Like the smell of pumpkin spice and fun-sized candy bars at local grocery stores, signs of fall are all around us. The kids are back in school, the Seahawks are back on TV, and the clouds have once again started spitting down rain. For many, this signals a time to retreat indoors and close the book on the year’s outdoor adventures, but don’t fall into that trap!
Fall is not only a gorgeous time to explore Mount Rainier, head to Northwest Trek, or see the fall colors at Point Defiance, it is also a chance to see a mass migration that perfectly represents the Pacific Northwest. We have chosen a handful of destinations around the South Sound to allow you and your family a chance to witness the great fall salmon migration, getting you outside and experiencing a wonderful and remarkable journey to ensure a species survival.
While the future of salmon in the region continues to be up in the air, heading out and seeing them will help boost awareness and hopefully foster compassion for these fish so the spawning migration will return for generations to come.
Puyallup Hatchery and Clark’s Creek
Clark’s Creek is a small tributary of the Puyallup River, and while the salmon run here isn’t huge, the tiny creek is a perfect place to see the thrashing and spawning of salmon each year. The main salmon that return here are chum, and while the numbers may not be more than 400, almost all of them arrive at once in late November. While that may be late in the year, chinook and coho salmon return earlier in the fall, giving you four full months of awesome salmon viewing. Open year round, the sometimes-muddy trail system leads down to the creek and to viewing areas and informational displays. We recommend walking from the parking area all the way to the footbridge for the best possible viewing experience.
Swan Creek Park
Swan Creek Park in Tacoma is a wonderful, family-friendly destination for salmon watching. Each year, this small creek becomes a salmon-spawning paradise, for both the fish and curious humans. With naturalist led walks occurring on October 13 and a celebration of the returning salmon called Salmon Saturday taking place on Saturday, December 8, heading to Swan Creek Park will be an awesome experience. On Salmon Saturday, from 10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., numerous groups will be on hand to educate and lead tours to see the returning salmon. Thanks to The Friends of Swan Creek Watershed, the Tacoma EnviroChallenger Program, and Tacoma Nature Center, you’ll be able to participate in children’s activities, enjoy hands-on activities, and learn about the watersheds that keep the salmon healthy. If you miss the event, you can still head to the park in late November and early December to see the salmon on your own.
Chambers Creek Fish Trap and Hatchery
Late in December, when most of the excitement has vanished for salmon watching, a handful of salmon return up Chambers Creek without much excitement. What was once a large salmon return decades ago has now been reduced to a trickle, thanks to unhealthy waters and the Chambers Creek Dam. After seeing healthy runs in Swan Creek and Clark’s Creek, heading to Chambers Creek is important, as it shows how this small waterway can be with community involvement. While the salmon population here is struggling, those who do come around the turn of the new year can see salmon forging on, despite bad water quality and a myriad of obstacles. Seeing these salmon is a great lesson, as it will help show the need for clean water and community involvement to return this once awesome salmon run to greatness.
Recently restored for salmon habitat, Fennel Creek in Bonney Lake is a great destination for a solid salmon run. With an estimated run of 15,000 salmon, this large tributary to the Puyallup River is a must-see salmon destination. Starting in mid- to late-September and lasting through November, watching the salmon here can feel like a somewhat surreal experience. Surrounded by homes and developments, the trail system can be hard to find, but is totally worth the effort. While salmon watching infrastructure may be missing from this trail, it is yet another gem right here in Pierce County.
South Prairie Creek
Way out on the eastern edge of the county near Buckley, South Prairie Creek makes an incredible salmon watching destination. Each year, between September and January, salmon make their way up this tributary from the Puget Sound, escaping fishermen, birds, pollution, and anything else the world may throw in their direction. While this creek is quite long, there are really only two spots for the best viewing of the salmon. The first is on the eastern side of the tiny town of South Prairie, right near the fire station. Here, you’ll find a rest area where you can watch the salmon surge their way upstream. The second area is found after taking the Lower Burnett Road to the bridge at the intersection of Fettig Road and Lower Burnett. Here, you’ll be able to park on the opposite side of the road from the creek and watch the salmon swimming.