Short-eared owl at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Dan Dzurisin
Wildlife hike: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Where: Find the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge south of Longview, Wash., about three hours' drive from the Seattle area
Stats: 2 miles round trip; 100-foot elevation gain; entrance fee $3 per vehicle or up to four adults on foot, cash or check only (youth 15 and under are free)
Contact: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, 360-887-4106
Kids will love ... searching for rare bird species, so bring binoculars! The rounded, azure heads of scrub jays are distinct from the pointy crests of our backyard jays, and smaller red-shouldered hawks flap over their winter wetland hunting grounds. Leave time to discern the elegant tundras from the trumpeters in famously large flocks of swans.
The Carty Unit’s Oaks to Wetlands Trail comprises 2 miles of trail through majestic, centuries-old Oregon white oak trees, fir and cedar woodlands, cottonwood and willow stands, and wetlands teeming with wildlife. Start by crossing the footbridge that spans the railroad tracks. Then, stroll along the looping interpretive paths as you search for birds.
Don’t miss: Keep the binoculars handy as you drive the 4.2-mile loop through the refuge’s other star winter attraction: the River S Unit. Keep your eyes peeled for black-crowned night herons roosting in trees, great egrets stalking prey in the marshes and several species of dabbling ducks in the water. To protect the birds, don’t exit your vehicle when stopping to view the wildlife.
Getting there: Ridgefield is about 2.5–3 hours south of Seattle in Clark County, along the Columbia River. To reach the refuge, take Interstate 5 south to exit 14, heading west on Pioneer Street through the town of Ridgefield. Turn right onto North Main Avenue and drive 1 mile to the refuge’s Carty Unit entrance on your left.
More hikes like this: Spencer Island Park in Everett is an expansive, 400-acre estuary where the Snohomish River splits and braids into Puget Sound, creating a rich habitat that draws flocks of migratory waterfowl, shorebirds and raptors in winter months. Explore via a series of dike and boardwalk trails. South of Tacoma off I-5, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge loop hike and series of boardwalk trails offer close-up peeps of wintering ducks, herons and even a family of nesting great horned owls.
Next stop: a waterfall hike
Image credit: Dan Dzurisin/Flickr CC