With summer activities now in reach, the opportunities to get out and explore are out there. One area well worth discovering is the Hanford Reach in the eastern half of Washington State. Hanford Reach abounds with sights and activities along the river and throughout the region.
About Hanford Reach
The Reach is the last free-flowing section of the Columbia River, almost 51 miles (82 km) long. Named after a sizeable northward curve in the river’s otherwise southerly flow, it meanders through a former nuclear production facility dating from WWII – the Hanford Site. Apart from small sections between the U.S. and Canadian border and part of F.D. Roosevelt Lake at Grand Coulee, the river is non-tidal.
The Reach was once a historic Indian fishing ground with numerous camps like Wy-Yow-Na and Tah-Koot along its southern shoreline, near present-day Locke Island. Here, evidence of ancient habitation is abundant, with remnants of obsidian arrowheads, scraping, and cutting tools.
Hanford Reach National Monument
Near the original Hanford Site security zone, lies the Hanford Reach National Monument. The monument was established by Presidential decree in 2000, making it one of the State’s more recent tourist sites. While spanning 57,000 acres, the Reach is free and open from sunrise to sunset, with some variations during hunting season.
Hanford Reach National Monument is one of just two National Monuments administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and forms part of the Columbia River plateau. As with much of eastern Washington State, the stunning but stark shrub-steppe landscape is harsh and very dry.
Yet despite its lack of rainfall – 5 to 10 inches (13-25 cm) per year – the area is a contrast of giant bluffs and delicate flowers. Also, it is home to a diverse variety of animal and rare plant life defying the wind, heat, and drought.
Large herds of elk are often seen, their numbers varying seasonally and peaking in winter. Coyotes, great blue herons, bald eagles, white pelicans, badgers, bobcats, and cougars are also found as well as the most abundant – varying species of mice. The Hanford Reach, due to its non-polluted waters, is also home to significant shoals of carp, trout, and bass.
Priest Rapids Dam
Priest Rapids Dam sits upstream and in the opposite direction lies the McNary Dam, which shuts off the lower parts of the Snake River – the Columbia’s largest tributary. Spanning Yakima County and the southwest edge of Grant County, Priest Rapids Dam sits 24 miles (38.6 km) south of Vantage and 47 miles (75.6 km) northeast of Richlands, close to State Route 243.
Initially, a fast-flowing, narrow section of the Columbia River, construction of the dam in 1956 flooded the Priest Rapids. Photo opportunities are many, and surprisingly despite this vast concrete invasion, the area between McNary Dam downstream and Priest Rapids Dam provides one of the best salmon spawning grounds in the Northwest.
Speaking of salmon, Hanford Reach is home to a spectacular fishery. Steelhead salmon are one of the most valued and prized fish in the Columbia River system. During their return migration from the Pacific, you can often yield catches of over 20 pounds (9 kg). Just remember to release all steelhead unharmed.
In addition to steelhead, you may also catch trophy bass, fall chinook salmon (found in the thousands during migration), and white sturgeon throughout the Columbia. So, grab your motorboat, kayak, raft, or canoe and head out for some prized catches in Hanford Reach. Launch your boat from the undeveloped area at Ringold Fish Hatchery or through Parking Lot 7 at Wahluke.
Kayaking, Canoeing, SUP
Aside from fishing, Hanford Reach offers a lovely stretch of a waterway for cruising in a kayak or canoe. The free-flowing waters provide the opportunity for a fun, relaxing ride along with wildlife viewing along the river.
However, since there are minimal facilities along the river and no camping available, you’ll want to prepare for the trip. Always wear a personal flotation device (PFD) and observe closed areas along Hanford Reach. Since weather fluctuates, remember to prepare for elements by wearing sunscreen, prepping for wind, and inquiring about conditions.
A few common routes are the White Bluffs Boat Ramp to Parking Area 7, Parking Area 7 to Ringold Fish Hatchery, and Priest Rapids Dam to the Vernita Bridge. Each route is 8 miles. Be aware of changing river conditions and currents as you portage or anchor your craft since water Priest Rapids Dam controls the levels. To canoe or kayak the full-length of Hanford Reach, consider a two day-trips on the rive.
For those without a craft, you can rent a kayak or stand-up paddleboard at Columbia Kayak Adventures. Rentals are available at the end of Lee Blvd in Howard Amon Park in Richland. Typically tours are also available but now suspended due to COVID-19. Keep up to date via their Facebook on any changes to rentals, tours, and their retail shop. The retail store is currently closed due to COVID-19, as well.
Events Near Hanford Reach
The community of Richland, along with Kennewick and Pasco, forms part of southern Washington State’s ‘Tri-Cities’ region. One of the significant events in the area is the Tri City’s Water Follies hydroplane racing at Kennewick’s Columbia Park East. Pulling huge crowds, it has become one of the Pacific Northwest’s biggest weekend festivals.
The event takes place annually each July. In 2020, however, the event has been postponed due to COVID-19. According to the Water Follies, they hope to run the event later this year.
Typically, the event features civilian and military air displays, games, music as well as the hydroplanes. Also, broadcast on radio, national and local television to over 3 million people, and via the internet, the Kennewick Races have received numerous prestigious awards.
The Hanford Reach area is very much an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise as visitors currently have access to over 57,000 acres of wildlife-dependent recreation. While hunters can track down the occasional elk and trophy mule deer, anglers can pursue salmon, steelhead, white sturgeon, bass, and many other sportfish. Spring produces colorful wildflowers, and abundant wildlife provides year-round observation and photo opportunities.
Furthermore, the river provides ample recreation opportunities, including kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding. So, whether you’re interested in sightseeing, hunting, history, wildlife, fishing, or just enjoying an escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the Hanford Reach National Monument and its surroundings have something quite definite to offer you.
See more information and rules and regulations for Hanford Reach at the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service.
Would you visit Hanford Reach and the surrounding area? What are your favorite activities in the area? Let us know in the comments below!
A version of this article originally appeared in Snowshoe Magazine, April 2012