Washington is for Wildlife Lovers! Here are our favorite places to see wildlife in Western Washington State!
Washington State is beautiful in its own right, with lush conifer forests, open prairies filled with wildflowers, alpine vistas, teeming waterways, scrub-steppe landscape, and so much more. Three years wasn’t enough time to spend in this beautiful part of the United States, but even a short visit will have you wanting to come back for more!
Lovers of wildlife and wildlife watching will enjoy everything Washington has to offer. Here’s our list of our favorite places to spot wildlife in western Washington!
The beautiful waterways of Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge at sunset. Photo by Christa Rolls
Birds and Mammals at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a little-known gem in Washington. Named after the influential Nisqually Tribe leader and activist, Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually, Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is the perfect place to retreat into nature and see some great bird life and other wildlife.
Wooden walkways and gravel paths take visitors along the marshy waterways of the Nisqually Reach and into wooded oases. Birds can be see here year-round, where all manner of species, from Rufous Hummingbirds to Great-horned Owls, build their nests in the spring and summer, and waterbirds and shorebirds of all kinds can be seen in the winter. Bald Eagles search the muddy flats for fish at low tide, and the Olympic Mountains, and even the peak of Mount Rainier, can be seen as you walk the 2-mile boardwalk along McAllister Creek. Keep a keen eye out for river otters, minks, and harbor seals as you meander along the boardwalk as well.
The Visitor Center is open Wednesday through Sunday throughout the year, excluding major Federal holidays. Here, you can get more information on the nature and wildlife found at Nisqually and chat with a Ranger about any rare birds sighted recently. Don’t forget to download their bird checklist before you go!
After your visit, head over to Norma’s Burgers for a delicious burger and milkshake, or just a little further up the road to Curry Corner, for some of the best tikka masala and navratan korma!
A juvenile Bald Eagle flies over Seabeck, Washington. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Bald Eagles in the North Skagit and Seabeck
Bald Eagles and the image of the Pacific Northwest go hand-in-hand. They thrive here during nesting periods and even gather at various times of the year when fish is especially plentiful. The two places to see dozens of Bald Eagles in one place are Seabeck, just off of Hood Canal, and Rockport, just at the convergence of the Sauk and Skagit Rivers.
In late summer, when the tide hits extreme lows, Eagles will flock to Seabeck to pick up fish that flop about on the muddy banks due to the low water levels. Not only is the countryside beautiful, you’ll see birds soar in front of an Olympic Mountain backdrop. After spending a satisfying day bird watching, head over to Smokin’ Robinson’s Café for some delicious BBQ and potato salad. Attached to a gas station, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, but they make a mean BBQ pork sandwich from the smoker out back. This is also the site of the 2015 Audubon Photography Awards grand prize winner, so if you are into bird photography it might be worth a visit!
At various times throughout the winter, Bald Eagles will also flock to the Rockport river convergence, where salmon will run in excessive quantities. Boating tour trips run down the rivers, where you can see Eagle’s fight over fish at a distance so close you’ll be amazed. Link up with the Skagit River Eagle Tours for more information.
Snow Geese fly over the Skagit Valley in wintertime. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Snow Geese and other Birds in the Skagit Valley
In fall and winter, the farm fields and flats near the Skagit Wildlife Area and Skagit Flats hosts a spectacular sight – tens of thousands of Snow Geese will forage on the farm’s heathlands throughout the day and in the evenings, then just before sunset flocks and flocks of birds will begin heading to their roosting grounds for the night. This sight, coupled with the sunset and Mount Baker in the background, is once-in-a-lifetime! You’ll also spot numerous other shorebirds, wading birds, waterfowl, owls, and more.
This occurrence happens every fall and winter as the flocks of geese migrate south for winter from the open arctic and tundra in northern British Columbia, Alaska, and Russia’s outlying islands. Seeing all these birds in one place will certainly give you an appreciation for winter bird watching! The Skagit Valley also hosts a winter bird festival every year, where you can get together with other bird watchers to go in search for other waterfowl, birds of prey, and many others that call the Skagit their home in wintertime.
If you’re a beer lover, don’t miss out on the Skagit Farm to Pint tour. Washington is known for its breweries and special microbrews, and what better way to enjoy the beautiful scenery than to pair it with a craft brew tour? You can even get a passport to get stamped at each brewery location to receive a complimentary pint glass.
A bobcat relaxes in the brush at Northwest Trek. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Washington Wildlife at Northwest Trek
Northwest Trek is a wildlife park near the border of Mount Rainier National Park, and it is one of the best places to see and experience Washington wildlife. There are numerous walking trails among the woods, where you can bird watch and spot other small mammals roaming about, a walking tour, where you can see animals in large enclosures similar to a zoo, and a tram tour, where you ride a tram through open grazing spaces and woods to see free-roaming wildlife.
There are always various activities going on at the park, and everything is very kid and family friendly for those looking for a fun and safe way to explore Washington’s wildlife. One of our favorite aspects Northwest Trek is their tram photo tour, which stops at the various wildlife gathering areas during the tram tour to allow photographers time to get their shot. Spaces are limited, so be sure to book early!
Northwest Trek is also party to many conservation projects and initiatives, including reintroducing wild fishers back to Washington’s forests and bringing grizzly bears back to the Cascade Mountains.
A mountain goat steps over a rocky gap at Mount Ellinor, Olympic National Park. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Mountain Goats in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains
Mountain goats are native to the Cascade Range and were introduced to the Olympics for sport game hunting in the early 1900’s. Permits for hunting them are very rare, however, as their numbers throughout the state have declined from around 10,000 animals to only a couple thousand (Source: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, WDFW).
Living high in the mountains, especially in the rockiest and most exposed areas, it can be sometimes be challenging to see them if you don’t know where to look. Though it’s often hard to spot them out, when you do it truly adds something special to your alpine experience. These animals are very charismatic, especially in winter when they have a thick, white coat that makes them look especially majestic. They are, however, considered a nuisance by some people and agencies, as they have a voracious appetite for high alpine vegetation that has long maturity times.
Keep in mind that mountain goats are still wild animals (they aren’t related to domestic goats), and they should be treated as such. Don’t attempt to touch, feed, chase, or otherwise aggravate the goats, especially when they have young. WDFW officials also ask hikers to not urinate within 50 meters of a trail, and to do so among rocks rather than vegetation – goats love to lick the salt that forms from dried urine and can easily destroy patches of alpine vegetation in their attempt to eat it up. There have been instances where people have been maimed and killed by mountain goats, so these suggestions should be taken seriously. Overall, if you are hiking in a place where you expect to see them, just avoid them and keep calm – they tend to want to leave people alone more than anything.
The top places we’ve seen mountain goats are on Mount Ellinor, Lake Ingalls, the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, and numerous other places in the Olympics and Cascades.
Sunset over the sea stacks at La Push, Washington. Photo by Christa Rolls
Whales, Orcas, and Porpoises off the Olympic Coast, the San Juan Islands, and the Puget Sound
Western Washington sits along the migration corridor for whales heading north in the spring to their breeding grounds in the north Pacific Ocean and south in the fall to warmer waters in the south Pacific. The most common whale seen off the coast of the Olympic National Park or San Juan Islands is the Gray whale, which feeds in the more shallow areas closer to shore. It’s also possible to spot Humpback whales, though they are more rare, and Minke whales. Kalaloch Beach and La Push are two of our favorite places to watch whales spouting from the shores.
The Puget Sound is a great place to spot Orcas and porpoises, such as Harbor and Dall’s porpoises. The Orcas in particular are those from the Southern Resident Killer Whale family, with three distinct pods that frequent Washington’s waterways and can be most readily seen around the San Juan Islands area.
The Whale Trail, a route consisting of top spots to see whales and porpoises from British Columbia all the way down to northern California, is a great place to start for spotting whales on your own. Be sure to check the timelines to see the best times of year to spot various animals, as the seasonality of their migration routes or residencies differs with each species.
Plan a trip with San Juan Safaris and consider staying on the islands for a day or two – there’s so much to explore, and the ferry journey to the San Juan Islands National Monument is nearly as much fun as the activities you can have once you arrive! We’ve also had great experiences with ?Island Adventures whale watching company – just be sure to pack some Dramamine if you’re prone to sea sickness!
Wolf peering through branches at Northwest Trek. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Wolves at Wolf Haven International
Over the last few decades, wolves have begun slowly coming back to repopulate more of Washington State. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) estimates that there are 22 wolf packs in Washington, primarily in the northeastern part of the State, though some exist in the North Cascades in the west. Though the likelihood of seeing a wild wolf is very rare, especially in western Washington, you’ll be able to spot numerous wolves and contribute to wolf conservation at Wolf Haven International.
Wolf Haven is a sanctuary for captive-born and displaced wolves and wolf-dogs, so the wolves seen on site are not ones purposefully captured from the wild or bred internally – they are rescues. The wolf-dogs in particular are rescues from homes that didn't fully understand the responsibility of owning a wolf-hybrid.
Wolf Haven does a magnificent job at educating the public about wolves and advocating for wolf conservation throughout the State. Their role in Washington's Wolf Advisory Group allows them the ability to contribute to the State's wolf management plan, which is important considering the extensive work and associated human-wildlife conflict that goes into managing for wolves in the wild. Wolf Haven is also actively involved in the Species Survival Plan for Mexican Gray Wolves and Red Wolves, the latter of which is the world's most endangered canine species. A free, full-text PDF is available from International Wolf detailing the Species Survival Plan for the Red Wolf.
The property on which Wolf Haven is located is also beautiful, as it sits in the middle of Mima Mound prairie, unique, glacial till prairie that was formed from moving glaciers and makes up the large mounds seen today.
Wolf Haven only accepts visits based on reservation, so be sure to contact them ahead of time to set up your visit!
Varied Thrush can be seen in forests throughout western Washington. Photo by Nathan Rolls
Various Animals at the Seattle Zoo and Collections at the Burke Museum
The Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle is known for its numerous conservation initiatives and preservation programs for wildlife and habitats all over the world. The Zoo is an extensive 92 acres with species of all kinds in well-situated habitats created especially for each animal. They even offer various programs for people of all ages to immerse them in wildlife and conservation education initiatives. In October, Woodland Park hosts Brew at the Zoo, where all the money purchased for beer and snacks goes directly toward conservation, and in late November into December, thousands of lights are strung up for a special twinkle-light experience while walking among the exhibits.
The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture has extensive specimen collection programs for various wildlife, including birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, and much more, to keep a detailed inventory on genetics, populations, and habitat information. The specimens might not be alive, but the work performed at the Burke is incredibly important for scientific research, so it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in the research side of wildlife biology. Visiting the collections is done by appointment only, so contact the collections manager ahead of time if you’re interested!
Let us know where your favorite places are in Washington to see wildlife, and share your experiences with us in the comments!
Christa and Nathan