Willapa National Wildlife Refuge an overlooked gem

You've likely passed it without noticing, cruising down U.S. Highway 101 en route to a summer getaway on Long Beach or a salmon fishing trip out of Ilwaco.

But the mix of ocean beach, tideflats, freshwater marshes, an island dotted with towering cedars and a unique art trail make the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge a worthwhile stop.

Established in 1937 by President Franklin Roosevelt, the refuge now covers more than 26,000 acres and 260 square miles of water.

It's a birder's paradise, home to Western snowy plovers and great blue herons. It's also a rest stop for countless migrating ducks and geese.

It's a place where kayakers can paddle up to a waterfront campsite on Long Island. In the middle of the island is a 274-acre stand of remnant old-growth Western red cedars.

It's home to 13 species of amphibians, black bear, deer and elk.

And it's all less than three hours from Tacoma.

Long island

Like any 5-year-old, Brooke Roberts was full of energy, questions and curiosity.

Walking amid standing and fallen cedars, some nearly 1,000 years old, will bring out those traits in just about anyone.

"I like them. My dad took a picture of me in one of the holes. It was like a cave," she said with enthusiasm.

Indeed, some of the holes at the bottom of these towering cedars would seem like a motel room to Bear Grylls of "Man vs. Wild" fame. Oh wait, he apparently did stay in motel rooms.

Brooke and her father, Jake, were spending a day exploring the ancient cedar grove, one of the prime attractions on Long Island.

The largest estuarine island on the West Coast, the island covers 5,400 acres. It is home to Sitka spruce and Western hemlock, black bears, elk and deer.

The father and daughter arrived at the island via canoe. In fact, you can reach the island only by watercraft, which adds to the island's sense of seclusion.

The main attraction is the grove of ancient cedars 2½ miles from the landing.

"Everybody who goes out there comes away a little different," said Charlie Stenvall, who heads the refuge. "It's quite a thrill to see all these ancient trees. They have an element of majesty."

Salmon art trail

The Salmon Art Trail, the first of its kind in the nation, uses artwork by University of Washington students to tell the natural history of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge.

The art trail exists because Stenvall admits he doesn't read his own interpretive panels.

"The idea was to tell a story through artwork," Stenvall said. "The edict was 'thou shalt not use words.' I don't know if we achieved that. But the second round hits closer to that mark."

Developed in 2003, the trail features 10 art projects along a boardwalk 0.2 miles long and along 0.6 miles of hiking trail. The artwork tells of the restoration of Headquarters Creek, a five-year project that led to a record return of chum salmon.

Visitors also were looking for an activity at the refuge headquarters.

"We didn't have anything here. People came up and asked 'What can we do?' But we wanted to get away from text on a panel," Stenvall said.

Walking along the path, you can see bronze salamanders on rocks, whimsical frogs "jumping" along the path and salmon silhouettes hanging from trees.

Visitors now have something new to discover. Five more projects have been installed to coincide with the refuge's 70th anniversary next month. Some will include benches and tables.

Leadbetter point

Granted, it wasn't a beautiful summer afternoon. There was a cool breeze pushing along low gray clouds. Still, it was late July and I had the beach to myself.

At least as far as human companionship.

This part of the refuge sits at the northern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, bounded by the Pacific Ocean and Willapa Bay.

It's a great place to hike, and look for wildlife.

As I walked on the hardpacked sand on the bay side of the peninsula, I watched nearly three dozen great blue herons stalking the shallow bay waters for a meal.

Leadbetter Point is a birding haven. More than 100 species have been counted on this finger of land.

In one spot, I counted six species of shorebirds pecking among the mud, grass and water. A frenzied flock of semipalmated plovers skittered among the more methodical dunlins, while the greater yellowlegs kept to themselves.

Riekkola Unit

A mix of grasslands, freshwater marshes, dikes and channels, this unit adjoins the Porter's Point and Lewis units on the southern edge of the refuge. It is a place for bird-watching and waterfowl hunting.

To access the unit, take 67th Place from Sandridge Road, just 10 minutes from Long Beach. If you have to park at the gate, a short walk on the road will lead you to an intersection. Take the road to the left that drops down through the forest where the birch trees are draped with lichen.

Soon you step out of the woods and into grasslands. Ignore the cows grazing to your left, although their grass munching will create better habitat for the fall migration of birds.

To access the other units, take Jeldness Road from U.S. 101, between mileposts 18 and 19. The road ends at the parking area.

The attraction here is the freshwater marsh where the Bear River flows into Willapa Bay. You might see muskrats among the weeds or river otters chasing a meal. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

Where: Refuge headquarters are on U.S. Highway 101, 13 miles north of Ilwaco Size: 15,000 acres

Created: What eventually became the refuge was first set aside by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 to protecting flocks of migrating birds and waterfowl. The refuge now administers the 11,000 acres within the Presidential Proclamation Boundary, most of which surrounds Long Island.

Things to do: Wildlife watching, hiking, camping on Long Island, fishing, clamming and crabbing, waterfowl hunting and archery-only big-game and upland game hunting.

Information: 360-484-3482; www.fws.gov/willapa; Friendsofwillaparefuge.org