The Best Salmon Watching in Olympia, Washington

Olympia doesn’t have a great reputation around the state. From Spokane to Bellingham, and Vancouver to Ocean Shores, the capitol of Washington State is known mostly for politics and a somewhat drab downtown scene. Outsiders might quickly stop by on trips to more exotic locations, but for most, Olympia is skipped over. Even locals avoid downtown Olympia, but those who decide to skip this small town at the southern end of the Puget Sound are missing a spectacular annual event. At the end of August and first few weeks of September, the waters around Olympia become full of salmon, migrating home to spawn and die. While this event happens in most cities around the state, Olympia is one of the few that offers a stunning viewing area where you can watch salmon, seals and the tides, all from an overlook above the water. 

Starting NOW (8/28/17), the best place to see salmon in downtown Olympia is from the 5th Avenue Dam, conveniently placed between the 4th Avenue Bridge and Capitol Lake. From the metal walkway over the water, visitors and salmon enthusiasts are able to see schools of salmon circling as handfuls of seals chase, hunt and devour these tasty salmon treats. With eagles soaring overhead, bullhorn lining the shores and the occasional otter popping out to see what is going on, standing on the dam’s walkway is the ideal and preferred way to see salmon heading up the Deschutes River past Tumwater Falls. Later in September, visitors to Tumwater Falls Park will have a chance to see them swim up the fish ladder toward the fish hatchery. Once they are there, you might get lucky enough to see them being harvested, after their eggs and sperm are removed by wildlife officials. What a fun job!

Salmon Watching can be hit and miss, which is why it is important to know the best time to watch them. Starting about three hours before high tide, the salmon will congregate around the entrance to the dam, attracted by the freshwater flowing out. For hours on end, the schools of chinook will circle around, waiting for the moment when it is right to enter the lake and head upriver. As the salmon wait, hungry seals quickly approach, working in teams to panic the fish and pick of the slower and weaker salmon. If you are lucky, you will have an opportunity to watch the seals devour a salmon near where you are standing.

To better help visitors understand what is going on, volunteers from the Stream Team, a local group, will be available. Even when they aren’t able to answer questions, numerous signs along the walkway will help educate any and all who are interested in understand this huge salmon migration. During the last weekend in August, I was able to watch the salmon for three solid hours, and even watched a seal successfully hunt and eat a salmon, all from downtown Olympia. Say what you will about the capitol city, but this experience alone makes living here worthwhile. Olympia is awesome.

A sign placed by Stream team in Olympia
A sign placed by Stream team in Olympia
Salmon swimming at the southern end of Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
Salmon swimming at the southern end of Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
Seals approaching the school of salmon near Capitol Lake in Olympia, Wa
Seals approaching the school of salmon near Capitol Lake in Olympia, Wa
The hunt is on! Salmon swimming away from an attacking seal in Budd Inlet, Olympia, Wa
The hunt is on! Salmon swimming away from an attacking seal in Budd Inlet, Olympia, Wa
A seal chasing the salmon, visible from the 5th Ave Dam in Olympia, Wa
A seal chasing the salmon, visible from the 5th Ave Dam in Olympia, Wa
A seal attempting to kill a chinook salmon, as seen from Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
A seal attempting to kill a chinook salmon, as seen from Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
A seal killing a chinook salmon, as seen from Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
A seal killing a chinook salmon, as seen from Budd Inlet in Olympia, Wa
Dinner time for a seal, as it feasts on a Chinook Salmon in Olympia, Wa
Dinner time for a seal, as it feasts on a Chinook Salmon in Olympia, Wa
Seagulls fighting over discarded/stolen salmon meat in Budd Inlet of Olympia, Wa
Seagulls fighting over discarded/stolen salmon meat in Budd Inlet of Olympia, Wa
This chinook lived to see another day, despite getting bit by a seal in Budd Inlet of Olympia, Wa
This chinook lived to see another day, despite getting bit by a seal in Budd Inlet of Olympia, Wa
Salmon swimming in Budd Inlet, Olympia, Wa. The salmon are waiting to head upstream, spawn and die.
Salmon swimming in Budd Inlet, Olympia, Wa. The salmon are waiting to head upstream, spawn and die.

How Can You Have This Experience?

Visit Downtown Olympia!

Where can I see the Salmon? https://goo.gl/maps/MFNks 

When Will I see Salmon? All Day, but the best time is 3-4 hours before high tide for the first few weeks of September

When is High Tide? http://bit.ly/1O2GNrd 

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Calendars for 2018, published with love by THE OUTDOOR SOCIETY.

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By Doug and Mathias on the Olympic Peninsula, Washington State

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