One of the great joys of living in the Pacific Northwest is getting to watch the salmon make their return from the ocean each year to the same rivers they swam down as small fry.
Species of salmon spend two to seven years in the ocean before they make this trek back to the waters where they hatched to repeat the cycle and then die.
Tumwater Falls Park, located in Tumwater, WA is an easily accessible place to watch this return, with peak salmon viewing from October to December. The park is tucked in below Interstate 5, on the Deschutes River.
The falls drop 82 feet in under half a mile, down to Capital Lake, which connects with the southern end of the Puget Sound.
The fish arrive at the base of the falls after swimming through Capital Lake and past the original brick brewery.
The entire area was owned by the Olympia Brewery Company. In 1962 the Brewery turned over 15 acres to the Olympia Tumwater Foundation, which has created a system of trails and public spaces it continues to own and maintain.
There are additional paths to walk in the lower park. The two sections were recently joined by an improved footpath so visitors can walk both areas if they wish.
Salmon returning to the Deschutes River encounter a series of rapids and waterfalls. The name of the rapids is Tumwater, from Chinook, a trading language used by local tribes and European settlers. It combines the Chinook “tumtum” a reference to the sound of a beating heart, and “waterfall” from English. The Native American language spoken in this area, Lushootseed, names this area SPEkwa’L, or “Cascade”.
Changes made by settlers who installed a dam kept salmon from making this return trip for years until fish ladders were installed in 1952 by the State of Washington.
Fish ladders provide the salmon with a path around the roughest water.
The original reinforced concrete ladders are still in use. Fish enter through a small side channel next to the base of each set of waterfalls. River water cascades at a pretty terrific rate in the fish ladders, but there are spaces for the fish to rest between attempts.
An advantage to this set of fish ladders is that they are open to the sky, so as people walk along the adjoining trails, they can see the fish moving up river.
The falls run through a steep ravine, with the interstate highway above on one side and the old Olympia brewery high above on the other.
I am always amazed at how this area feels so far away from the rest of the town, despite being in such a populated and busy location. There is a trail that runs down one side of the ravine and up the other, just above the rapids.
It does also mean that the sound of the water is dominant. I can talk with a walking partner, but in places it is hard to hear each other.
At the top of the falls, there is a state-run fish hatchery. When the fish get to the top of the ladder, they are collected in a holding area.
Visitors can see the salmon swim past a set of newly installed windows.
This section of the park is easily accesssible for those with small children. It is next to the parking area and there are informative signs year round. During the salmon run, there are also interpreters to answer visitor’s questions.
Year Round Use
I like to go to Tumwater Falls year round. The loop from the parking area, down past all the waterfalls and back is about a mile. That’s a perfect length for a quick stretch of the legs on a busy day.
The trail is well maintained, with benches and smaller waterfalls on the east side of the ravine. Each of these spots provides a chance to sit and take in the surroundings. In the warmth of summer, this area is naturally air conditioned. For people who live in Tumwater, a daily or weekly visit is part of their routine.
The Olympia Tumwater Foundation continues to make improvements, recently adding a native plant garden that pairs plants with markers giving their name in the local tribal language first, then their common name in English, and finally the Latin name.
The paths are lined with split rail fences to keep visitors safe when above the falls. Where needed, stone retaining walls keep the ravine slopes in place. Because the park is so heavily used, periodic maintenance is needed to keep the trails in shape.
All along the paths there are benches, drinking fountains, and section of stone wall that have plaques identifying donors or remembrances of loved ones.
A favorite spot to sit and read in the hot summer is this little bench, where I can take dip my bare feet into the water. Old cedar trees provide abundant shade and hold in the cool mists that rise from the rapids.
And if there is time, or the weather is less pleasant, the family-owned Falls Terrace Restaurant is a perfect spot to relax with a little something to eat. It also has excellent views of the upper falls.