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Visit a Wildlife Refuge This Spring

Ten Wildlife Refuges to explore for a springtime ramble.

Often overlooked as places to hike in spring, Washington's network of wildlife refuges and wildlife areas make a fantastic network of trails to try while snow and mud dominate the higher country. This is one of the best times of year to see migrating birds, deer and much more. (It's also when ticks start making an appearance on trail, so be prepared!)

Many of these places are accessible to hikers and offer a range of opportunities, from rugged settings offering solitude to barrier-free boardwalks and trails in more developed areas.

Each of the hikes below are good bets for seeing a variety of wildlife during the spring. Bring your binoculars!

Tips for wildlife watching

  • Observe wildlife from a distance. Do not follow or approach them. Wild animals are particularly sensitive to humans in their habitat during mating season, while resting, or when raising their young. 
  • Never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health, alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.
  • Secure your food. Protect wildlife and your food by storing rations and trash securely.

TURNBULL NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Eastern Washington  Spokane Area/Coeur d'Alene
Length: 5.5 miles, roundtrip
Wildlife: moose, elk, tundra swans, western bluebird, pintails and more

Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge
Waterfowl and birds are plentiful along the northern part of the trail, especially when it goes through the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by geezerhiker.

More than 200 varieties of bird and waterfowl have been identified in the wildlife refuge and moose, deer and other smaller mammals are often spotted in the Amber Lake area nearby.

Hikers can stick to several short interpretive trails within the refuge or opt to traverse the 23-mile railroad right-of-way that is managed by Washington State Parks. The Columbia Plateau Trail State Park bisects the Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and passes through channeled scablands, lakes and high desert sage country. Chances for seeing a variety of wildlife is high, especially early in the morning or in the evening.

> Plan your visit to Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge and the Columbia Plateau Trail State Park using WTA's Hiking Guide


Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge - Mill Butte

Location: Eastern Washington — Selkirk Range
Length: 4.5 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 600 feet

Little Pend Oreille National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by trip reporter dappt.

The 40,200 acre Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge includes open ponderosa and lodge pole pine grasslands and views of large errata dropped by receding glaciers. Hikers can summit Mill Butte via a short spur trail of just 0.13 miles. From the summit, the Kettle Range is visible, as are Calispell Peak, Old Dominion Mountain, and the Huckleberry Mountains.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


Columbia National Wildlife Refuge - Crab Creek

Location: Central Washington Tri-Cities
Length: 2.6 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 40 feet

Upper Hampton Lake. Photo by David Hagen.

Broad, rolling sand dunes, emerald-green lakes, a wide, gurgling blue creek, and towering mountains await you in the 17,000 acres of the Crab Creek Wildlife Area. The longest creek in Washington, this area is home to a variety of protected wildlife, a respite from the sloppy spring slopes west of the Cascades.

Large flocks of migrating sandhill cranes use this area during their migration at the end of March.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge

Location: Central Washington Yakima
Length: 2.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal
Wildlife: great-horned owl, tree swallows, cinnamon teal, yellow-headed blackbirds, black-necked stilts, and a variety of songbirds

Toppenish National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by trip reporters Bob and Barb.

Enjoy two miles of hiking trails at Toppeninsh National Wildlife Refuge. There is a variety of habitat, from native grasses to shrub steppe, to riparian areas and ponds that support many types of wildlife. Purple irises, nootka rose, and hopsage are among the flora you might see here as well. This is a very pleasant area to walk and observe wildlife.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


CONBOY LAKE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: South Cascades Mount Adams Area
Length: 2.0 miles, roundtrip
Wildlife: Rocky Mountain elk, sandhill cranes, Mardon skippers, pine martens, bats

The view from the Willard Springs Trail in the Conboy Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bob and Barb. 

From the Willard Springs Trail at Conboy Lake, hikers can watch elk grazing meadows with stunning Mount Adams in the background or catch sandhill cranes as they pass through. If you're incredibly lucky, you might even spot an elusive mammal like the mountain lion or pine marten. In any case, you can't miss on wildlife here, as Conboy Lake NWR is home to 7 amphibian, 10 reptile, 32 mammal and 165 bird species.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


RIDGEFIELD NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Southwest Washington Vancouver Area
Length: Oaks to Wetland Loop: 2 miles; Kiwa Loop: 1.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 100 feet
Best Season: Oaks trail is open all year; Kiwa Trail - May to September
Wildlife: sandhill cranes, songbirds, migrating Canadian geese, swans, hawks, and more

A bird at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bob and Barb.

More than 5,000 acres of marshes, grasslands and wooded areas are home to more than one hundred species of birds, waterfowl and fish. Two trails and a loop road provide public access to this serene area just a few miles west of I-5. Spring and fall are the best seasons to see migrating songbirds and shorebirds, but summer offers the additional attraction of the barrier-free Kiwa Loop Trail. WTA and our hardworking volunteers have recently been working alongside refuge staff to design a new, sustainable trail along the northern loop of the Oaks to Wetland Trail — be sure to check it out.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


STEIGERWALD LAKE NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Southwest Washington — Vancouver Area
Length: 2.8 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge Photo by BeaverDawg.jpeg
The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a spectacular spot for winter birdwatching. Photo by BeaverDawg.

Both casual and avid birdwatchers can enjoy the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Ducks, geese, blue herons and even a few bald eagles have been spotted in the area during the winter months. Although part of the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail is closed for wildlife from October 1 to April 30, the East Dike Trail is a wonderful alternative for hikers seeking to extend their journey. Plus, the trail network here was expanded in 2020, providing more miles of wildlife viewing.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


Grays Harbos National wildlife Refuge - Bowerman Basin

Location: Southwest Washington — Long Beach Area
Distance: 1.3 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: minimal

Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge
Photo by Anna Roth.

The short boardwalk at Bowerman Basin provides a quiet, contemplative place to enjoy the wildlife resting at the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. On the loop, admire the warped driftwood in the basin, or take advantage of the binoculars mounted on the boardwalk to get a closer look at the wildlife here.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


DUNGENESS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Olympic Peninsula Northern Coast
Distance: 11.0 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 130 feet
Wildlife: shorebirds, harbor seals, orcas, eagles, snowy owls and more

The Dungeness Spit is beautiful on a clear and windless day. Photo by jhoppe20.

Extending more than five miles out into the Strait of Juan De Fuca, the Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. And it's still growing! The Spit provides shelter from the currents and wind for all sorts of creatures. Seals regularly haul themselves up onto the beach, and since it extends so far into the Strait, hardy hikers can sometimes spot orcas.

Getting down to beach isn't hard. But if you're trying to get to the lighthouse at the end, be sure to consult tide tables and pack the Ten Essentials. The Spit is so narrow in places that high tide can breach it, and it can be challenging to hike on sand, rock and driftwood. It's really just a terrific place to wander and explore!

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide


NISQUALLY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE

Location: Puget Sound and Islands Seattle-Tacoma Area
Length: 4 miles, roundtrip
Elevation Gain: 10 feet
Wildlife: bitterns, herons, seals, salmon, rabbits, geese and ducks and lots more

The new Nisqually Boardwalk. Photo by klyph76.

Why Go: A three-year project to restore the Nisqually estuary has culminated with the opening of a new one-mile boardwalk that runs atop the tidal estuary and offers hikers an unprecedented window into the way the tide changes the landscape and provides excellent opportunities to spot wildlife and birds. A 4-mile round-trip from the visitor center, the Nisqually Estuary Boardwalk Trail has several viewing push-outs and a special viewing platform at the end that provides a 360-degree view of McAllister Creek, the Olympics, Mount Rainier and several islands in Puget Sound. Spring is one of the best times to visit - mammals and birds are particularly active after the long winter.

> Plan your visit using WTA's Hiking Guide