It was one of those blustery winter afternoons when drizzly skies clear and open up to the sun … a perfect day for a hike with kids! We headed off to explore the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in Olympia.
The wildlife refuge, which offers an easy walk along miles of boardwalk, is a must-see destination for all ages and hiking abilities.
You’ll want to remember your binoculars to find all the wildlife — and your mask to keep safe on these busy trails. The refuge is stroller-friendly and wheelchair-accessible.
The wildlife refuge hike with kids
The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is known for its many species of native and migratory birds and animals. With more than 160 species of birds living and passing through this region, you are bound to spot several different varieties each time you hike the trail. The refuge is also home to beavers, otters, reptiles, amphibians, harbor seals, mink and many more animals that use this biodiverse area to feed, hibernate and stop through on migration to the south.
The hike with kids: Listening for the birds
From the parking lot, we were able to see scores of birds flying about. Both my children (Nikhil, 9, and Simon, 7) were eager to find where they were landing in the park.
“Whoa! Let’s follow them!” said Simon.
We started at the trailhead, just beyond a sign that explained the importance of social distancing while at the park. Walking on the boardwalk along the Twin Barns Loop Trail, we passed a large pond.
It was a winter day, so most animals were probably hibernating, but we stopped along the way and listened for anything that might be on the water or in the woods. “I hear a frog croaking and that duck is cleaning its feathers,” observed Nikhil. Listen closely at the refuge and you can hear the calls of the sparrows and the the crunch of leaves beneath their feet.
Moving along, we stopped to observe more small birds. We had fun noting their colors and imitating their chirps. Every so often we would come across signage that described a particular bird, or a board that explained the different songs that various birds sang, along with graphs of their vocal pitches.
“Look! Cattails!” said Simon, spotting reeds standing tall in the mud with tightly bound brown seeds at the top. We stopped there for a snack (essential for a hike with kids), sitting on the benches, talking about what we had seen so far and what we hoped to see next.
With snack time over, we walked on, taking a left at the fork in the path, heading to the Riparian Forest Overlook. Photographers with long-lens cameras and tripods stopped in the middle of the trail, prepared to take pictures of a migratory bird waiting in the old growth forest. We tried to spy this particular bird, but with no luck.
Getting back on the path, we headed on to the Twin Barns Observation Platform, which offers a beautiful view of the marshlands and mudflats. This is another great spot — speckled with groups of ducks foraging for food — to rest little legs or take those Insta-worthy pictures.
Come back down the path and take a detour to see the Twin Barns statue. Over 100 years ago, this area was part of a working farm. Now the remaining remnants stand as monuments from that time period. You won’t be able to go in, but we peeked in the windows and made guesses as to what could possibly be in there now. If you’d like to take a break, there’s an area with picnic benches set under tall trees. Be on the lookout for feathers on the ground. We found many soft brown and white feathers, possibly from an owl.
Swing around the paved path to find the resident eagle. You will need binoculars to get a clear view of the bird perched way up high, but we were able to spot its nest and its white head turning about. Stay for a while and you may see it expand its beautiful wings in flight.
From here you’ll want to follow the paved path back onto the boardwalk. Check out the tree that has a huge hole in its middle. My kids stuck their heads in to see what might be hiding in there. “I see a toy!” screamed Simon. A lone Lego Minifigure was strategically placed just out of reach.
Back on the boardwalk, we headed over to the Nisqually River Overlook and watched the river rush past and another eagle (or the very same one from before) flying overhead. Trekking back, we followed the fork to the right, onto the Brown Farm Dike Trail. Take the gravel path between mudflats and yellow marshlands over to another boardwalk trail.
On this part of the walk, we were impressed to see many rafts of ducks flying from one pool of water to another, in their signature V shape, skimming the surface as they landed to dunk their heads for food. We stopped at many points to count and observe the different types of ducks while also taking in the view of the Olympic Mountains, Mount Rainier and the many islands of Puget Sound on the other side.
Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk
In the distance we could see the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk trail, an awesome structure extending into the Nisqually delta. You don’t want to miss this part of the hike, an absolutely gorgeous walk along the water. Stop to observe the shorebirds in the distance flitting from one area to another. A busy path, the boardwalk has three overlooks and many push-outs for visitors to stop and observe.
As we walked over the bridge, the sun was setting, making it an extraordinary journey with the light changing on the horizon. Groups of families and children passed us, stopping to take photos, write in their journals and draw pictures.
The final outlook, the Puget Sound Viewing Platform, was closed when we visited. It will open in February, when waterfowl hunting season closes.
We walked back, off the boardwalk and back through the mudflats, passing the Twin Barns and the eagle’s nest, heading back to the visitors center. We wanted to see the Nature Explore Area behind the visitors center, as well as the Environmental Education Center, but both were closed.
We stood on platforms and observed the logs and different plants that were growing in the water. Colorful placards illustrating the many animals that come through the area (and may be seen at different times of the year) were on either side of the observation deck. We studied the pictures and the graphs and agreed that we would come back to do this hike at least once every season.
Favorite parts of the day were spotting the eagle and walking along the estuary boardwalk.
It was a memorable trip, and Nikhil still talks about this hike: “I just really loved it there.”
The refuge is a little over an hour away from Seattle. It’s located 8 miles east of Olympia and offers a great hike with kids.
The drive on I-5 was an easy commute on a Wednesday afternoon. A narrow, paved road leads into the park. There are two parking lots located on either side of the visitors center. Both are not too far from the trailhead.
There is an entrance fee of $3 per four adults, with children 16 and under entering for free.
Remember to bring cash, since there is no credit card station. Payment is made at the information booth in front of the visitors center. (Envelopes are provided to place in a drop box).
The visitors center is closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. When it’s open, it offers access to education, art exhibits and a gift shop.
Portable bathrooms are located in the parking lot and by the Twin Barns statues.
Masks are recommended.
To preserve animal habitats, the park asks that you leave your pets at home. They are not allowed on the trails.
The refuge has 4 miles of trails, with portions of the Estuary Boardwalk Trail closed seasonally during the waterfowl hunting season. Hunting happens on nearby land and not at the estuary.