When the fall rainy season starts in Western Washington, it can feel fairly gloomy, but outside of Olympia, Washington is the Capitol State Forest, where opportunities to hike abound.
And of all the places to visit, the McLane Creek Nature Trail loop may be one of the best for family friendly wandering on a wet day.
A renovation of the trails, bridges, and viewing platforms has been recently completed in this state-owned area, making the Pond Loop Trail one of the premier places to see salmon spawning each November.
At a casual pace, this mostly flat trail can be completed in an hour, but I always seem to spend at least two hours, and sometimes more if the salmon are running up McLane Creek.
The entrance to the area is off Delphi Road. A long, smooth, paved driveway leads to the parking area. A Discover Pass is needed, so I hang my annual pass from the rear-view mirror of my car.
Because the trail is so close to Olympia, it is busy all seasons. I try to stop by just as soon it opens at 8:30 am. There is no overnight camping, so an early start generally means fewer people. By 10:00 am, there are lots of school and family groups, especially during the salmon spawning season.
The trail begins next to the parking area, to the right of a covered “gathering pavilion.” On those days when the rain picks up, this is an excellent spot to stand out of the deluge and look out at the beaver pond just beyond. I’ve waited out a downpour or two from under its wide roof.
Nearby, a stump from an old growth tree logged over one hundred years ago still stands. Rising nearly six feet, or 1.8 meters, it suggests the size of the trees in the old forest before it was logged.
The trailhead is well marked, as are points of interest all along the Pond Trail.
Dogs are allowed as long as they are on a leash. This is especially important for two reasons. The trail is often quite narrow and heavily used, so it is kind to others who share this space. The second reason is that October through December there are salmon coming up McLane Creek, and after they spawn, they die.
Dogs should not be allowed to eat salmon carcasses. Dogs are susceptible to fluke fever and salmon poisoning, both particularly nasty, and when untreated, dangerous.
I quite like this short hike because I can count on getting to say hello to dog friends, an added treat for me.
Beavers, those industrious builders, came up McLane Creek some years ago and dammed up a short side feeder to the main creek.
The result is a substantial body of water, nearly half a mile across in places. The pond is home to water birds year-round, and the surrounding riparian forest is prime habitat for songbirds.
Foliage is dense, so more often I hear birds in the trees, rather than see them, but I can always count on listening to the Pacific Wren’s song as soon as I leave my car.
Four viewing platforms are scatted around the pond’s edge, along with several bridges over marshy areas that give visitors a chance to watch for animals that live in and around the water.
The beavers are still here, maintaining their handiwork. In their wake there are numerous creatures like rough skin newts, Wood Ducks, rabbits, shrews, Lesser Scaup, Baffle Heads, Mallards, Belted Kingfishers, river otters, and coyotes.
I’ve never been bored when I sit quietly and watch to see who is swimming or flying or loping through.
The trail has several different surfaces. The start is covered in small black gravel that crunches underfoot, or squishes under the wet leaves in the damp fall.
Bridges and boardwalks have several surfaces, sometimes wood, sometimes with additional rough covering to help with footing in the rain.
The elevated boardwalks are my favorite part of the trail this time of year because they keep my feet out of the squishy, wet ground.
They also ensure that the large numbers of visitors do not damage sensitive plants and animals. Since I am fairly short, I also like being a little higher above the ground. I can see a bit further out with this foot of added height. There are benches all along the boardwalk, which makes up most of the back side of the loop trail.
Old Growth Stumps
Ancient tree stumps are all along the trail, and some, like this one, have openings large enough for small children, and short folks like me to walk under.
I’ve sheltered in several when the rain really opened up while I walking. Thankfully, these harder bursts of rain only last a short while.
There is something magical about waiting for the rain to let up from inside a giant tree stump.
The giants are still evident even after a century. The most massive stumps are well over five feet, or a meter and half across. Red Cedars are particularly resistant to rot, ensuring their footprints in the landscape will remain for decades to come.
Along with nurse trees (stumps that later seedling use as growth platforms) there are stumps that provide wind and weather cover for new growth. The particularly resilient cedar often has younger trees that have grown up right next to it.
Three viewing areas have been improved to maximize views of the salmon runs. Each is well marked and requires a short walk off the main trail.
There are benches at the intersections, too. Those small resting places are excellent for listening and watching for birds in the summer season.
From a viewing bridge above the creek, two species of salmon, Chum and Coho can be observed spawning. The creek runs for five miles down to Mud Bay in the southern Puget Sound.
Chum, generally up to 30 pounds, are much more common. They dominate the run in November. These fish are returning to the same stream where they hatched, years ago.
The gravel streambed provides a safe location for eggs to be fertilized and for young hatchlings, called “fry,” to grow.
The water stays cool under the forest cover, helping the small fry survive the time, between a month and a year, they will spend here.
Once fry are big enough, they travel down the creek to the Puget Sound, where they experience physical changes that allow them to thrive in salt water.
After several years at sea, they return as adults. They do not eat once they enter fresh water, and by the time they reach the upper ends of McLane Creek, they are pretty tired and look rough.
Females use their tail fins to build a nest, called a redd, where she will lay her eggs. Males then fertilize the eggs with their milt. Spawning completed; the adults die.
After watching the fish fight their way upstream, I head back towards the parking area. The trail leads through an old meadow, and then back to the forest.
There is always more to see, so I happily return often, despite the cold, rainy weather.