One of my three adventures off the Long Beach Peninsula was to the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. I read about it during my research of the area and put it on the list of possible adventures. Then I drove by it on my way to (and from) Raymond, Washington, to visit the NW Carriage Museum. Seeing it from the road moved it from a “possible” adventure to a “priority” adventure.

What is a Wildlife Refuge?

Before I tell you about the Willapa adventure, let’s talk about wildlife refuges in general. I got curious because, when I pulled out the brochures in preparation to write this post, I realized I’d been calling it by the wrong name. I kept saying Willapa Nature Preserve. So I asked myself, “What’s the difference between a refuge and a preserve?”

Dragonfly Table. You cannot read it but in the wings is a quote by poet e.e. cummings. It says, “the world is mud-luscious, puddle-wonderful.”

A nature preserve (also called a reserve or conserve), is defined as “an area where plants and animals are protected” while a refuge is “a place that provides protection.” Sounds pretty much the same to me.

So, in the end, I didn’t discover the difference. Maybe it’s a more technical distinction based on the government body that is doing the protecting? Or, maybe nature preserve is broader, like an umbrella term. I say that because I found a place that said the first nature preserve in the US was Yellowstone which we all know was the first National Park. Plus the US has 2,200 preserves and less than 600 wildlife refuges. Maybe a wildlife refuge is a subset of the more general preserve? If anyone knows the answer to this, please share in the comments. I’d love to understand this better.

Even though I can’t tell you the difference, I did learn some interesting facts along the way that I wanted to share.


An early king of Sri Lanka roughly 2,300 years ago created and maintained the very first reserve area for animals. Mostly this is thought to have been for cultural and religious reasons.

The first modern nature preserve was created in 1821 by Englishman Charles Waterton. A naturalist, he created a preserve around his own estate by building a long tall wall. He planted lots of trees to encourage birds to nest and stay within the walls. He then allowed people to come visit the estate.

US National Wildlife Refuge System

The mission of the US refuge system is to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management, and where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife, and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of the present and future generations of Americans.

National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997

The National Wildlife Refuge system in the US falls under the direction of Fish and Wildlife. Refuges focus on the habitat as well as the animals, fish and birds. President Teddy Roosevelt designated Florida’s Pelican Island the first US National Wildlife Refuge in 1903.

And here are a few other fun random facts:

  • Every US state has at least one wildlife refuge.
  • 50 million people visit US refuges each year.
  • Volunteers give 1.5 million hours of their time each year (many as workampers).
  • 60 refuges were established with the primary purpose of conserving 280 threatened or endangered species.
  • Refuges are home to 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 species of reptile and other amphibians and more than 1,000 species of fish.

When Visiting a Refuge

Let me start by saying I’ve only been to a couple refuges to date. So my assumptions are based on little experience. That means take what I’m saying with a grain of salt. It’s possible I’m wrong. Though I don’t think I am.

Meandering boardwalk.

I think refuges and preserves try to strike a balance between allowing visitors to experience the place without greatly imposing a human footprint. You generally won’t find gift shops, restaurants, paved paths, playgrounds, etc. In keeping the footprint small, I’ve found paths through a refuge to be narrow dirt trails though it can include things like bridges and boardwalks in the wet areas.

In other words, the focus isn’t on recreation in the same way a state or national park is. In other words, you’d be well advised to check out the website of a place you want to visit to figure out what you’re walking into, to read the rules and understand the restrictions.

The beginning of the steep trail.

For me, I look too see if I can take my dog. So far, I have not been able to. And, as such, it makes me assume I cannot bring Solstice to any refuge or preserve. But it’s worth double checking because it’s possible some allow dogs.

I am always a little sad when I cannot bring my pup because she loves exploring and she loves walking. Though, as a senior pup, her limit has decreased over the last couple years. These days one and a half miles on flat easy ground is her limit.

So it actually turned out to be good that the rules prevented me from bringing her on this particular adventure. The distance would’ve been okay but it was steeper than I anticipated and, had she been with me, we would’ve had to turn back. If that happened, I would’ve missed an awesome experience.

Boundary of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge

The Willapa Refuge covers 17,000 acres. The area was decreed a wildlife refuge in 1937 by the other President Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (FDR). The brochure I picked up says at the time the refuge was established “many estuaries were rapidly being destroyed from the effects of diking, draining, dredging, sedimentation and pollution.” The intent was to protect migrating and wintering birds.

The refuge includes both land and water. What I found interesting was the refuge is broken into two areas. In the introduction post to the area, I talked about the ghost town, Oysterville. I said it was the last town on the Long Beach Peninsula. However, being the last town doesn’t equate to it being at the end of the peninsula. And, in fact, it is not. The tip of the peninsula is part of the refuge.

Oysterville faces the Willapa Bay while the town I stayed in, Long Beach, faces the Pacific Ocean. There’s an island in the bay that is part of the refuge as well as the surrounding water. Then the southern end of where the peninsula attaches to the mainland is the final area of the refuge. For a good map of the refuge area, look on page 4 of their brochure.

There were several trails within the refuge but, for me, it was a no-brainer that I’d be going on the art walk.

Art Trail

The Giant Salmon Bones at the start of the boardwalk.

Once I left the Long Beach Peninsula, I ran into Highway 101. It took me all the way to Raymond when I went to the Carriage Museum, an hour away. But the refuge headquarters—and my destination—weren’t far up the 101. In fact, from Long Beach, I drove only 12 miles to there.

The parking lot isn’t very large which makes me think they don’t a get ton of visitors. You’ll find two buildings–restrooms and the headquarters. I stepped into the headquarters thinking it was like a welcome or information center. It was offices with a few brochures and maps and the guestbook at the front. I said hello to the woman who answered my questions, signed the guest book and grabbed a few brochures. Then I was on my way.

1 in 8. With the muted background of winter, these don’t pop nearly as much as they do in person.

The art trail is two parts. The first part is about a quarter-mile long. For the entire length, it is a wide boardwalk, making it ADA compliant. Despite its short length, I counted 25 different art pieces.

Along the entire trail, I loved the detailed map I picked up. Some of the pieces you cannot miss, like the giant feathers titled One in Eight. The feathers ask us to reflect upon the extinction rates of bird. 1 in 8. But others you might not find without the map—or really sharp eyes and a slow pace—like the tiny salamander found on a rock.

There’s a bench at the end of the boardwalk and the refuge encourages visitors to sit and reflect. The brochure puts it perfectly:

The trail is dedicated to you. It meanders, widens and narrows because your walk is about the journey not the destination. Clear your mind of life’s hassles and ease down the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge’s Art Trail. It’s simple: Look and reflect. Stop and listen. Enjoy!

Cutthroat Climb

Toward the end of the boardwalk, you can veer off to do the second part of the art walk. It’s called Cutthroat Climb. And though it’s only two-thirds of a mile, it is steep. Sections can be muddy (it is the Pacific Northwest, after all) and the mud can be slippery.

Bronze Northwestern Salamander. I left the pine needles in for scale.

In a few spots I grabbed tree branches and in others I had my hands out prepared to catch myself if I fell. It never occurred to me because the distance was so short, but I sure wished I’d brought my hiking poles.

I thought Cutthroat seemed like a mean name and that maybe it was named that because of the steepness. But, no, it’s much simpler. It’s named after Cutthroat Trout which is one of many species of fish that call Willapa home. So, I’ll say it so no one has to do the big eye roll, I am not a fisher person. Never heard of the Cutthroat Trout.

Along the Cutthroat Climb, I discovered another 13 art pieces.

From the top of the stairs. This is the photo I texted my sister. Oh so proud of myself, even if it was short-lived.

The beginning of the trail stretches up the valley near the ridge line and up to the headwaters of the stream. I walked with my head down, concentrating on my footing, breathing hard. Then I got to a set of stairs built to get me over a very large downed tree. Then back down again.

I was so happy when I made it to the platform of the stairs. I snapped a photo and sent a text to my sister telling her I’d made it to the top, to the halfway point. I was so proud of myself.

I caught my breath before heading down the other side of the stairs. Then, I opened my brochure and that’s when I found the trail’s detailed map.

The Art Trail brochure. Do you see the metal Tree Salmon on the tree in the background? There were dozens of them. And see the stark 1 in 8 photo on the front of the brochure?

And next I made two very pathetic discoveries. First, I wasn’t at the highest point in the climb as I’d assumed. After I got to the bottom of the stairs, I still had a bit more uphill climbing before starting the walk along the ridge line.

Second, and most pathetic, I’d only gone about 1/5 of the two-thirds-mile trail. I’m too embarrassed to actually do the math on that. I went so little, it’s probably better measured in feet than a fraction of a mile. It sure didn’t feel like it.

My pride balloon popped. But I picked my head up and continued on. I allowed myself to be proud of myself again once I’d finished the whole thing.

Another noteworthy art piece is the Labyrinth. It was too large for me to capture a photo of the full thing, even when standing on one of the benches. The brochure explains, “Labyrinths are for contemplation. Walk the maze and reflect upon the natural world around you.”

The Labyrinth.

I went in November on an overcast day. I loved it, but was well aware how much more beautiful it (and my photos) would be on a blue sky day in summer with all the greenery out. Hmm, maybe that’s why I was the only visitor there. The day was chilly too. But, of course, the hike got me plenty warm.

What a great treasure. Even without the art, it was a treat. So, I’m going to make the effort to get to more refuges in my travels. After all, I have another 600 to choose from.

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