While our neighbors to the east and south have started to see wildflowers cropping up, most Seattleites need to wait until summer to catch blooms within a two-hour driving radius. Luckily, the Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve offers spring blossoms with an otherworldly landscape and a family-friendly hike.
Mima Mounds: the mystery
The Mima Mounds are located in the Capitol State Forest just south of Olympia. Our family stopped to stretch our legs on the way to a coastal camping trip, but this spot would also make a great day trip from the Seattle area.
A short climb to an observation deck atop the interpretive center delighted my young children right off the bat — they eagerly waited for another group to descend so they could race up the stairs and peek at the mounds from above.
My curious 5-year-old had all kinds of questions about the formation of these dome-shaped prairie features. I took a bit of mischievous joy in telling her that no one knows exactly how they formed. How’s that for an answer to the endless chorus of “Why?”
Exhibits at the base of the observation tower provide several hypotheses: Floods, earthquakes, glacial activity and enthusiastic gophers are among the options. For kid-friendly information on the theories, we loved the cartoon gopher’s walkthrough in the Department of Natural Resources’ colorfully illustrated booklet. We spent a good portion of our walk talking about the different options, but leaned toward a nature-driven explanation — like a flood — since the mounds have relatively even shapes and sizes.
Mima Mounds: hiking
The trail system at Mima Mounds starts with a half-mile ADA-accessible loop. While the observation deck at the interpretive center requires climbing a flight of stairs, a wooden deck at the midpoint of the paved loop offers a ramp so strollers and wheelchairs can get a bird’s-eye view of the prairie.
We needed to burn some energy and opted to branch off to the South Loop trail, which added another 1.9 miles to our hike. I loved that this trail meandered over and around the mounds. While it’s mostly flat and easy for little legs, my son loved running down the gently sloping hills before conking out in the carrier for a nap. Meanwhile, my independent daughter enjoyed running a safe distance ahead of us and peeking out from around corners.
Mima Mounds: wildflowers in bloom
While the unique geology of the site’s layered soils promotes wildflower growth, we have the stewardship of local Native American people to thank for the blooms’ abundance. Blue cama lilies are a traditional food of tribes like the Chehalis. Long before white settlers arrived, the Chehalis people practiced controlled burns of the prairie grasslands to nurture the camas’ growth. The bulbs provide a rich source of carbohydrates and protein, and I’m told they taste like baked pears when cooked properly.
On the day we visited, these delicate beauties joined violets, buttercups and shooting stars in a colorful display. My daughter’s favorite colors of the week are pink, purple and yellow, so she was in heaven with this arrangement!
As with most nature-dependent hikes, timing is everything. The peak blooms typically occur in April and May, but I recommend checking trip reports on the Washington Trails website for updates. This year, a cold spring appears to have pushed the season a bit later, but there were plenty of beautiful flowers in late April to keep my kids entertained.
It was so nice to take an easy family hike through wildflowers in the breezy spring weather that I’m already looking into going back to the area for Prairie Appreciation Day (the second Saturday in May; May 8 this year). Perhaps by then the prairie will be at its peak!
Mima Mounds: If you go
Location: The Mima Mounds Natural Area Preserve is located at 12315 Waddell Creek Rd S.W. in Olympia. You’ll need a Discover Pass ($10 per day or $30 per year) to park in one of about a dozen spots in the parking lot. Driving: Allow roughly 1.5 hours from Seattle.
Hours: April through September 8:30 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily. (October through March, 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.)
Bring: Pack sunscreen and a hat (there is almost no shade on the trail) and a picnic lunch. You’ll find shaded tables to the north of the parking lot.
Care for the prairie: While it’s tempting to gather a bouquet or live out your dreams of twirling through a prairie, please keep the flowers alive for everyone to enjoy by staying on the path and taking only pictures (and memories).
Restrooms: Two vault toilets are located adjacent to the parking area
Nearby fun: Drive 30 minutes north to the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Check out this review for more details.
Learn more: Visit the South Sound Prairies website for more prairie habitats in the area. For more information on blue camas and other traditional Native food sources, check out the Burke Museum’s excellent Food Curriculum Packet.
More to explore in Seattle’s Child:
How to enjoy Washington’s 3 national parks
Look for the gnome homes on Bainbridge Island
Destination playgrounds for your next NW road trip
Originally published April 2021