The area between Everett and Marysville doesn't look like much from the highway.
There are some industrial businesses, some idled farms, and water treatment facilities for both communities. And of course there's the Snohomish River and its many sloughs.
Since before statehood, people have worked to tame the Snohomish, diking it's braids to channel the brackish water so they could farm the rich soil. Now they're going the other way.
In recent years, governments have purchased around 1,000 acres of the former wetlands, in some cases breaching the dikes to provide better homes for wildlife, in others using them for recreation by creating parks and trails.
The bottom line is the area provides a great opportunity for people to get some outdoor exercise or to just have fun while seeing a wide variety of birds and other critters.
Depending on the season and the time of day, people visiting the river estuary can see herons, eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, ducks, geese, deer, otters, osprey, and other wildlife.
Here are several options, based on your feelings about physical activity:
Walk, run, bike
Take the waterfront trail starting at the City of Everett's Langus Park.
The park itself is nice, but it's also a great starting point for an asphalt trail along the river that goes for about two miles to Spencer Island, a wildlife refuge.
In recent trips, I've seen couples walking along, people with dogs, families with kids in strollers and on bikes, and runners. The park is near the Everett rowing center, so in addition to wildlife, you're likely to see rowers exercising on foot or in their rowing shells.
With so much to see, it's a quick walk to Spencer Island, an area farmed by the Spencer family starting in the late 1800s.
"These areas had remarkable soil," said Everett historian David Dilgard. "People would start diking and draining it (to keep out floodwaters) and then let the rain leach the salt out of the soil."
Spencer was last used to raise cattle. Snohomish County bought the property for its park system in 1989 and has allowed some of the dikes to be breached. That means you no longer can walk along the perimeter of the entire island, but you can walk a loop trail along the south end. The state allows hunting on the north end of the island, but the season ended in mid-March, so you can safely walk portions of that area as well.
Because the island is part of the river estuary, its water ebbs and flows with the tide. If you're not a big fan of looking at mud, you might want to plan your visit at some time other than low tide.
Some runners like to include the island on their trip, but if you're interested in wildlife, you're better off taking your time there and looking and listening carefully for what's around the next bend.
The island has a restroom, benches for seating, and some interpretive signs to explain the estuary.
Take a short walk
They don't seem to promote it much, but you can get to Spencer Island without much effort at all by driving through the city's water treatment plant. Go a short distance past Langus Park on Smith Island Road to a point where you're almost below the I-5 overpass.
You'll see the plant and a sign that says there's no parking available beyond that point. You can park there and walk 1.5 miles to Spencer Island on the trail or walk along the road for 0.6 miles to the island bridge.
If that's too far, ignore the sign and continue to drive along the road for 0.3 miles to another sign that says there's no parking beyond that point. There's a parking lot there where you can park and walk the remaining 0.3 miles to Spencer Island.
This is not a bad idea if you have young children, heavy camera gear, or people in you're party who can't walk a long ways.
The short walk along the gravel road offers a good shot at seeing a variety of wildlife in the wetlands on either side. In recent weeks I've see eagles, herons, ducks and geese there.
Another light exercise option is the Port of Everett's Union Slough project, a manmade wetland off the 37th Street exit of Highway 529. You can park at the site and walk a short distance to some benches or you can take a longer walk along the side of the entire wetland adjacent to I-5. Again, check the tides. The area is less attractive and has less wildlife at low tide, when it's essential just a trickle of water through a mud flat.
Heading to Langus Park from Highway 529 you reach a point where you can go right onto Smith Island Road to the park or take the left fork to an I-5 overpass and 12th Street NE.
This dead-end road borders a lot of City of Everett property with "No trespassing" signs, but you don't have to trespass to see wildlife. A pair of hawks like the woodlot to the south and herons like the soggy fields to the north.
Don't be in a rush to drive to the end of the road and drive back. If you don't see anything, stop your car and wait awhile for something to show up.
The road regularly gets visitors who sit in their cars and scan the fields with binoculars.
The Spencer Island area is also a drive-by wildlife opportunity because you can drive right up to the bridge. You can't park there, but you can sit in your car a bit and look around.
In fact, most of the public roads in the wetland off Highway 529 between Everett and Marysville are worth checking out, especially when wildlife is active early in the morning and around sunset.
Visiting the wetlands
From the north, take I-5 Exit 198 at Marysville to Highway 529. To visit the Port of Everett's Union Slough project, go past Steamboat Slough and take an immediate right onto 34th Avenue NE. Go right and loop under the bridge, turn left on 37th and take the first right. To go to Langus Park and Spencer Island, continue on 529 and take the next right onto the Frontage Road, which later becomes Ross Avenue. Follow the signs to the park, which is on Smith Island Road.
From the south, take I-5 Exit 195 and turn left onto E. Marine View Drive to Highway 529. Or take Broadway in Everett to 529. Once on 529, you can go to the park by taking 35th Avenue, the first right past the river. Go to the first stop sign,and turn left onto Ross Avenue. Then turn right onto Smith Island Road to the park or left to 12th Street NE. To visit the port's Union slough project, take 529 to 37th Street (the Biringer Farm exit) and turn right.