Boulevard near Eskridge, McCormick Court and 22nd Avenue, as well as near the parking entrance on Henderson Boulevard.
The future may bring greater accessibility to these trails, as well as a significant expansion. Thurston County’s Regional Transportation Plan, “What Moves You,” currently in the drafting phase, includes an intended expansion of the Karen Fraser Woodland Trail. This expansion would eventually create an accessible path from Eastside Street to Henderson Boulevard through Watershed Park, and would then follow along the I-5 right-of-way, ultimately connecting with the trail system at Tumwater Historical Park.
While enjoying the trails at Watershed Park, remember to stay on official trails in order to protect and preserve the habitat. Don’t harm or remove any plants or animals, and always pack out any litter. Leashed pets are welcome on the trail, but remember to pick up all pet waste and dispose of it properly. Watershed Park is open from dawn to dusk every day.
A small parking lot is located at 2500 Henderson Boulevard SE. Pedestrian entrances are located at 2829 Henderson Boulevard SE, 1605 Eastside Street SE (there is a restroom here as well), 1201 21st Avenue SE, and on McCormick Court SE.