There are plenty of reasons to head outdoors to watch wildlife this fall and winter, including opportunities to see feeding elk, spawning salmon and migrating shorebirds.
But another great reason is the most beautiful five-letter word in the English language: Cheap.
Most of these spots don’t charge any admission at all, and while you’ll have to burn gas or diesel to get there, a day afield is a great way to beat the foggy, drizzly blahs – and maybe burn off some holiday feasting.
Here are our choices for great – and cheap – wildlife watching:
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1. NISQUALLY NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The refuge is a very different place this fall. The old dike that blocked Puget Sound tides from flowing over the land was torn down over the summer, and a restored saltwater marsh, along with thousands of shorebirds, hawks, herons and other birds is waiting for hikers. Northern harriers and other raptors make runs on ducks all winter long.
The Twin Barns Loop Trail – a one-mile round trip – is the only trail open until Nov. 12, when a part of the new dike trail will open to hikers. Construction on the new boardwalk trail – which will take hikers over the new marsh – will start in 2010.
Hours: The refuge is open every day from sunrise to sunset, but the visitor center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $3 per vehicle per day.
Getting there: The refuge is located just off Interstate 5 at Exit 114.
Information: Call 360-753-9467 or visit www.fws.gov/nisqually.
2. KENNEDY CREEK SALMON TRAIL
Fall is when South Puget Sound streams fill with spawning chum salmon, and this is one of two spots where people can watch these wild fish rototill gravel for spawning nests, fight, spawn and die.
The trail, which is just off U.S. Highway 101 between Olympia and Shelton, puts visitors within splashing range of between 40,000 and 80,000 wild chum salmon every November.
Experts from the South Puget Sound Salmon Enhancement Group hang out at 11 viewing stations and tell visitors just what the fish are doing at that moment. Seeing a creek crammed full of wild salmon is a magnificent sight, and thousands of visitors come to the trail each year.
Hours: The trail is open to the public – free of charge – on Saturdays and Sundays through Nov. 29. The trail also is open on Wednesday for Veteran’s Day, and Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving.
Getting there: The trail is easy to find. Take U. S. 101 from Olympia toward Shelton. Watch the milepost markers, and turn left onto the Old Olympic Highway between mileposts 357 and 358. Follow the signs to the parking lot.
Information: www.spsseg.org or 360-427-9435, Ext. 13.
3. MCLANE CREEK NATURE TRAIL
This less-famous trail also puts visitors close to spawning chum salmon.
The trail, which is near Capitol State Forest, is open every day, and there is no charge for admission.
Visitors hike a trail past a huge beaver pond to McLane Creek, which pulses with thousands of chum salmon during November. It’s easy to find the fish, and this spot is a great option during weekdays, when Kennedy Creek is closed to the public.
Getting there: To find the McLane Creek Nature Trail, take U.S. 101 north from Olympia. Take the Mud Bay exit and make a left at the stop sign, and then make another quick left turn onto Delphi Road. You’ll find the McLane Creek Sign about 3.5 miles down Delphi Road.
4. GRAYS HARBOR NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Washington coast offers hundreds of great wildlife viewing spots – especially for bird lovers and those who like to see seals and sea lions.
Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge is well known for huge flocks of migrating shorebirds every spring.
Well, there are still a lot of shorebirds flying around the giant marsh during the fall, and the Sandpiper Trail boardwalk is the way to get close to them. The sprawling mudflats of Grays Harbor – which teem with the worms and crustaceans shorebirds need to eat – is considered one of the major shorebird feeding areas on the entire Pacific Coast. The best time to visit is during the last two hours of the rising tide, as the water pushes birds closer to the boardwalk.
Keep a sharp eye out for bald eagles, which hunt shorebirds and ducks almost every day of the year on Grays Harbor.
Getting there: The refuge is located at Bowerman Airfield on Highway 109 between Hoquiam and Ocean Shores,
5. BOTTLE BEACH STATE PARK
This park is another little spot on the coast that is rapidly gaining fame for birds, deer and other wildlife. Bottle Beach, which is close to Westport, is on the other side of Grays Harbor from the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge. Bottle Beach has 6,000 feet of shoreline on Grays Harbor, a network of trails, birding blinds and new parking lots and bathrooms.
Westport, which also offers great wildlife watching at Westhaven State Park and in the marina, is 10 minutes away by car.
As an added bonus, Westport and Ocean Shores offer close-up views of the local blacktail deer that wander through wooded areas and neighborhoods.
Getting there: To find Bottle Beach, take state Highway 105 out of Aberdeen toward Westport. After about 20 minutes, start looking for the park sign on your right.
6. OAK CREEK WILDLIFE AREA
If you’re eager to head east over the Cascades, there is a spot where hundreds of elk and bighorn sheep gather for the winter.
That spot is called the Oak Creek Wildlife Area.
The elk and bighorn sheep gather at Oak Creek because the state Department of Fish and Wildlife feeds the animals all winter long. The winter feeding program is supposed to keep the animals from destroying nearby orchards and farm crops during the winter.
This spot starts filling up with animals – up to 1,200 elk live on the land during the winter – in December, but the best viewing is usually in January and February.
Hours: Oak Creek is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. This is a great spot to visit after spending the morning skiing or snowboarding at White Pass Ski Area.
Getting there: Located on U.S. 12 about 20 miles west of Yakima.
Chester Allen: 360-754-4226