Created in 1937 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge consists of several management units in Washington’s Willapa Bay just north of the mouth of the Columbia River. Leadbetter Point, the northernmost portion of the refuge, is located at the very tip of Long Beach Peninsula, which forms the barrier between the bay and the Pacific. Several more units sit due east from the base of the peninsula, and the Long Island Unit occupies the southern portion of the bay.
Together these units offer 11,000 acres of habitat for a wide array of birds, mammals, terrestrial and intertidal invertebrates, and fish. Roosevelt elk, black-tailed deer, and American black bears are among the larger mammals, while Chinook, chum, coho salmon circulate in the bay along with steelhead, sculpin, and sturgeon. Willapa Bay is well known for the clams that dwell in the vast mud flats that form in the bay. Willapa Bay was originally established to protect bird habitat, and the success of the protection is manifest: eagles, hawks herons, wrens, pelicans, woodpeckers, kingfishers, owls, and countless songbirds are just some of the 200 species that live here. Fourteen endangered species may also be found, including the western snowy plover, the marbled murrelet, and the Oregon silverspot butterfly.
The Long Island Unit, the largest unit by area, is an easy paddle from the boat launch near the headquarters and visitor center. Twenty first-come, first-served campsites distributed among the island’s five campgrounds mean visitors can enjoy the unusual opportunity to spend the night, or several, in a wildlife refuge. Because Willapa is such a shallow bay, the tidal effect is mesmerizing; it can be enough to find a comfortable vantage point and spend the day watching for wildlife as the landscape changes around you. An old logging road system makes exploring the island’s interior easy, whether you’re interested in a short stroll or a longer exploration of the Don Bonker Cedar Grove or any of the neighboring camps. Alternately, roll up your pants and head out at low tide to gather clams from the public shellfishing areas.
The mud flats that emerge at low tide mean that access to and from the island is best accomplished at or near high tide, though the landing directly across from the boat launch is accessible at all tides. Arriving at other areas on Long Island outside of this timeframe carries the real risk of becoming stranded on the mud flats. Strong winds can be a significant challenge to paddlers as well. It is roughly 2 miles from the boat launch to Pinnacle Rock Campground, closer to 3.5 miles to Smokey Hollow Campground, just under 5 miles to Sand Spit Campground, and just over 5 miles to Lewis Campground on the eastern side of the island.