Driving and Discovering: Olympia

olympia washington capitol in autumn

Head out for a day and explore the areas just off I-5 near Olympia. There are some cool places to see!

Olympia, WA

When driving past Olympia on I-5, you can’t help but notice the foliage. The landscaping as you near Washington’s state capitol city is wonderful year-round, but becomes outstanding in the fall. Going around the curves around the city, you catch tantalizing glimpses of the capitol dome peaking out through the trees. The capitol sits not far from the I-5 exit and is very easy to find. In a few blocks you are on the capitol grounds. The city itself is actually very easy to navigate and quite walkable. The campus is fairly level and sits not far from the downtown shopping and restaurant district. The interior of the capitol is grand and quite stunning and well worth taking the time for a tour or walk about yourself. The downtown area is full of restaurants and shops that are fun to wander and explore. Several restaurants are set next to the waterfront where you can watch boats sail in and out of the marina as you enjoy your lunch.

The colorful Capitol interior architecture

Mima Mounds Natural Area

Littlerock, WA


mima mounds thurston county wa

After visiting the capitol city, head south on I-5 and dive off at the Littlerock exit and head west on Maytown road. You’ll soon pass through the little town of Littlerock, but head straight until the road comes to a T (the road becomes 128th Ave SW). Go right onto Waddell Creek Road and in about a mile, the entrance to Mima Mounds Natural Area will be on your left. A Washington Discover Pass is required to park. You will immediately notice the ground is not level here. Small little mounds dot the landscape, as if a landscaper had come and mounded up the soil for dramatic effect. Except the further you walk on the paths, the more you realize it is an entire field filled with seemingly perfectly spaced circular mounds of soil. Small trees have grown on top of several of the mounds, like a flag atop a castle. First stop is the interpretive center with stairs to a top level where you can have a better view of the area. Colorful signage helps you understand the mounds, the area geology, the ecosystem, and hypotheses on how people think they were formed. Explore the paths, photograph these unusual mounds. In spring the Camassia wildflowers arrive in the Spring, and in the fall they are covered with buff prairie grass. Enjoy this fascinating natural wonder probably left behind following the great Missoula floods thousands of years ago – just leave no trace behind and be respectful of this fragile ancient landscape. When driving between Littlerock/ Maytown / Tenino area, don’t miss the Mima Mounds that carry over onto the east side of the freeway too – mostly used for pasture grazing. The mounds are a wide-spread natural phenomena in this area, but only the one park is set aside and preserved.

Monarch Sculpture Park

8431 Waldrick Rd SE, Tenino WA


Seemingly out in the middle of nowhere you stumble across a park filled with contemporary art. Located about 10-15 minutes east of I-5, this nonprofit arts center and sculpture park is unexpected to say the least. It began over 20 years ago and is showing its age at the moment, but is currently undergoing restoration. The 5 acre grounds are free to the public to explore and admire the wide variety of artistic styles. From an oversized croquet set to an elegant trio of white figures and everything in-between, there is no end to the range of sculptures you’ll find.

This interesting little art-in-the-garden park at first gives you a feeling as if you are walking into someone’s back yard, but it is meant to be explored. Follow the rough path which takes you down a slope into the lower garden where most of the collection of over 100 sculptures are placed. The path might be difficult for those with mobility issues. The park is open to the public dawn to dusk, 7 days a week. It has limited car parking available, but is along a very nice paved path, part of the Chehalis Western Trail for bicyclists and walkers. Don’t forget to drop a donation in their box before you leave to help with their restoration!

The Barn Nursery

9510 Old Hwy 99 SE, Olympia WA


the barn nursery in olympia

Driving and exploring the eastern side of I-5 near Olympia, I stumbled across a nursery that made me wish I lived closer to so I could shop there regularly. I love gardening, and was happy to wander their plant collection, but was especially surprised to find their extensive gift shop inside. Way beyond the typical houseplants, seeds, and trowels you’d expect, their gift shop had fabulous gifts, women’s clothing, jewelry, home goods, and great children’s section you might normally find on the main street in a downtown area. The interior barn was packed to the rafters with elegantly displayed and styled collections. I highly recommend stopping here if you’re in the area!

the barn nursery in olympia

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