Located just south of the capitol city of Olympia, Washington is the historic town of Tumwater. Just east of I-5, exit 103, sits the Tumwater Falls Park. The river that runs through it is the Deschutes River, which ends in Capitol Lake.
Once it was an area where Native Americans gathered. Years ago I took an archaeology class through South Puget Sound Community College and we took a field trip to the shores of the Deschutes River, to a spot just north of the park. There we were shown an old shell midden, which is basically a dump area for meal leftovers for local Native Americans. It was fascinating to find and touch old shells that were remnants of the people who had once inhabited the area.
Then in 1845 a group of pioneers settled in the area and built around the falls. Later, as it became famous for its artesian water, the Olympia Brewing Company was built right next to the falls. The building now stands empty but doesn’t detract from the beauty of the falls. The park is now on the historic register and is maintained and operated by a non-profit organization, the Olympia Tumwater Foundation.
You enter the park through the parking lot, located at 110 Deschutes Parkway. This part of the part has a nice lawn, picnic tables, restrooms and play structures for the kids. Nearby is a fish hatchery-holding area to process migrating salmon from the fish ladders. Until 1954 fish were unable to get over the falls so fish ladders were built.
There are actually three falls on the river – Upper Tumwater Falls, Middle Tumwater Falls, and Tumwater Falls. It’s easy to quickly get out and look at the Upper Tumwater Falls first, and to think that’s all there is, but plan to take the time to explore all of the falls. There is a nice lightly graveled walking trail that goes along the river and falls for about ½ mile with two foot bridges to get you over the water. Benches along the way provide a comfortable way to relax and take in the vivid, almost glowing greenery of the surrounding native plants or to be mesmerized by the sound of the rushing falls.
If you are looking for a quick outdoor experience, whether you live in the area or are just passing through, Tumwater Falls Park is the perfect stop. It provides the fresh air, exercise and beautiful northwest foliage that can improve even the most gray-dreary moods!