Mist rolls through the spreading limbs of the tall, silver Sitka Spruce trees that flank the verdant shores of a small creek, its tumbling waters hidden beneath the emerald fronds of ferns that fill every hollow of the forest floor. The low clouds embrace the rolling heights of the Southwestern Willapa Hills, where adventure can be found in any weather and at any time of the year.
One of the best ways to enjoy this combination of hills and water is on foot. Willapa Wildlife Refuge is home to a variety of trails located on and around the Long Beach Peninsula. The Refuge is supported in part by a local organization, the Friends of Willapa Bay. This group provides environmental education programs to the local schools, champions refuge causes, and raises money for its support.
The first hiking opportunity that presents itself on the drive on Highway 101 towards Longbeach is the Cutthroat Climb. The Cutthroat Climb starts at the refuge headquarters, tucked into a small creek valley opposite of Long Island. The trail begins at the southern edge of the parking lot, and follows a boardwalk above the tidelands that is decorated with wildlife sculptures. A paved path leads through marshes and past more artwork, from giant feathers to metallic fish swimming to the tree tops. This is more an art walk than a hike!
Across a rushing stream, a more primitive path ascends through the woods, where a cantilevered bridge crosses a massive fallen tree, and interpretive signs identify the indications of forest dwelling creatures. Descending through a dense jungle of thimbleberry, the trail dips once again to cross the stream before rising to a giant mosaic surrounded by standing stones, like a scene out of Celtic mythology. Trace the mystic maze of the mosaic before following an ancient road that leads down an avenue of alders to a bog that is crossed by boardwalks and bridges that lead back to the visitor center. Come on a rainy day to experience the quintessential nature of the Willapa rainforest. The entire trail is about a mile long.
Long Island is a land apart, a bastion of giant trees blanketing low hills, all guarded by tide flats, and haunted by herons and otters. A boat landing opposite the Headquarters provides water access to Long Island, where the only option for overnight camping within the refuge is located. Those planning to hike or stay overnight need to be sure they consult tide tables before embarking. The Islands extensive mudflats are exposed when the tide is out, limiting the time you can reach or leave the island. The island is only reachable by those with a water craft, and for experienced kayakers a multiday trip around the island is possible. The Don Bonker Cedar Grove is the largest remaining old growth forest in Southwest Washington – a cathedral of unbelievably massive trees. It can be reached either by a long boat trip to Smoky Hollow and a short hike inland, or by a short boat ride to the nearest landing on the island and a long hike through second growth forest. The campgrounds require no reservations (except during bow hunting season) and are free, with picnic tables and solar powered outhouses. There are five campgrounds on the island, all in the trees by the water.
Continuing on around Willapa Bay, the next opportunity for a hike is Tarlett Slough. Tarlett Slough is a hidden gem, recently acquired by the refuge. The area has only just become accessible to hikers. The trail is near the site of the planned refuge visitor center, and the Friends of Willapa Bay are currently working to secure funds for parking and access to the trail. To reach the unsigned trailhead, follow Sand Ridge Road several miles before turning East onto 95th street. Take the right hand fork near the end, and park by the side of the road. Follow an old road through forests loud with birdsong before reaching the dike that divides pasture land (now part of the refuge) from the tide flats. Until a formal trail is built, your only company will likely be the splash of otters, the calls of birds, and the rush of wind in the sea of waving marsh grasses.
At the end of Longbeach Peninsula is Leadbetter Point. Here are sandy beaches, wide salt marshes, and thick coastal forests smelling of Salal and pine trees. Hiking the loops through the dune-built forest, the quiet is broken by the roar of distant breakers and the soughing of the ocean breeze, and at midsummer the hum of mosquitos. There are several trails here and many miles of bay and ocean beaches to walk, both in the Wildlife Refuge and in the adjacent state park (both parking lots are in the state park, so you will need a Discover Pass). The bay loop follows the beach along Willapa Bay, cuts across the peninsula, and loops back through the forest, where amanita mushrooms brighten the forest floor with their red caps. Other, longer trails lead to the ocean beaches. Since the end of the peninsula is off limits to beach driving, the beach here is much more pristine and quiet than the southern part of Long Beach peninsula. However, the ocean beach trail is closed from October to May to protect nesting Snowy plovers.
Thanks to the Wildlife Refuge and its supporters, Willapa Bay has retained much of its natural habitat, which otherwise would have been subdivided and developed. It is a unique mix of tourist beach town, quiet retirement community, and remote coastal wilderness, and is well worth a weekend of exploration.