|The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River|
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; some route-finding is necessary
Access: No pass needed. Good gravel road to trailhead.
Hanford. For half a century, the name of this remote corner of the Washington desert was associated with the nuclear bomb. The Manhattan Project chose this desolate site as the place to generate plutonium for the bombs detonated at Trinity and Nagasaki. Today, the connotations of death and decay have yet to fade: leaking nuclear waste and widespread contamination has made the area inside the Department of Energy site the most contaminated Superfund site in the nation. Yet amidst this decay, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, a great bend in the Northwest's mightiest river, is a landscape of life. The secrecy around the bomb and the Hanford site allowed this corner of the Columbia Basin to escape farming and retain its wild sagebrush character and also ensured that this last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia in the United States remained undammed. The end of the Cold War heralded the end of weapons production at Hanford. During his last year in office, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to declare a portion of the Hanford Site's sagebrush country as the Hanford Reach National Monument and transferred it to the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The White Bluffs North Slope hike explores a cliff-lined stretch of the Columbia in the Hanford Reach National Monument and visits some of the greatest wilderness sand dunes in Washington State. The hike has minimal elevation gain and thus is not physically difficult to hike; however, the trail does peter out at the first set of sand dunes, about two miles from start; accessing the second set of dunes near the White Bluffs requires some basic navigational skills. Additionally, the trailhead is not marked at all and can be a little difficult to locate. Most hikers will find the trip interesting enough for the sand dunes and the views of the river, but those interested in history or ecology can gain a particular appreciation for this hike due to its distinguishing characteristics in those aspects.
I hiked White Bluffs on a stormy day. Flood watches and warnings had been posted all over Western Washington, so I decided to try my luck on the east side of the Cascades. The storm followed me into the desert, though undoubtedly the brief light rain during my hike was trivial compared to the two inches of precipitation at Snoqualmie Pass that day. I followed I-90 east from Seattle across the pass and past Cle Elum and Ellensburg. After crossing the Columbia River at Vantage, I took the first exit after the bridge for State Route 26. I followed Route 26 south briefly before taking the right fork for Route 243 south when Route 26 began to climb up the columnar basalt cliffs and away from the river. I followed 243 south along the Columbia River past Wapanum Dam and Sentinel Gap to Mattawa; here, I turned left onto Road 24 and followed it east through the irrigated farmland at the foot of the Saddle Mountains. I continued on Road 24 until it met up with State Route 24 (how confusing!); I turned left here and followed Route 24 east for at least another 10 miles until I came to the junction with a gated gravel road leading into the Wahluke Unit of the Hanford Reach National Monument. I turned right onto this road; the gate is open until sundown every day. As I followed the gravel road south, a sudden blast of wind from the storm rolled a tumbleweed across the road. While this might be a common desert sight, I was shocked and a little thrilled to have seen such an iconic sight of the western desert. I followed the gravel road until it came to a four-way intersection. Here, I turned right to head towards White Bluffs landing. After the turn, the road became paved once more. The paved road headed west over the flat Wahluke Slope before descending down a gully cut into the White Bluffs to a small level area near a boat landing. The trailhead was at a small gravel spur road on the right side of the paved road reached right after coming out of the gully. If you reach the boat launch, you've driven too far.
The Washington Trails Association website indicates that a Discover Pass is needed to park at the trailhead: however, this is incorrect. The trailhead lies on land operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and not the State of Washington; additionally, there isn't much of a "trailhead parking area" to speak of anyway.
The trail heads north from the parking area, directly towards the White Bluffs. It immediately climbed up a lower set of bluffs and brought the first views of the Columbia.
|Ascending White Bluffs|
|White Bluffs at Hanford|
The cheap and plentiful hydropower birthed Hanford in the first place. The unprecedented electrical output of the Grand Coulee Dam provided the energy necessary for plutonium enrichment at Hanford. During the war, the populace of the towns of White Bluffs and Hanford were relocated and a wide perimeter of sagebrush around the site's nuclear reactors was put in place to maintain secrecy. This perimeter remained through the end of the Cold War: even as the rest of the Columbia Basin turned into a network of dams, irrigation canals, and reclaimed agricultural fields, the land around Hanford remained sagebrush and sand. Inadequately rigorous disposal of nuclear and chemical waste during plutonium production turned the west bank of the Columbia into a toxic Superfund site. Luckily, the waste problem has been largely localized to the Hanford Site side of the river, leaving the Wahluke Slope on the east side as a haven for wildlife. Today, the Hanford Site remains largely off-limits to visitors except on guided tours operated by the Department of Energy and the National Park Service.
The contrast was striking: on the other side of the river, a symbol of death and decay, on this side of river, a quiet, unassuming sagebrush wilderness full of life, saved only because of the secrecy necessary for the Faustian creation across the river. Salmon swam in the river below and Canada geese glided silently above the Columbia.
|Birds in flight at Hanford|
|Jerusalem Cricket in the sand dunes|
|White Bluffs sand dunes|
|Sand dunes, with cocooned Hanford H reactor across the river|
The second set of dunes was substantially more impressive than the first: there were perhaps as many as seven or eight sand mounds all connected along a single ridge of sand. I followed the crest along the dunes, struggling as I fought the collapsing sand up each dune. The views from the top of the highest dunes to the flat Wahluke Slope, the river, and the surrounding mountain ranges were quite remarkable.
|The Columbia River at White Bluffs|