Best Hikes for Wildlife Spotting
Golden Gate Trail
Paradise, Mount Rainier
Difficulty: Moderate; 3 miles, approx. 1,000-foot elevation gain Location: About two and a half hours southeast of Seattle at Paradise on Mount Rainier. Nearest town: Ashford, 23 miles. $15 park entry fee; dogs prohibited; nps.gov
In late summer, this trail cuts through a meadow so awash with vivid wildflower color, it may take you a while to spot them, but once you do, you can’t stop spotting them: hoary marmots. These mangy-looking but playful critters abound along this trail, often popping their heads up from behind rocks to stare pertly at passersby, or lounging, seal like, trailside, as if waiting for their morning scritch. (Don’t do it, of course—these are wild animals and may bite.) As you toil up switchbacks winding steeply through the valley, feeling the effects of the altitude, with Mount Rainier towering over your left shoulder, there’s no denying the comic relief these marmots bring. Stop at the top where Golden Gate meets the Skyline Trail; here, you’ll find excellent resting rocks (and probably more marmots, who will try to make off with your snacks). Head back the way you came, or better, make it a loop back down the Skyline Trail.
Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
Difficulty: Easy (paved and boardwalk); length varies, mostly level ground Location: About 90 minutes southwest of Seattle via Interstate 5. Nearest town: Olympia, 8 miles. $3 entrance fee, dogs prohibited; fws.gov/nisqually
This pristine refuge in Thurston County is considered Puget Sound’s last unspoiled major estuary, and has been designated as a National Natural Landmark. Explore the 3,000 acres of saltwater and freshwater marshes, grasslands and other habitats via five miles of walking trails—including a lovely, accessible boardwalk loop. On a good day, you might spot dozens of the 275 species of migratory birds, and beavers, rabbits, frogs and salamanders that rest, nest and live here; a complete list is at fws.gov/nisqually. (This month, watch for juvenile eagles on the wing and all manner of creatures dining on summer berries.) There is a multitude of free tours and programs available; times and days vary; visit fws.gov/nisqually for details.
Juanita Bay Park
Difficulty: Easy (paved and boardwalk); length varies, zero elevation gain Location: About 20 minutes from Seattle in north Kirkland; kirklandwa.gov
There are nearly 200 species of birds here, including great blue heron and osprey, but what you may remember are the many turtles that lounge on nearly every log in this marshy urban wildlife habitat. A looping system of trails and boardwalks winds through wetlands and over water, through reeds and cattail stands and among trees replete with nesting birds and alive with the cries, screetches and splashes of the creatures that call these 110 acres home. Download a habitat map at kirklandwa.gov, and see how many of the birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles you can cross off the checklist; lucky strollers might spot beaver and muskrat, river otters and Pacific tree frogs, and more; free tours led by park rangers depart from the parking lot at 1 p.m., rain or shine, on the first Sunday of every month.