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Learn about the history and wildlife of the Willapa Bay

Visit the Willapa Seaport Museum and the Willapa Art Trail

Some of the many exhibits at the Willapa Seaport Museum in Raymond. Photo credit: Willapa Seaport Museum

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December is the perfect month for day trips to the areas surrounding Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). Willapa Bay, famed for its oysters, is a pristine body of water around an hour and a half drive from JBLM.

We'll start the day with a unique hike at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, have lunch in South Bend and end the day with a museum visit in Raymond.

A scenic drive down Highway 101 south to milepost 24 brings you to your first stop, where you will park at the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge for a hike combining the Willapa Art Trail and the Cutthroat Climb loop.

The Art Trail is a unique experience, utilizing commissioned pieces of art instead of traditional educational signs to inform visitors about the wildlife and habitat. The artwork for the trail was designed by students in the University of Washington's Public Arts Program.

The works along the route commemorate the restoration of a small stream, and a curved boardwalk makes for an easy walk following a saltwater marsh, stream and ponds, which host a variety of wildlife.

At the end of the art trail you can pick up the Cutthroat Climb, a three-quarter-mile loop with some mild elevation changes and wooden stairs that can get slippery if it is wet. You will wander through an old-growth forest of hemlocks surrounded by lush green ferns. The trail is enhanced with artist Becca Weiss' birds, which are displayed beside the trail. Children will enjoy the interactive signs, which challenge them to guess the tracks of animals and silhouettes of aquatic life.

After your hike, head into South Bend and stop to refuel at Robert Bush Park. Here, overlooking the Willapa River, it's only a stroll across the parking lot to enjoy either of two options for lunch. Elixir Coffee Tea & Flowers is on the waterfront and features a nice lunch selection of sandwiches and salads.

Betzy's Tienda Mexicana is housed in a rustic shack located in the parking lot. While the building itself has seen better times, don't let its humble exterior fool you. Within awaits great, inexpensive Mexican food, ordered from the counter and delivered fresh and hot to your table.

South Bend is known as the Oyster Capital of the World, so if you have a hankering for oysters, head to River View Dining. A little further down river, this is a fun, family-owned business, but be prepared for a long wait and a "vintage" atmosphere. People at this popular spot rave about the barbecued oysters. Check out the reviews on Trip Advisor, where photos will have you craving the succulent shellfish.

After lunch head into Raymond. The Willapa Seaport Museum is one of those little cultural institutions that don't take too long to visit but are worth a stop. As a 501(c)3 operation, its volunteer staff is passionate about the maritime history of the area. Its quirky collection includes not only nautical items but military collections dating from the War of 1812 to World War I.

Kids will enjoy the Pirate Loft and learning how to tie knots from one of the volunteers. You can also learn about some of the ships that were built at the Sanderson & Porter shipyard in Raymond.

Big cities like Seattle and Portland seem to draw all the attention and tourists, but while you are stationed in the Northwest, make sure to allow time to visit some of these small town gems.

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