JARS v46n4 - Tumwater Falls Park

Tumwater Falls Park
Steve Gangsei
Olympia, Washington

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Olympia, Wash., is the Olympia Brewery tour. Here, visitors get to see the making of Olympia and Pabst Blue Ribbon beers and even try free samples.

Unfortunately, most of those tourists fail to visit one of Olympia's loveliest parks which is less than 100 yards away. The Tumwater Falls Park is nestled near the mouth of the Deschutes River. It encompasses several acres and has the usual green lawns for Frisbee throwing and playgrounds. But it also has some special features many parks lack.

Waterfalls with R. williamsianum.
Waterfalls with R. williamsianum .
Photo by Steve Gangsei

Just stroll past the buildings, down the hill, and take the river trail. From the first bridge you'll see a rather gentle waterfall and rushing river. The second bridge spans great thunderous falls, and during the winter rainy season the mist can be drenching.

What's between the bridges will excite your senses. Rhododendrons and other plants grow along the banks and flourish under the moist conditions. A stray kalmia or deciduous azalea pokes out along the trail, and on the west side there's a fish ladder.

If you've never seen a salmon run, stopping here in autumn is a thrill. Salmon on their way upstream to spawn must negotiate many obstacles and waterfalls are among the toughest. But man has helped fish in this instance by building a series of connecting water chambers which climb alongside the falls. Visitors marvel as large fish swim from chamber to chamber like boats going through locks. These ladders help ensure that more fish make the complete journey to spawn.

Fish ladder.
Fish ladder.
Photo by Steve Gangsei

The park also has significant rhododendron features. Along the perimeter is a huge hedge of mature plants. It's a mixture of species and "old-time" hybrids which have survived splendidly through the years.

Many of those plants were donated by John and Shirley Eichelser who for years operated a wholesale nursery in Olympia. John was twice president of the Olympia Chapter of the ARS and the club has awarded him the Bronze Medal. When John passed away in 1985, the Olympia Chapter asked permission to set aside a portion of the park as a memorial garden for John. Today, a bronze plaque rests on a hillside overlooking the falls and is surrounded by the rhododendrons with which John spent so much time.

The Olympia Chapter still uses the park every spring for its truss show and landscape display. A huge mound of sawdust, truckloads of moss and plants from members' collections create a three day rhododendron fairyland. Colors cascade through the trees as the plan takes shape and scores of cut trusses catch the eyes of visitors. Often, several hundred people stop to ooh and ahh over the flowers and even more just drive by to catch a glimpse.

If you happen to be in Olympia, Wash., in the future, do stop by the brewery. But also take a moment to visit Tumwater Falls Park. This multi-faceted gem will provide sights and memories you'll take with you wherever you go.

Steve Gangsei is a member of the Olympia Chapter.