Three hours east of Seattle, across the Cascade Mountains and through shadows of windmill fields, we arrived on the arid trails of Othello, the Central Washington base for Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. The contrast between Columbia NWR and Grays Harbor NWR on the misty coast of Western Washington, illustrates the striking diversity of our Refuge system.
The small town of Othello — home to early cattle ranchers, homesteaders and railroading — is at the core of the Columbia Basin Project. The project is a massive irrigation network that includes Grand Coulee Dam. It irrigates 671,000 acres of land – and the project’s elevated water table created more than 3,800 acres of lakes and wetlands throughout Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.
You can see this application across the landscape, with verdant swaths of irrigated lushness against the natural earthen tones of coulees, basalt columns, and shrub-stebbe habitat. Basalt formations are volcanic rock structures, rising from the earth like constructed columns, and visible throughout the Refuge.
We timed our visit to Columbia National Wildlife Refuge with the arrival of the Sandhill Cranes. It’s a migration that’s celebrated every year in the spring, with the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. We didn’t attend the festival weekend, but the dates of the event coincide with a large staging of Sandhill Cranes, in numbers up to 25,000 during this phase of their migration.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find a flock or two of cranes feeding in fields surrounding Othello. On the Refuge itself, the Sandhill Crane staging areas are protected with trail closures that prevent observers from getting too close. During the festival, however, you can join organized bus trips to view the cranes in a supervised setting.
The Refuge office used to be in the town of Othello, but it has since moved to a building complex just outside the Refuge itself. On the day we visited, the center was closed so we went on a self-guided auto tour, starting at the office on Morgan Lake Road.
Once past the sign, the travel is entirely on a gravel road, a journey that saw its share of dusty rooster tails with a few people over-driving the substrate. There is a “primitive road” warning at the entrance … for a reason.
There are pullouts along this route where you can find trailheads into the scrub. Several of the trails were also closed — like the Wetlands to Rimrocks Trails, our first stop. As a result of these hiking restrictions, our forays off-road were limited to some stops with short walks and views. I look forward to returning and exploring a bit more on foot.
As the interpretive signs indicate, there’s a variety of habitats within the Refuge including upland areas, marshes, and riparian zones. This multi-faceted terrain is home to more than 230 bird species and a variety of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, including mule deer, yellow-bellied marmots, coyotes, rattlesnakes, turtles and frogs. The bird species range from raptors like Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks to migratory species like Sandhill Cranes and winter ducks, to Great Horned Owls and magpies.
We reached another closed trail head, a path you can hike at other times of the year, when Sandhill Cranes are in town. Vivid closure signs are posted at access points to the crane staging areas.
Passing this closed gate, we then continued to the right on the gravel road, and drove toward Migraine Lake, a viewing area for waterfowl in the migration months of fall and winter. In the distance we saw and heard several waterfowl species, including American Wigeons and Gadwalls.
Right across the gravel road from Migraine Lake is the crystal-blue Soda Lake, a popular fishing spot, not within the actual Refuge boundary.
A shoreline turn-out alongside Soda Lake is posted with an Audubon sign indicating a stop on The Great Washington Birding Trail — the Coulee Corridor section of the trail. These Audubon maps are great visual resources when exploring the bird species of Washington. Seattle Audubon sells the maps for each iteration of the trail, including the Puget Loop, Cascade Loop, Olympic Loop and Sun & Sage Loop. The maps have colored markers and corresponding descriptions, showing interesting birding stops in each region.
Sadly, this pattern of shot-up interpretive signs was one we encountered frequently on Columbia NWR. The terrain is isolated, there is hunting permitted during the seasons, and the general area around the Refuge is open to various forms of hunting. In other words, there is significant usage of firearms in the area and, sadly, there is obviously a contingent of users who show little respect for the Refuge resources. We encountered many discarded shotgun shells on the ground, as well.
After visiting Migraine Lake we took the road out to the north entrance of the Refuge, passing a big Sandhill Crane staging area in the valley below. The cranes are audible and visible toward the horizon. The second photograph is a cropped image from a 600mm-equivalent lens capture … to illustrate the distance from us to them.
After leaving the Sandhill Crane area, we followed the Refuge road out toward the north entrance, before turning around and doubling back. If you’re coming into the Refuge from the north, this is what you’ll see upon entry, with the Sandhill Crane area visible ahead.
A separate part of the auto tour includes a paved road that takes you past Drumheller Overlook, pictured here. Scanning the vastness made me think of every Western I’ve ever seen, the land dotted with buttes and coulees, like set-painted backdrops.
The signs here give a brief natural history of the area, describing the origins of the Refuge geology. This area of the Columbia Basin is known as the Channeled Scablands, first formed sometime between 17 million and 6 million year ago through all manner of volatility — first through earthly fissures and lava flows, then ice age floods and glacial movements, then phases of grand melting and flooding. More recently, when Mount St. Helens erupted in May of 1980, it left a layer of ash which flattened vegetation and suffocated many terrestrial insects. This created food shortages for other wildlife, an event from which the flora and fauna gradually recovered.
In current times, one of the important challenges facing plant and animal life on the Refuge is cheatgrass — cited by a Refuge brochure as the most common and widespread invasive species. In addition to displacing native flora, cheatgrass is also more susceptible to wildfires. It first came to North America through Asia, often through contaminated crop seed. Now, there’s an ongoing effort to manage the spread in sensitive habitat areas like shrub-steppe.
Before leaving the Refuge, as the orb of a sun sank behind the buttes, we saw this trio of deer grazing in the shadow of the hill. They were alert to our presence and not wanting to spook them, I took this quick photo from the car, at a distance.
We also encountered this yellow-bellied marmot who popped in and out of burrow a few times as I snapped this photo.
Leaving Columbia National Refuge, we drove back toward Seattle through a patchwork of irrigated farm fields. Although we canvassed a few areas around Othello before visiting the Refuge, we didn’t see any cranes in the fields until the very last light of day. They were inordinately skittish of my camera so, again, I photographed from the car and captured just a few frames before closing the window and leaving them to their last feeding of the evening.
Visiting Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
- Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Visitor page
- Othello Sandhill Crane Festival (spring of each year)
- Map of Refuge and Auto Tour Route
- Directions: Drive 5.5 miles west of Othello on McManamon Road. Turn right on Morgan Lake Road, and the turnoff to refuge headquarters is to the right in a half mile.