Trip reports

Eagles in the sky, salmon in the trees: Long Beach Peninsula (Part 2)

Willapa Bay at Leadbetter Point

We woke on Easter morning to cloudy weather at our campsite in Cape Disappointment State Park, but that did not deter Mr. Adventure, who generously braved the ocean-chilled air to make coffee. Our breakfast of scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and asparagus had the dog at the next campsite leaning toward us, sniffing madly. Caffeinated and fed, we considered our options.

Armed with Craig Romano’s Day Hiking: Olympia Peninsula, we headed to Leadbetter Point State Park at the northern tip of the Long Beach Peninsula, about 25 miles and 40 minutes away. The day-use state park abuts the 15,000-acre, multi-unit Willapa (WILL uh pah) National Wildlife Refuge, a wild mix of ocean beach, salt marsh, coastal forest, and tidelands frequented by elk, deer, bear, many small mammals, and abundant birds. Surrounded by the Pacific Ocean to the west and Willapa Bay to the east, the end of Leadbetter Point is seasonally closed so the threatened snowy plover can nest in peace.

In fact, Willapa Bay and the Long Beach Peninsula are so important to migrating and nesting shorebirds, the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network designated the area as its 97th Site of International Importance in February.

As we got out of our car, an eagle flew overhead low enough for us to see its head turning as it checked us out. We’d hoped to hike the Dune Forest trail, a 3-mile loop through forested sand dunes and along the shore of the bay. But less than 1/4 mile from the trailhead, we came to a waist-high stack of brush and cut logs that clearly said “stay out.” So we turned around and headed out along the Bay Loop trail. A short stroll through the mixed coastal forest of shore pine, Sitka spruce, and Western hemlock brought us to the shore, where we turned south along the beach.

Bay Loop trail in Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge
Half of the Bay Loop trail in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge is in the lichen-covered coastal forest. (Lauren Danner photo)
Beach trail in Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge
The other half of the short Bay Loop trail follows the beach, providing expansive views of Willapa Bay. (Lauren Danner photo)

“Stop!” Mr. Adventure cried. “What? What?” I asked. He pointed at the beach where I was about to step. Dozens of elk hoofprints marched in a straight line from the forest to the bay and back. It was just before low tide, so these elk had come seeking salt within the last several hours.

Although the elk stayed hidden, I liked thinking of them moving quietly through the forest as we stayed on the beach.

Although it was nearly low tide, we reached a point where driftwood and down trees made it impossible to go further on the beach. Following a trail inland, we found ourselves back on the access road a short distance from the parking lot. Mr. Adventure went one way to see whether the south access to the Dune Forest trail was open, and I retrieved the car. We walked a half-mile up the overgrown trail, but it was clearly not in use, though there was no blockade like the one we encountered on the northern end. It’s a mystery.

After stopping in Long Beach to pick up some locally canned tuna and salmon — these are entirely different foods than what’s found on supermarket shelves — we headed back to camp with 30 minutes to clean up before checkout. We wanted to check out a short trail in another part of the refuge. Fortified with shrimp and crab cocktails from OleBob’s Seafood in Ilwaco, we headed east.

The Long Beach Peninsula separates Willapa Bay from the Pacific Ocean. It’s a big bay, 25 miles long by 8 miles wide, and a good-sized chunk is protected in the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. But unless you have a boat and are comfortable navigating through shallow waters and fast-changing tides, you’ll be driving from point to point as we did. The road hugs the bayshore, forcing speed limits up and down through tight curves and blind turns. About 13 miles from Cape Disappointment State Park, we arrived at the refuge headquarters.

Across the bay we could see Long Island, a central feature of the refuge reachable only by boat. At 5,460 acres, it’s the largest estuarine island on the Pacific Coast. Long Island is a refuge for fauna and flora, known for its large population of black bears and for protecting one of the last groves of old-growth Western redcedar in southwest Washington. It is on my bucket list to get over there someday.

But back in the parking lot, we were looking for the Willapa Interpretive Art Trail, a short loop celebrating the restoration of the salmon stream that flows near the refuge headquarters. The first quarter-mile is smooth boardwalk, curving through wetlands and over the stream, where you can sometimes see salmon spawning. The best part? It’s awash in art that helps visitors understand the stories of creatures who live there. Students in the University of Washington Public Arts Program designed and installed the art, which ranges from grand and striking to small and subtle. It’s wonderful.

Salmon carving at Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
Near the beginning of the boardwalk, intricate carvings tell creation stories about salmon and other animals that live in the refuge. (Lauren Danner photo)
Red-legged frog sculpture at Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
Red-legged frogs can jump up to four feet. This sculpture illustrates the amphibians’ movement, while salmon swim in the trees in the background. (Lauren Danner photo)

At the end of the boardwalk, the trail continues to a lollipop loop, climbing steeply up the hillside for about 1/3 mile. The art continues, with fanciful bird silhouettes pointing the way and pedestal displays about local wildlife providing a chance to catch your breath and learn something.

Beginning of loop trail at Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
A large Sitka spruce guards the entrance to the lollipop loop, lending a sense of enchantment that lasts throughout the hike. You’ll be climbing those stairs, and many more, into the forest. (Lauren Danner photo)
Trees along Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
Enormous stumps from long-past logging are visible throughout the forest, but younger trees are now the norm. (Lauren Danner photo)

The trail follows a ravine, up, over, around, and down. The stream cascades over downed logs that look like they were placed intentionally at even intervals. And on the way down, a labyrinth encourages contemplation.

Stream crossing along Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
The trail crosses this pretty stream a few times. (Lauren Danner photo)
Labyrinth along Willapa Art Interpretive Trail
I am a sucker for labyrinths. This moss-covered meditative maze materialized in the middle of the forest, so of course I had to follow it. (Mr. Adventure photo)
Silver salmon above spawning stream in Willapa National Wildlife Refuge
More silver salmon swimming in trees above their spawning stream. (Lauren Danner photo)

We passed another group of salmon swimming through the trees and came back to the boardwalk. Art and nature intersect along this magical little trail. If you’re driving by, stop and take a walk. You won’t regret it.

Willapa Bay is a special place, and one that is feeling the pressure of the modern world. Ocean acidification, a by-product of carbon pollution, is affecting oyster farming. Growing populations of hungry cormorants are affecting salmon recovery. Despite such pressures, it is a beautiful and inspiring place. Energized by the forest-washed clean air, we hopped in the car and headed home, happy with our spur-of-the-moment camp-bike-hike weekend on the Long Beach Peninsula.

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About Lauren Danner

When I’m not out hiking on our public lands, I'm either buried in a book or writing about Pacific Northwest and environmental history, outdoor recreation, and public lands policy from my home near Puget Sound.
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2 thoughts on “Eagles in the sky, salmon in the trees: Long Beach Peninsula (Part 2)

  1. Thanks for the post, Lauren. Long Beach Peninsula/Willapa Bay are among my favorite coastal destinations in the Northwest. It has been too long since I have visited. Maria and I will have to get the camper over there some time soon!

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