Formerly known as the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and renamed to honor the memory of noted activist Billy Frank Jr.,a Nisqually tribal member who fought for Native American fishing rights and was crucial in helping preserve the entire area as a refuge.
The refuge is an excellent year-round destination for wildlife viewing and photography. It was created in 1974 — thanks in part to Frank Jr's tireless work — to protect the diverse fish and wildlife that call the Nisqually River Delta home. In addition to a myriad bird species, harbor seals, otters, salmon, and many other animals enjoy these expansive tideflats, and interested hikers can while away many hours watching active wildlife.
Before you start your hiking, you'll want to be sure and have binoculars. Bring your own, or check them out from the visitor center, open Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Binoculars are important; they will allow you to enjoy close-up views of the many species of dabbling and diving ducks that stop to feed in the wetlands or the several species of raptors, such as owls, harriers and kestrels, that survey the fields for prey.
There are also beavers, weasels, and minks present, along with frogs and butterflies. Nisqually offers a complete ecosystem worth spending some time observing and appreciating. Be sure to grab an information pamphlet, which includes a map of the hiking trails in the area.
There are several hiking options in the refuge, but the most exciting is the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail. This trail starts at the visitor center and is accessed by walking one-half mile on the Twin Barnes Loop trail. After half a mile of hiking along an old boardwalk that sits just above the wetlands, hikers will reach a fork for the Twin Barns Observation Platform.
This is a good stopping point for hikers with young ones. Venture out to the platform and enjoy views out to Puget Sound to the west and the tidelands below your feet. There are also two Port-A-Potties available here, one standard and one that is handicap accessible.
To continue onto the boardwalk, take the right fork. Just before the trail comes to a T, a gravel path veers off to the left. This path, called the Brown Farm Dike Trail, leads to the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail. Jutting far out into the delta, the boardwalk runs a full mile, taking hikers above the water when the tide is in. When it's out, folks will be treated to mudflats peppered with shorebirds searching for food.
The trail features an observation tower, an enclosed viewing platform, several push-outs for those who want to linger with their binoculars and two covered viewing platforms. There are thoughtful touches, like the areas with lower railings and mesh coverings to allow unobstructed views for kids and those in wheelchairs, as well as informative signs all along the trail.
The highlight is the Puget Sound Viewing Platform at the end of the boardwalk, which provides a 360-degree view, including McAllister Creek, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and several islands in Puget Sound.
Returning the way you came, either retrace your steps, or complete the Twin Barnes Loop, taking time to detour out to the Riparian Forest Overlook just before arriving to the parking lot.
Trails at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge are open sunrise to sunset every day, and there is a $3 per car vehicle charge. Have cash on hand -- it's the easiest way to pay for the permit. Parts of this trail will have an annual seasonal closure from October to January for waterfowl hunting season. And although Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is not open to hunting, waterfowl hunting does occur on Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife land immediately adjacent to the trail.
There is a wide graveled path leading from the parking area to the raised dike which is also packed gravel. Past the dike, a long, wide boardwalk extends into the Sound. There is also a boardwalk leaving from the parking area and creating a loop with the graveled path.