Skip to Content

The Great Washington State Birding Trail: A Guide for Birders

the great washington state birding trail
An American Goldfinch, Washington’s State Bird: Photo by Mason Maron

For bird lovers across the globe, Washington State is a prime destination. That’s thanks to the incredible diversity of habitats, from rugged Pacific coastlines to high elevation meadows, rainforests to desert. And the best way to experience it all is through the Great Washington State Birding Trail. This extensive network, made up of over 450 sites, allows you to spot hundreds of bird species across the state. 

Whether you call Washington home or you’re traveling halfway across the world, this guide will help you get the most out of this incredible birder’s paradise. Let’s get started!

The History Behind the Great Washington State Birding Trail

To understand the diversity of the birding trail today, it helps to know how it first began. The Great Washington State Birding Trail was established in 1997 by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. 

The goal was to promote wildlife viewing opportunities across the state while also protecting sensitive habitats. By directing visitors to designated trails and sites, the department could raise awareness of birding locations without disturbing key nesting areas.

The result of these efforts is a trail spanning over 2,500 miles! It includes sites from every corner of Washington, showcasing mountain meadows, coastal rainforests, river valleys, high deserts, and more. 

From Washington residents looking to explore their home state to visitors flying in from across the world, the trail appeals to birders of all levels. It allows beginners to easily find hotspots while giving experts access to less-explored regions harboring rare species.

The Loops of the Birding Trail

The Great Washington State Birding Trail features seven primary loops that let you explore the diverse bioregions of the state. From coastal rainforests to high deserts, each area provides unique birding opportunities.

Cascade Loop

This loop in northwest Washington travels along the coast and into the Cascade Mountain Range. Spot seabirds, bald eagles, snow geese, and the huge flocks of trumpeter swans that gather in the Skagit Valley each winter. 

Coulee Corridor 

Following the Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway, this route offers incredible bird diversity. Over half the state’s annual species are recorded here, including thousands of migrating sandhill cranes in spring and fall. The shrub-steppe habitat provides ample public lands for birding.

Olympic Loop

Winding through rainforests and rugged Pacific coastline, this loop harbors elusive species. Search for marbled murrelets in old-growth Douglas Firs and wandering tattlers along wave-swept shores at sunset. 

Palouse to Pines Loop

From ponderosa pines to desert lakes, this trail hosts 215 annually recorded species. The rivers and forests draw huge flocks of migrating tundra swans. 

Puget Loop

Spanning Seattle to Mt. Rainier while circling the islands, this loop provides mountain and coastal species. Look for bald eagles, pileated woodpeckers, pacific wrens, Anna’s hummingbirds, and more.

Southwest Loop 

Diverse birds match the diverse landscapes, from pelicans over lakes to herons in wetlands. Coastal dunlin and sanderling feed along sandy beaches. 

Sun and Sage Loop

This eastern loop combines mountains, canyons, valleys, and rivers. Spot soaring hawks, lively woodpeckers, and busy kingfishers across the varied terrain.

With this variety, you’ll experience the full diversity Washington’s birds have to offer! Let me know if you would like me to expand on any section further.

Top Regional Hotspots on the Birding Trail

One of the things that makes the Great Washington State Birding Trail so special is the diversity of terrain. Each region provides a totally different experience. Here’s an overview of must-visit areas:

Olympic Peninsula

This remote peninsula offers rugged coastal hikes to spot seabirds and shorebirds. Key spots include Rialto Beach, Second Beach, and Hurricane Ridge. Keep an eye out for black oystercatchers, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots, pacific wrens, and more. Early morning is best for activity.

San Juan Islands

Lounge with a pair of binoculars on Lime Kiln Point State Park and watch whales pass by as you take in seabirds, raptors, and songbirds. Harlequin ducks and bald eagles are highlights. Time your visit for late summer/early fall migration.

Mt. Rainier National Park

Paradise is a famous subalpine meadow perfect for gray-crowned rosy finches, American pipits, and other high elevation species. Take the Skyline Trail for the best views. Late spring to early summer is peak.

Central Washington

Sagebrush steppe comes alive with the songs of sage thrashers, Brewer’s sparrows, and more. Visit the Scotch Creek Wildlife Area for the best access. Birding is excellent from March to June.

Walla Walla 

Surprising birds in wine country! Try the Bennington Lake Trail for lazuli buntings, western tanagers, and Bullock’s orioles. Migration brings rewards April-May and August-September.

The coast, high alpine, dry interior, east to west: the diversity is endless! And within each area, you’ll find dozens of birding trails and sites teeming with our feathered friends.

Tips and Tricks for Birding Success on the Great Washington State Birding Trail 

To help you make the most of your experience on the trail, here are some pro tips:

  • Time trips for migratory peaks in April-May and August-September.
  • Maximize activity at dawn and dusk when birds are most active.
  • If needed, use bird call playback very briefly and ethically to attract species.
  • Invest in a quality spotting scope for waterfowl/shorebird viewing.
  • Target habitats, i.e. early morning coastal wetlands for rails. 
  • Stop at subalpine meadows for rare high elevation species like Rosy Finches.
  • Pack layers and proper footwear trails can be steep and rugged.
  • Be patient and move slowly quick movements will scare birds away.
  • Travel with an experienced birder if you’re new you’ll learn a ton!

Following these tips, you’re sure to come home with long lists of incredible sightings.

Planning Your Trip on the Great Washington State Birding Trail

The amount of sites and ground to cover on the trail can seem daunting. Here are some key resources to help:

  • Audubon Washington official website – search by region, printable checklists, site guides, including downloadable maps of all seven loops
  • eBird Hotspots – bird sightings reported in real time by birders
  • Facebook Groups – ask questions and connect with the community
  • Local Audubon Chapters – enjoy events/classes and local expertise 
  • WA Department of Fish and Wildlife – updates, regulations, and advisories

From scoping out sites ahead of time to connecting with the community, these resources will help you plan your perfect trip down to the last detail.

Conclusion

Ready for an unforgettable birding adventure?

The sheer diversity of terrain, habitats, and species accessible on the Great Washington State Birding Trail make it a top destination for birders across the globe. Whether you’re a beginner or expert, enjoy this in-depth guide and get ready for a memorable birding experience.

Prepare for a trip down the Great Washington State Birding Trail by studying up on the state’s birdlife. What’s your favorite spot on Washington’s birding trail? Ask any questions below on locations, tips, or must-see species. The birding community can’t wait to discuss this incredible resource right in our backyard!