By the time we’d finished hiking along the bluffs of Hanford Reach National Monument we were tuckered from battling sustained winds of 32 mph with gusts between 50-63 mph. It required determination to remain standing above this last free flowing stretch of the Columbia River known as Hanford Reach though even wind-crazed tumbleweeds, wind-driven sand and dust-devils couldn’t wipe the grins off our faces. Sometimes it just feels good to tussle with the elements.
This wasn’t our first visit to the Hanford Reach National Monument or the last; there’s much to see year-round including sand-dunes, birds, wildlife and a heady brew of wildflowers, at their best April through May.
The Monument is managed jointly by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and United States Department of Energy (DOE) and is located near the Tri-Cities. The habitat is a mix of shrub-steppe, riparian and aquatic habitats that are disappearing in other areas of the Columbia Basin. Though it is a quiet place, life abounds with some 725 plant species (some endangered), 42 species of mammals, over 200 species of birds plus reptiles, amphibians, fish and 1,600 species of insects.
The hike is easy but time-consuming because there’s much to see. Plan to dawdle. Before hiking, we suggest driving down to the White Bluffs Boat Launch for the view across the river to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and to see the nearby remains of a historical settler’s cabin (one of the oldest buildings in Franklin County).
After checking out the cabin we drove to the nearby trailhead (unsigned) where a distinct trail climbs to the bluffs where we turned north (left). Trails along the bluff are not signed but there are several paths that meander along and near the bluffs with river views. Don’t get too close to the edge as some of the bluffs are eroding. After about 2-1/4 miles we reached the edge of the sand-dunes which we could observe being reshaped by the wind – talk about nature at work!
It was a beautiful day with bluebird skies, white puffy clouds and what we can only describe as “big” views of this inspiring landscape. We saw several wildflowers including phlox, balsamroot, lupine and intricate ground-hugging flowers. It gets very hot in the summer and many flowers will have bloomed. Fall is scenic when the shrub-steppe turns to shades of gold and copper. There are other enticements; American white pelicans (endangered in Washington), great blue herons, beavers, coyotes, river otters, mule deer and elk. Hanford Reach also provides spawning habitat for Chinook salmon. In winter watch for bald eagles and other waterfowl including green-winged teals and buffleheads.
Hanford Reach is about 51 miles long, bordering much of the United States Department of Energy Hanford Site which closed to the public in 1943 when the site was used to produce nuclear weapons during WWII and later the Cold War. Nine nuclear reactors were built on the other side of the river – the last was shut down in 1987 (two are visible today, one across the river and one further south across the river – they have been deactivated). Since then emphasis has shifted to environmental clean-up. Today the waters of Hanford Reach are suitable for drinking, recreation and wildlife habitat. Though the waters of Hanford Reach are open to the public shore access along the Hanford Nuclear Reservation site is still restricted.
On your way to or from the Monument stop by the Wanapum Dam Museum and Cultural Center (it is sometimes referred to as the Heritage Museum) for closer views of the Wanapum Dam; inside gather brochures that feature history and recreational activities in the area; enjoy a variety of displays, including intricate beadwork by Native Americans and arrowheads. The river was known to early Native Americans as “Chiawana” (Big River) who depended on it for their survival. These early Native Americans were ancestors to many tribes including Wanapum, Yakama Nation, the Confederated tribes of the Colville and Confederated tribes of the Umatilla Indian and the Nez Perce.
Native Americans still occupied the basin when Lewis and Clark passed south of the Reach in the early 1800s though fur trading and military posts eventually gave way to settlement of the area.
You can’t take it all in one visit. Spend a weekend in/near Tri-Cities if possible – it’s a long drive (about 400 miles round trip and seven hours drive-time from Seattle) to the White Bluffs Boat Launch. However, we enjoyed the spectacular drive and stopped at points of interest along the way. We forgot to look at our watches until we were heading back over Snoqualmie Pass.
From Seattle: Head east on I-90 to the Vantage Bridge over the Columbia River. Head south on Highway 243 (to Mattawa). At Mattawa turn left onto Road 24 SW which becomes Government Road (you are still eastbound on Highway 24). At the stop sign, turn left toward Othello (still on highway 24), continue about 10 miles and just past milepost 63 turn right onto a gravel road, turn right at an unsigned road junction, proceed to the end of the road to the White Bluffs Boat Launch and historical cabin (portable toilets available) or to the unsigned trailhead which is just a short distance above the boat launch. Coming from the boat launch it will be on your left, from the highway it will be on your right. From the parking area follow the obvious path which climbs to the bluffs; wander, explore. A Discover Pass is required.
Additional Information: The Hanford Reach National Monument is open year-round sunrise to sunset. There are many rules and regulations; it is important you obey signs, stay out of closed areas, and follow rules and regulations. Motorized vehicles are allowed only on roads open to public travel, hang-gliding and paragliding are prohibited. Collecting of any kind is prohibited, no camping or campfires allowed. Visit the website for additional information on fishing and hunting (per the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife), bicycling, motorized and non-motorized boating opportunities and horseback riding. For more details visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website.