The state Capitol in Olympia offers lessons on how government works and stunning architecture, all offered via several free tours.

Sites to See: Thurston / South Pierce County

Olympia Farmers Market

  • April – Oct., 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday – Sunday
  • Nov. through Dec., Saturday and Sunday
  • 700 N Capitol Way, Olympia
  • olympiafarmersmarket.com

The Olympia Farmers Market, now in its 41st year, is worth the trip down to the waterfront of Budd Bay.

Stroll through the various vendors that feature fresh organic produce, Washington grown fresh fruits, meats, fresh fish, clams and oysters, herbs, dried and fresh cut flowers, healthy breads, desserts, eggs, cheeses, jams and jellies, live entertainment and arts and crafts from local artisans.

For last minute holiday shoppers, the market is open Dec. 22-24.

Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, on the Nisqually River Delta in southern Puget Sound, offers 3,000 acres of salt and freshwater marshes, grasslands, riparian and mixed forest habitats that provide resting and nesting areas for migratory waterfowl, songbirds, raptors and wading birds.

Here, the freshwater of the Nisqually River combines with the saltwater of Puget Sound to form an estuary rich in nutrients and detritus. These nutrients support a web of sea life — the benefits of which extend throughout Puget Sound and beyond.

While most major estuaries in the state have been filled, dredged, or developed, Nisqually River’s has been set aside for wildlife. In 1974, Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge was established to protect the delta and its diversity of fish and wildlife habitats. The Nisqually estuary was restored in 2009 by removing dikes and reconnecting 762 acres with the tides of Puget Sound.  This is the largest estuary restoration project in the Pacific Northwest and an important step in the recovery of Puget Sound.

The refuge was recently renamed the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in honor of the deceased Indian rights activist.

On Wednesdays free bird walk tours are offered. This weekly survey regularly includes a number of the best and most knowledgeable birders to be found in the area. Rain or shine, winter or summer, no corner of the Refuge is left untouched. This group is thorough, moving slowly along all the Refuge trails. It is not unheard of for the Wednesday morning walk to continue for seven hours or more. Birders of all skill levels are welcome.

The walk starts 8 a.m. and is open to the public, with no limit on the number of attendees.

The Nisqually Watershed Festival is Saturday, Sept. 24. The Watershed Festival is an annual celebration featuring art, discovery, and family fun. Festival activities include a free lecture series, guided walks, musical entertainment and great food and coffee. Be sure to bring your own T-shirt to make a fish print with a real Nisqually salmon.

South Sound Speedway

South Sound Speedway offers racing in Rochester just south of Tenino Saturday through September.

South Sound Speedway offers racing in Rochester just south of Tenino Saturday through September.

For the gearheads, the South Sound Speedway just off Interstate 5 at Rochester offers a racing season full of roaring engines and more than a crash or two.

The .375 mile oval race track includes a figure eight course with racing most Saturdays through September.

The South Sound Speedway, located at 3730 183rd Avenue S.W. in Rochester, can be accessed by taking Exit 88 and going east on Old Highway 99.

Most races take place on Saturdays, although there are a few on Sundays. Perhaps the highlight of the racing season is on July 2 when a fireworks show takes place along with the races.

The ticket windows open at 4:45 p.m. The track takes only cash or checks; no credit cards are accepted. Pit passes can be purchased as well starting at 1 p.m. on race day.

After each event, the pit opens to the public for free, allowing race fans to inspect the cars and meet the drivers.

While there make sure to take in the “Seattle Million Dollar Toilets” in the pit area.

The track offers a full slate of food and drinks, including ice cold beer, at two separate concession areas.

Camping is also available, although no campfires are allowed.

For the racing VIP, you can rent a suite for a group of people as the track has 16 VIP sky boxes.

Wolf Haven

  • 311 Offut Lake Road SE, Tenino
  • Open by reservation
  • wolfhaven.org

520ec840c77b6.imageWolf Haven International is hidden away as a sanctuary should be, but certainly worth the short drive north of Tenino. But to visit, contact the sanctuary way ahead of time and make a reservation.

Its mission is to “Conserve and protect wolves and their habitat.” The sanctuary has taken care of 180 displaced captive-born animals since 1982.

The nonprofit Wolf Haven accomplishes this mission through providing sanctuary, education and conservation. Wolf Haven rescues and provides sanctuary for displaced, captive-born wolves, offers educational programs about wolves and the value of all wildlife, promotes wolf restoration in historic ranges and works to protect our remaining wild wolves and their habitat.

Currently, only about 75 Mexican gray wolves are living in the wild, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico. About 300 remain in captivity in the U.S. and Mexico.

The wolves received protection under the Endangered Species Act 37 years ago. The Mexican grays remain one of the most imperiled mammals in North America and are the world’s most at-risk subspecies of gray wolf.

Wolf Haven’s involvement with the animals dates back to 1994 when it was selected to participate in the Species Survival Plan, a recovery program designed to oversee captive population management and enhance conservation in the wild.

Since Wolf Haven got involved, it has produced five litters of Mexican gray pups and released two packs — 11 wolves — into Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. Some of the first Mexican wolves to reenter the wild came from Wolf Haven, which is one of just three pre-release facilities for the species in the United States.

Enjoy a 50-minute guided visit through the public portion of the wolf sanctuary. During your guided walk, learn about wolves, both in captivity and in the wild. Potentially see up to 10 sanctuary residents in a beautiful, natural and serene atmosphere. A self-guided prairie walk and stop at the memorial wolf cemetery are optional.

Its premier summer event, A Midsummer’s Night, offers guests the opportunity to see wolves, hear them howl, learn their stories, eat delicious food, walk through native prairie, camp overnight — and repeat in the morning. Twenty guests have an exclusive opportunity to engage in a deeper way with our organization and support our mission.

Lattin’s Cider Mill

  • Open Year-Round, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays, June 1 to Dec. 31.
  • 9402 Rich Road SE, Tenino
  • lattinscider.com

A visit to Lattin’s Country Cider Mill and Farm, located a few miles east of Interstate 5 and north of Tenino, is a treat to your taste buds.

Like many other tried and true attractions around the area, Lattin’s is a small, family-owned farm that has been cultivating and perfecting its cider since 1976. The apples used in the cider-making process are the purchased directly from the same high-quality growers each year, then stored at a controlled temperature to preserve their crispness.

The family and its employees sorts, washes and cuts each apple by hand — which amounts to up to 75 tons of apples a day during peak times, and translates to 4,000 gallons of fresh cider in one week.

To take a look into the precise process of creating Lattin’s own specific tastes of ciders: The apples are ground and pressed, pasteurized and bottled immediately but no additives, preservatives or sweeteners are added.

Once it’s time to test the product, there is only one way — to take that first sip.

Although apple cider is Lattin’s claim to fame, the mill also produces cider from strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, and they even add a kick to some apple ciders to make spiced ciders.

A stop into the mill gives the viewer and taster the bigger picture of what Lattin’s is all about, as there is much more going on than just the cider production. Visitors can wander about the flower and vegetable gardens, enjoy a picnic complete with cider to drink, and even feed baby farm animals — goats, chickens, roosters, calves, bunnies, lambs and pigs. Lattin’s also offers a year-round maze and play area for kids.

Lattin’s farmers market provides a spread of Eastern Washington fruit, farm fresh eggs, fruit syrups, dried fruit, honey, jam, smoked salmon, Johnson’s Smokehouse meat and cheese products, crisp apples and ready-to-bake frozen pies. Lattin’s also sells pastries and donuts, baked fresh daily. Apple fritters are available Fridays before noon and all weekend.

There is something to look forward to with each season. In the fall Lattin’s hosts its own Apple Festival where partakers can enjoy tractor-drawn wagon rides to a pumpkin patch, the maze as well as bluegrass music, starting the last weekend in September through each weekend in October. The wintertime brings with it Lattin’s Winter Wonderland, where every December the mill and farm boasts thousands of lights, freshly cut Christmas trees and Christmas cookies — and, of course, cider.

Yelm-Tenino Trail

The Yelm-Tenino Trail’s nearly 14 miles offers a pleasant, paved path for walkers, bikers, runners and dog lovers.

The trail connects the cities of Yelm, Rainier and Tenino, passing through Wilkowski Park in Rainier and ending at Tenino City Park.

The trail traverses forest and agricultural lands, wetlands, creeks and other habitat parallel to state Route 507. It’s filled with scenic views, including of the Deschutes River west of Rainier and of McIntosh Lake near Tenino.

The trail, which runs east to west, was acquired by Thurston County in 1993. It operated as a Burlington Northern railroad from about 1869 through the late 1980s.

Pedestrians, bicycles and other non-motorized vehicles are permitted on the trail.

The Yelm-Tenino Trail intersects with the Chehalis-Western Trail, linking the cities of Yelm, Rainier, Tenino, Tumwater, Lacey, Olympia and Woodard Bay on the Puget Sound.

Thurston County Public Works recently completed a pedestrian bridge on Pacific Avenue that links the Chehalis Western Trail with the Woodland Trail and Interstate 5 Bike Trail.

The Yelm trailhead is located behind City Hall and features parking, picnic tables, restrooms and an information kiosk. The Rainier trailhead is located between Centre and Minnesota streets behind Rainier Market with restrooms available. The Tenino trailhead is at the Tenino City Park on Washington Avenue with access to restrooms. The trail can be accessed from just about every road crossing.

Red Wind Casino

Red Wind Casino has undergone $45 million in renovations and expansion this past year, adding new parking, doubling the space of the casino, adding 600 slot machines to the already 975 in place, expanding the smoke-free area of the casino and upgrades to all three casino restaurants.

The new two-story, 40,000-square-foot smoke-free wing includes 27,000 square feet of additional gaming space. A new deli, bar, gift shop, ice cream and espresso bar and additional administrative space complete the building expansion. The building’s design features a unique curved exterior with a cultured stone façade, distinctive interior columns, 22-foot high ceilings, custom native artwork and ambient lighting.

For dining the casino offers the Blue Camas Buffet, the high-end Squalli-Absch Grille, The Medicine Creek Deli and the full-service bar Pealo’s landing. For entertainment, take in The Coho Cabaret for live acts, as well as sporting events played on a 150-inch screen

While at the casino, take time to visit the nearby Tribal Center, which opened in May of 2013. The Tribal Center includes conference rooms and offices for tribal divisions such as the tribal council chambers, community, social service, legal, financial, and human services.

The two-story building, constructed at a cost of $8 million, has a water feature, art and artifacts meaningful to the Nisqually Tribe. The rooftop resembles a native salmon.

A memorial totem pole is on display on the first floor, and was carved and painted by Tommy Dunstan from the Thompson Salish people with help from Nisqually community members. A large piece of bark from a local sequoia tree has been fashioned into a table for one of the boardrooms.

Strike it rich on the casino floor, then take in the strikingly stunning new Tribal Center.

Northwest Trek

  • 11610 Trek Drive E six miles north of Eatonville on state Route 161
  • Open year-round
  • nwtrek.org

Northwest Trek offers a narrated tram tour of a free­-roaming area which allows you to see bison, Roosevelt elk, moose, mountain goats and other native animals, up close in their natural habitats.

A self­-guided walking tour along the paved trails in the core of the park provides the opportunity to see grizzly bears, wolves and more in naturalistic exhibits.

A series of zip lines are a must activity for those touring through south Pierce County. Four zip line courses all require mental toughness and physical agility.

See bison, elk, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats and more from the comfort of heated, enclosed trams. The 50-­minute, naturalist­-guided tram tour winds through 435 acres of meadows, woods, and lakes filled with wildlife native to the Pacific Northwest.

Be the first to spot the bison herd. In the spring, scout a bighorn ewe and her kid in the meadows. Or in the fall, glimpse bull elk locking antlers as they tussle over a mate during the “rut” or breeding season. A knowledgeable and friendly naturalist narrates the tour with fun animal facts and interesting stories about the park.

Walk a paved path through the forest to see large predators such as grizzly bears, wolves, cougars and other native forest animals, all in naturalistic exhibits. The trail is wheelchair­ and stroller ­friendly. A limited number of wheelchairs and strollers are available for rent at the main office, on a first­-come first­-served basis.

Animals are the stars of these trailside presentations, led by keepers. Get up close to a beaver, porcupine, skunk or other small animal. Learn about where they live and what they eat.

Discovering nature is fun for kids of all ages in the Cheney Family Discovery Center interactive environment, which is home to some of the park’s smallest critters. Meet toads, snakes and salamanders. You can’t touch the living animals but you can enjoy hands-­on activities from puppet play to touchable animal pelts.

The Baker Research Cabin is a representation of an old trapper’s cabin and is all about conservation and research including citizen science. Here you have the opportunity to spy on the wolf pack from the kid-­sized observation tunnel or use remote cameras to observe the foxes and coyotes.

The latest addition to Northwest Trek is a nature-inspired $1.9 million two-acre playground that connects children to the natural world called Kids’ Trek. It opened this April.

Elbe

  • Intersection of Highway 7 and state Route 706 in southeast Pierce County
  • Open year-round
  • visitrainier.com

Mount RainierAlthough the town of Elbe boasted a population of just 29 people in a recent census, this small town has quite a bit to offer to visitors traveling through.

The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad and Museum, a nonprofit heritage railroad, begins its train rides at its depot in Elbe, located at 54124 Mountain Highway E.

Those who take advantage to experience this excursion will get to ride on the longest continuously operating steam railroad in the Northwest, a rarity these days as few steam-powered passenger railroads still exist in the Northwest.

Passengers will get to see phase two of the new Mineral museum, along with the world’s largest collection of displayed steam logging locomotives. The steam train runs almost every weekend from May through October.

The Historic Train Depot also houses one of two Mount Rainier Visitor Centers heading towards the southwest entrance to Mount Rainier. The visitor center is open Thursday through Sunday, from Memorial Day to Oct. 31.

Visitors to the area can enjoy taking in the sight of the Historic Little White Church of Elbe, built in 1906 and still standing in its original location, right off Highway 7. The 18-by-24-foot church is an emblematic structure for the historically German town as it reads “Ev. Luth. KIRCHE” (Evangelische Lutherische Kirche) on its steeple, a reminder of the founders’ German origins.

The church was designed by its first pastor, Karl Kilian, and built by the townspeople. It still bears its original altar and elevated pulpit as well as one of the handmade pews.

Worship services are held at 2:30 p.m. on the third Sunday of the month from March through November, and the church is open to tourists during the summer.

For a dining break and even a place to stay, tourists can head over to the Mount Rainier Railroad Dining Company, which sits right on the pathway of the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, at 54106 Mountain Highway East.

The family-owned company offers quite the array of food on its menu, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The family prides itself on offering a unique dining experience and is most proud of its “family secret” house-smoked tastes, including Alder Smoked Prime Rib and smoked poultry, pork and fish. Other favorites include home-cut cheddar fries, hand-dipped Louisiana prawns, homemade lasagna and beer-battered hoki.

Since starting out as a popcorn stand on a street corner in Elbe, the Rainier Railroad Dining Company has expanded by adding The Hobo Inn (a caboose motel), a gift shop, the Cascadian Dinner Train as well as the restaurant and lounge.

For those interested in a classic American hamburger and milkshake, across the street from the Rainier Railroad Dining Company is the greasy spoon joint Scaleburgers. Some claim there is no better burger, and it is listed as the ninth best burger in the state by www.road-quest.com.

Ashford

Mount RainierAs the gateway town to Mount Rainier’s Nisqually Valley, the only year-round entrance to the national park, Ashford offers local and out-of-town visitors alike a plethora of options as it pertains to lodging, dining, shops, outfitters and even spas and fitness centers during their stay.

Ashford is a base camp of sorts for those pushing onward to climb and scale the peak. Lodging is unique to the area, from cottages to lodges to bed and breakfasts, cabins and even a chalet, which blend in perfectly with the mountain theme and experience.

High Rock Lookout offers a stunning view of Mount Rainier and is considered one of Washington state’s most stunning lookouts. Hikers gain an elevation of 1,350 during the steep 3.2 miles and estimated three-hour hike. No trailhead pass required. Go to www.visitrainier.com for details on the trail and specific location of the starting point.

For those not only interested in climbing Mount Rainier, Ashford offers more than 20 miles of intermediate to expert category mountain biking, hiking trails and, in the winter, snowshoeing routes. The outskirts of the Gateway to Paradise are also home to Painters Art Gallery and Ashford Creek Pottery, both on Highway 706.

Ashford also boasts Ashford County Park, a 30-acre park that was completed in the spring of 2010. It has a children’s play area, a 1.2-mile perimeter walking path as well as interior paths, a restroom facility and a native plant life list. The park is located along 706 as well.

The Mount Rainier Visitor Center in Ashford, located in Whittaker Mountaineering’s Summit House (30027 SE 706 East), holds summer hours of 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and is open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday until 5 p.m. during the winter.

Ashford holds an array of restaurants, including Wildberry Restaurant, Rainier BaseCamp Grill, Gateway Inn Resort, Copper Creek Inn and Lodge, Alexander’s Country Inn and Highlander Steakhouse and Lounge.

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