Youth Outside: Discover the Magic of Winter with Olympia Youth Programs

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, we dive into the magical world of the Olympia Youth Programs in the Northwest winter.
Becky Nielsen Becky Nielsen
Olympia Youth Program Manager
January 04, 2020

As a child, do you remember anything more exciting than a snow day? The magic of waking up to a blanket of crisp white snow, the world outside your door transformed into something new and seemingly boundless, was unlike anything else. You’d grab your coat, tug on boots, and run outside to dive headfirst into winter, making snowballs, swooshing your arms into a snow angels, and grinning ear-to-ear at the snow-capped trees. On snow days, the cold didn’t seem quite as bitter and your cheeks didn’t feel quite as red. The world was a whole new place to be explored.

Although we don’t often see snowy mornings in the lowland Northwest, the magic and excitement they spark is something to celebrate and emulate whenever you have the chance. That’s why we’re proud that we have the ability to offer kids in our Olympia Youth Programs winters full of adventure. Our Explorers Youth Clubs have gone snowshoeing around Paradise, cross-country skiing through the forest of Crystal Springs, and igloo building at Mt. Rainier. Parents are directly involved on our trips, and the benefits are two-fold: not only do they share a precious snow day with their kids, they often learn a trick or two that will help them get outside with their families on their own.

Through our youth and family programming, we seek to break down barriers to getting outside, especially when it comes to adverse conditions or accessing remote places. We review clothing needs to make sure our snow frolickers stay warm and dry, facilitate the daunting process of permits and passes, provide equipment, and pick out beautiful spots to enjoy. We even have alternatives ready, just in case our ever-inconsistent weather sabotages Plan A.

However, we recognize that not all families are looking for time in the snow. Fortunately we know about activities that are simply better in the cold, dark, wet days of fall and winter. Certain animals make their appearance this time of year, including salmon. We are blessed to have multiple creeks with salmon runs in November, and short hikes to Kennedy Creek or the McLane Nature Trail provide a great spot to see them. This doubles as a learning opportunity for volunteer leaders to teach youth about the lifecycles of salmon and their importance in our ecosystem. Elk also come down to the lowlands in fall as rutting season begins! A family forest hike in the Olympics or Cascades offers the chance to see or hear the captivating Roosevelt Elk. Each year our volunteers lead a family hike into these areas, hoping to admire the elk and catch a glimpse of the fat, slippery salmon that swim through our rivers. 

As we transition into winter, one of my favorite activities is finding birds. Many species come to our wetlands only in winter, making this time of year exciting for aspiring birders. The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is a wonderful place to spend a winter day. Their long boardwalk protects you from wetland mud and makes the adventure easy for smaller children. Pintails and scoters and shovelers all make appearances – be sure to bring a pair of binoculars and a bird guide or two! In February owls nest high in the trees, and the bare branches make it easy to see them if you know where to look. Our youth have become better birders every year, peering into the trees with their binoculars. 

If birding isn’t your cup of tea, wonderful waterfalls can always be found. As winter progresses our foliage recedes and rainfall increases, offering great views of flowing creeks and waterfalls. For families, we offer short hikes to big waterfalls and lovely creek hikes that have some rain protection, lush vegetation, and are not too long or grueling.

And with that abundant rain our mosses and lichens, adorning the trees and the trail, return in full force! These amazing plants rehydrate in fall and winter to give us fairy-tale forests, fit for a woodland elf. Find a trail with a giant moss-covered tree and give it a hug – you can even look for mushrooms along the way. A few of our favorite trails are near the Skokomish River and Quinault. To make the trip even more exciting, grab a simple guidebook and magnifying glasses to open up the world of miniature plants. Fungi and mosses will fascinate your kids (and you!) when admired up close. We will be offering a children’s naturalist hike this winter, and are excited to help our youth explore the magical world of the forest.

Winter is also an excellent time to help out with stewardship. Tree plantings often happen during this time, and we partner with local stewardship groups on restoration activities. Last year our Explorers youth club built tree swallow nests to replace our local land trusts’ old, decaying ones. This year we hope to visit the nests and clean them out. We will also build new boxes where our local bat populations can seek shelter.

Though we love new and exciting events, our Olympia branch holds a few family-friendly traditions near and dear to our hearts. Our annual Gnome Tea Party in early December is a way for us to thank the little stewards of the woods and enjoy a family gathering of both humans and gnomes in a covered outdoor setting. After a fun gnome-making party, we hide our creations in the forest for a game of hike-and-seek. We then enjoy a short hike to gather the gnomes for a party, where we enjoy forest delicacies, including Douglas fir tea and natural gnome treats served on tiny wooden plates. 

Gnomes.jpgHand-made forest gnomes. Photo by Jaq Morrill.

We also love to take advantage of the wet weather and minimal fire danger in winter. On a dark and cold day, a nice hot fire is enough to coax you outside. We have two great activities each year, our annual bonfire and Cooking with Fire. Our bonfire is a great opportunity to teach youth fire safety skills in a fun, social setting. Our Cooking with Fire event is exciting as well, allowing kids to learn how to start and maintain a fire before cooking over it! More complex than roasting a marshmallow on a stick, we love to sneak a little education and creativity into our activities.

Although summer gets all the press, winter is a truly unique time in the Northwest that offers opportunities for our kids to learn, explore, and grow. Whether you’ve spent your life outdoors or are just beginning, we’d love to have you and your children on one of our activities or in our year-round youth clubs. We offer opportunities for youth aged 6 to 18, and all are welcome. Get outside with us and discover a new bird, cozy up to a crackling fire, or enjoy the pinkcheeked thrill of a new snowfall. We promise to get your kids grinning ear-to-ear.


The Mountaineers offers youth programs for kids and teens at our Seattle, Tacoma, Kitsap, and Olympia branches. From outreach programs to day camps to year-long clubs, youth across the Puget Sound are invited to join us outside to enjoy the incredible lands and waters of the Northwest. For more information, please visit mountaineers.org/youth.


This article originally appeared in our Winter 2020 issue of Mountaineer Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


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