Travelers may admire the view of the Capitol dome from the expressway or dip in for a bite to eat but otherwise, Olympia is often lost on the road heading south. A closer look reveals that Washington's capital city has much more than a drop-in to offer families, especially at the height of summer.
The city and its close neighbors, Lacey and Tumwater, make up a triad hinged on Budd Inlet at the southernmost tip of Puget Sound. As the state's capital and the closest of the three to the water, Olympia naturally serves as the hub for the tri-city area while still maintaining all the charm of a small town.
Planned by Maine native Edmund Sylvester, the lively downtown branches out from the city's town square, Sylvester Park. Grid streets are lined with trees, with unique local businesses filling almost every storefront. The city also boasts an incredible palate of choices for viewing wildlife, making it the perfect spot for enjoying a summer day trip.
Olympia Farmers Market
The crown jewel of outdoor fun in Olympia is the Olympia Farmers' Market, now in its 34th year. Open-air carts serve up frozen treats to kids clasping balloon animals or showing off painted faces. Visitors find refuge from the sun (or occasional summer rain shower) in the covered market, where stalls house fresh produce, locally baked goods, cheese, seafood and handmade wares from 120 vendors hailing from a four-county radius. Seven restaurant stalls provide an array of choices for on-site meals, and visitors enjoy live music every day of the season. Grab a bite by the stage or nibble a pastry and admire the plants in Gallacci Gardens, a viewing garden at the east end of the market maintained by the Thurston County Master Gardener Program.
IF YOU GO
Where: 700 Capitol Way North
When: Open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Thursday through Sunday, April through October; Saturday and Sunday, November through December 20. Kids' Day: July 11. Animal Awareness Day: July 25.
Contact:Wednesday through Sunday during Market season. 360-352-9096; www.olympiafarmersmarket.com
Percival Landing and the Heritage Park Fountain
Along Olympia's historic boardwalk, visitors can cool off and play in the shadow of the Capitol building for a dose of downtown fun.
A walk toward the water from the Farmers' Market opens onto Port Plaza at the north end of Olympia's Percival Landing boardwalk along Budd Inlet. A lookout tower is open for climbing and shows off a spectacular view. Below, a small, pebbly beach is the perfect spot for tossing rocks. The roughly mile-long dock was originally built in 1860 and later acquired by the city. The public boardwalk was completed in 1988. Walk down on the docks for a glimpse of jellyfish, crabs and other sea life. Follow the boardwalk toward downtown to a playground and gorgeous view of the mooring boats. Add some culture to your stroll and join a free waterfront public art tour to learn about the sculptures along Percival Landing.
Bring a swimsuit and get ready for some good, cool fun. From Percival Landing, visitors can walk across the street to play among 47 waterspouts that make up the Heritage Park Fountain. Streams of water rip through the air at different intervals, to the squeals of delighted kids. Ready for a break? Head next door to Olympia's fair trade store and café, Traditions, for a scoop of Olympic Mountain Ice Cream, made just north of Olympia in Shelton.
IF YOU GO
Where: Percival Landing Boardwalk runs parallel to Columbia Street and Water Street between the Farmers' Market and Fourth Avenue. Heritage Park Fountain, 330 5th Ave. S.W.
When: Fountain, 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily. Closed Wednesday. Waterfront Public Art Tours, Saturdays, July 11 through September 26, 11 a.m., starting at the Farmers' Market Bell at the south end of the Market. Meet the artists on the July 11 kickoff tour.
Contact: Parks, Arts and Recreation for the City of Olympia. 360-753-8380. For information on public art tours, go to http://olympiawa.gov/events-and-activities.aspx and click on Events.
Monarch Sculpture Park
Try the whimsical Monarch Contemporary Art Center and Sculpture Park for a taste of contemporary art fused with the great outdoors. The nonprofit outdoor gallery is the creation of local resident and sculptor Myrna Orsini and features more than 100 bold, touchable sculptures. Look up at towers of angular steel, picnic under a handful of giant pick-up sticks, glimpse totems shying in the woods, and hammer away on gongs and chimes in the Sound Garden.
The park is home to works by local and visiting artists such as Lee Kelly of Portland and Robert Wick of Arizona. The life work of sculptor, painter and University of Washington art professor Valentin Welman also belongs to the park. The park's current featured sculptor is Bill Wilson of Centralia, who creates bigger-than-life sculptures out of recycled steel. In addition to the outdoor park, an indoor gallery is full of magnificent sculptures and painting. The center also hosts artist-residents and rents out space for events. Immediately adjacent to the Chehalis Western Bike Trail, Monarch is a magical place for families to merge appreciation for the outdoors and the visual arts.
IF YOU GO
Where: 8431 Waldrick Road S.E.
When: Dawn to dusk year round. Indoor gallery open by appointment only.
Cost: Free. Donations benefit the park and may be placed in a donation box at the entrance to the park.
Contact: 360-264-2408; www.scattercreek.com/~monarchpark.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
At the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, a haven for birders that's run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, visitors can hear the deep roll of toads, take a peek at wood ducks or spy an eagle in the heights. Since about 80 percent of estuaries (where freshwater empties into a body of salt water) have been lost to development in the South Puget Sound, the refuge at Nisqually is vitally important as a habitat for migrating birds and other wildlife. The one-mile Twin Barns Loop Trail is the perfect length for little legs.
A longstanding 5.5-mile trail was permanently closed in May to allow the estuary to be restored as part of the Nisqually Delta Restoration Project, but families can still "visit" the mudflat habitat via an indoor model display at the visitor center. Indoor resources also include a table model of the watershed surrounding the Nisqually River, educational videos and even binoculars (available on loan) for bird watching on the trail.
IF YOU GO
Where: 100 Brown Farm Road (follow the signs off Interstate 5, exit 114).
When: Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Refuge office, Monday through Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; visitor center, Wednesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost: $3 per day per family; annual family passes $12.
Contact: 360-753-9467; www.fws.gov/Nisqually.
OTHER OLYMPIA-AREA ATTRACTIONS
Whittle – Paint stripes on a race car, decorate a mobile or add some color to a custom-made stacking toy at this, one of Olympia’s newest and most innovative shops. Children and adults use exclusively nontoxic paints and finishes on wooden toys and projects made from domestic, sustainably farmed woods. All 60+ toys and other projects are designed and cut in-house by the shop’s owner and creator, Kyle Flynn. Dozens of projects are available for under $20. 116 Capitol Way North. 360-918-2040;www.whittleoly.com.
The Hands On Children’s Museum is a perennial favorite. About 106,000 visitors get their fill of pretend play and creative fun here every year. Kids can make up their own puppet show, move “food” from garden to grocery, play in the water or experiment with gears any time of year. Check out its plans for a new and improved museum that’s scheduled to open in fall 2011. 106 11th Ave. S.W., just off I-5. Open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Non-member prices: Adults $7.95, seniors (55 and older) $6.95, children ages 2 and older $7.95, children ages 12-24 months $4.95, children under 12 months free. 360-956-0818;www.hocm.org.
The State Capital Museum – Kids can step into a re-created Salish Tribal Winter House or Plank House and explore other exhibits at this museum. Its newest display, “Washington Children Love Their Pets,” features historical photographs of children with their furry and feathered friends. Open Wednesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Cost: Families (2 adults and up to 4 children) $5, or adults (18 and older) $2, students (ages 7 to 18) $1, children 6 and younger free. 211 S.W. 21st Ave. 360-753-2580;www.washingtonhistory.org/scmoc.
Washington State Legislative Building – Admire the Capitol dome from the inside and refresh your Washington history during a guided tour of this gorgeous building. Free, hourlong tours for the public are offered daily on the hour, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. 210 11th Ave. S.W. For group tour information, call 360-902-8880;www.ga.wa.gov/visitor/guide.htm.
Tumwater Falls Park – Walk along the Deschutes River at this 15-acre park. The shady path running along the final portion of the river ends at Tumwater Falls, where the river plummets dramatically into Capitol Lake. Attend the dedication for the installation of eight new signs depicting life in the settlement of Tumwater, originally located where the park sits today, Saturday, July 11, 1 p.m. Starting in mid-September, visitors can witness the return of the salmon. Contact: Olympia Tumwater Foundation, 360-943-2550;www.olytumfoundation.org/park.
Lattin’s Cider Mill – A 20-minute drive from downtown, this mill is home to award-winning apple cider. Visit the farm, open year-round, and sample cold cider and fresh pastries or shop the country market of vegetables and fruits, syrups, honey and ready-to-bake frozen pies. Kids come face-to-face with farm animals and try their skills at navigating the farm’s free year-round maze. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Sunday (June 1 through December 31), 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. 9402 Rich Road S.E. 360-491-7328; www.lattinscider.com.
Wolf Haven International, just 15 miles south of Olympia, provides families a way to see and learn about wolves up close. Observe Gray, Mexican Gray and Red wolves as well as coyotes on guided walking tours year round. Hour-long tours are best for kids ages 10 and older. Tours begin every hour on the hour. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday noon to 3 p.m. The gift shop is open until 4 p.m. The sanctuary is closed Tuesday. Cost: Adults $9, seniors $8, kids 3 through 12 $7. Wildlife Festival (all ages) features eco-scavenger hunt, live entertainment, face painting, art projects and storytelling, among other activities; Saturday, July 11, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. No fee to enter. Fifteen-minute walking tours for children 5 and older, $5. Call ahead or go to the Web site to reserve a spot for overnight camping, and slumber to the howls of the wolves at the festival or during Saturday Howl-Ins during the month of August. 3111 Offut Lake Road S.E., Tenino. 800-448-9653; www.wolfhaven.org
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer and mother of two. She and her family are grateful to be able to enjoy Olympia activities all year long. She blogs on motherhood and social issues at www.writethejourney.wordpress.com.