An introductory guide to the sights and ecology of the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River for rafters, kayakers, and canoers
produced by the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society, Richland, Washington.


Remember that the same ethic that protects a high mountain meadow from humans must also apply to this very unique combination of riparian and shrub-steppe environment. If you pack it in, pack it out. The 560 square miles of the Hanford Site were declared off-limits by the Atomic Energy Commission and it's successor agencies for over 50 years. We now have the responsibility of protecting this legacy.

The Hanford Reach extends approximately 56 miles from Priest Rapids Dam to the City of Richland, Washington. There are several unimproved boat launches from Priest Rapids Dam to Vernita Bridge (State Route 24). Once past the Vernita Bridge, the next boat launch and public access point is the White Bluffs Landing, approximately 19 miles downstream. It takes 6 to 8 hours to float from Vernita Bridge to the White Bluffs Landing. The next public access/boat launch is at Ringold, approximately 18 miles from White Bluffs. A good rule of thumb for a travel rate is 3 to 4 mph, depending on the wind and your desired rate of travel.

No overnight camping is allowed along the Hanford Reach. The Benton County side (on the southwest) allows no stopovers. You cannot disembark onto the Department of Energy (DOE) Hanford Site. Many of the islands are also owned by the DOE and are off limits. Other islands are privately owned. We suggest you stay off the islands. Be aware that the islands and shorelines are habitat for nesting birds, fawning deer, and endangered plants.

The Grant and Franklin County (north and east) side is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The property is for day-use only. There are no restrooms for the entire length of the Reach.

Although the Columbia River, as it flows through the Hanford Reach, is not a technical river, be aware that winds can come up and make the waters very dangerous. The flow rate on the Reach can also be very fast, particularly during the spring through July snowmelt period. The strong river current makes bridge pilings, rock outcrops, flooded trees, and other obstacles dangerous if caught broadside to the current. For safety's sake, stay away from these dangers. Flow information can be obtained from the Grant County Public Utility District, Priest Rapids Dam at 1-800-422-3199.

The area of the Hanford Reach and on to the confluence with the Snake River has had continuous habitation for thousands of years by Native American tribes. Do not disturb or remove any materials from these areas. They are protected by federal law.

1. Vernita Bridge - Upstream from Vernita Bridge and below Priest Rapids Dam is Vernita Bar, a critical spawning area for the fall chinook (or king) salmon. This is a popular fishing area for salmon, steelhead, and whitefish.

On the north side of the river, beginning north of the bridge and downstream to the area of the White Bluffs is the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service under an agreement with the US Department of Energy.

2. Western junipers (Juniperus occidentalis), where they occur in Washington, are relic stands of a formerly widespread distribution.

3. A band of riparian vegetation including willows that provide food and cover for mule deer and elk; although deer were for many years that only big game animals in the area. Most of the deer residing on the Hanford Site are found within a few miles of the rivers edge or on the islands. Ring-necked pheasant, California quail, red-winged blackbirds, and many species of migrating songbirds can be found in these thickets at various times of the year. Beavers, muskrats, raccoons, and other mammals are also in the area.

4. The first nuclear reactors you will come to are the twin reactors 100B and 100C. The B reactor was built by the Manhattan Project during 1943 and 1944. The people that these structures were housed at Camp Hanford, the fourth largest settlement in Washington state at that time. Times were different and the urgency of the war effort allowed the completion of the B reactor from design to the first oritical run in less than 14 months. You will see nine of these reactors as you move down the river. The large volume of water the cold water temperatures were ideal for plutonium production reactors.

5. Coyote Rapids - formed by a gravel bar extending downstream from the island and by a rock outcrop jutting into the river from the right side. Summer steelhead spawn in the vicinity of the rapids; the area is also a favorite for sturgeon fishing.

6. Below Coyote Rapids and extending for about eight miles downstream is a relatively straight, deep channel. Most summer and fall chinook salmon and summer steelhead migrate along the north shoreline in this stretch based tracking studies of sonic-tagged fish. Coyotes and great blue herons can often be seen along the gradually sloping north shoreline in this area. Deer frequent the riparian vegetation along the shorelines. Also look fro great egrets, black-crowned night herons, and white pelicans.

7. In the summer, the broad, gentle sloping area on the south side of the river is lush with vegetation and is a prominent feeding area for mule deer. Deer are seen in this area even in the winter. Canada geese are found along_the river's edge in the area during much of the year.

8. On the northern bank is the area of the former Wahluke settlement

9. The submerged gravel along the low islands Is a spawning area able to support hundreds of nests (redds) of salmon. Other redds occur to the right of the river channels and along the Benton County shoreline (the southwest side). These redds are strikingly evident from the air in October and early November when the spawning adults scour the dark algal material from the light-colored rock leaving bright patches about four feet in diameter against the background of darker, undisturbed rocks.

The swift current through this region of islands and small channels is essential to the development of salmon and steelhead eggs.

10. The White Bluffs -- light-colored cliffs, up to 600 feet in elevation, occupy the eastern bank of the Columbia for nearly half of the length of the Hanford Reach. The Bluffs hold fossils of extinct species of camel, bison, horse, and mastadon.

Cliff swallows build their gourd-shaped mud nests along the face of the bluffs. In the spring and early summer, the bluffs and river are alive with darting swallows. In the winter, the nests may serve as roosting sites for other birds such as rosy finch. Many rock wrens nest in the compact slits of the of the bluffs. Also nesting on the jagged bluffs are red-tailed hawks, kestrels, great horned owls, prairie falcons, ravens, Canada geese, and cliff swallows. Raid eagles reside along the Reach in winter.

Summer chinook and summer steelhead migrating upstream between June and September follow the base of the bluffs rather than other channels available to them.

The wildlife in this stretch of the river, both on the bluffs and on the river islands, are abundant and varied throughout most of the year. There are distinct changes with the seasons, so not all wildlife can be seen at any one time of the year.

11. The islands occurring from here to the upper end of the McNary Reservoir at Richland are the principal nesting areas for local Canada geese. Canada geese return to the Hanford Reach each year to nest.

Curlews that nest on the uplands along the Reach use this island as their primary loafing area when they arrive in the spring and again as a staging area prior to their southward migration in the fall.

The islands in the next ten miles of river also serve as important deer fawning grounds by protecting does from predators.

12. Locke island is vegetated with lupine, eriogonum, willow, wild rye, absinthe. and sagebrush. it is also a major nesting and fawning area.

Because of the sensitive nature of this island, please do not make landfall anywhere on it. High river flows have caused extensive damage to the island. Notice the slide protruding from the left bank of the river. This is caused by irrigation seepage that has prompted the bluffs to move into the main channel by over 1,000 feet since 1976. This important spawning area is now in jeopardy. From the river, you can see how the slide has forced the major flow of the river into Locke Island.

13. The channel to the west of Locke Island (Benton County side) is one of the largest continuous chinook spawning areas in the river.

14. Near the confluence of the two channels, past massive earth slide activity has diverted the river. Note the up river slide has restricted the river channel. The river moves quickly through this channel.

15. Note the very old slide just prior to the White Bluffs Landing. This slide has not migrated in the last 200 years.

The narrow, right-angled turn made by the river at this point marks the White Bluffs townsite. During the Yakima Indian War 1855-1858) a military depot camp was maintained on the east bank. One of the buildings from this period, a log cabin, remains intact. It was reportedly used as a blacksmith shop. After 1858. the old depot camp served as a trading post for the Native Americans until the EuroAmerican settlers became numerous.

16. The forward edge of this island, and the riffle between it and the main channel are important fish spawning areas.

17. An extensive area of sloughs, islands, high-water channels, and gravel bars used in the winter months as a resting area for waterfowl that migrate through the Columbia River portion of the Pacific Flyway. Birds seen here include: mallard, green-winged teal, pintail, golden eye, scaup, gadwall, white pelicans, and bufflehead.

18. The next few miles of the river are notable for the sculptured beauty of the White Bluffs. The remains of the Hanford townsite occupy the west bank. This was the site of the World War II housing for workers during the construction of the Hanford complex. The towns of Hanford and White Bluffs were evacuated when the Manhattan Project took over the area. The concrete structure without a roof is the old Hanford School.

19. The flats between the river channel and the Bluffs mark the southern boundary of the Wahluke State wildlife Recreation Area (SWRA), administered by the Washington Department of Fish and wildlife through and agreement with the US Department of Energy.

20. The west shore of the river from here to Ringold is used extensively by waterfowl as a resting area.

21. Savage Island --is really an Island only during high river flows.

22. On the right is approximately 12 square miles of shifting sand dunes.

23. Ringold Fish Hatchery at Ringold Springs. where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife operates fish rearing facilities.

24. Historically, thousands of ring-billed and California gulls have nested on this island during the May-June nesting season.

25. The river passes around Wooded Island. The channel between the west bank and the island provides a relatively secluded resting area for waterfowl, Prior to settlement and dam building, trees on the island and along the banks were rare.

26. A small bluff on the lower portion of Wooded Island marks the approximate location of the proposed Ben Franklin Dam (the project was shelved in 1981) and the most upstream extension of the reservoir behind McNary Dam. Below here, the river current slackens in response to the impoundment, although many typical 'native' features remain downstream to Richland. This island is an important nesting site for several bird species.

These islands continue to be important producers of Canada geese and nesting areas for wintering ducks and geese. Inclusion within the Richland city limits, where hunting is prohibited and the immediate proximity of agricultural areas for feeding enhances these islands utilization as wintering areas.

Original Pamphlet Produced by the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society
August 1998
project coordinator
Laura Zybas
text contributors
David Goeke
Jack Dawson
Murrel Dawson

graphics and layout
Adam J. Fyall


THE HANFORD REACH The Hanford Reach is the approximately fifty-six-mile stretch of the Columbia River that flows through the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Hanford Site in south-central Washington state. Although still affected by upstream dam operations, the Hanford Reach is one of only four significant reaches of the 1200-mile Columbia that remains unimpounded, and the only such reach in a semi-arid biome. The Hanford Reach harbors the last major fall chinook salmon spawning grounds on the mainstem Columbia; containing riffles, gravel bars, oxbow ponds, and backwater sloughs that are otherwise rare on the Columbia River today. The loss of other spawning grounds to reservoirs in the Columbia and its tributaries has increased the relative importance of the Hanford Reach for spawning by traditional species including salmon and white sturgeon, as well as introduced warm-water species such as bass and walleye.

THE WAHLUKE SLOPE The 90,000 acre Wahluke Slope (wah - LO K), located on the north side of the Hanford Reach (river left), contains a relatively intact shrub-steppe ecosystem (grassland with a discrete shrub component) physically and ecologically connecting the river to the upland areas. The Slope contains significant wetland habitat and is home and rest stop to many plant and animal species of state and federal management concern. Historically, the shrub-steppe ecosystem found on the Wahluke Slope covered most of the lower Columbia Basin. Now, over sixty percent of that ecosystem in the lower Basin has been lost -- largely due to conversion to agriculture.

THE CURRENT SITUATION Currently, the Wahluke Slope is administered by the DOE and used under permit by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the State of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Because these lands are publicly owned, portions of them are open to public access for recreation. The DOE must soon excess the land north of the river because it is no longer needed as a security and safety buffer for the Hanford Site. The DOE also administers those upland portions of the Hanford Reach corridor south and west of the river. These latter areas are currently undergoing restoration from past Hanford Site activities.

  • Congress mandated the National Park Service to evaluate the river corridor and the Wahluke Slope for their natural and cultural resource values. In 1994 the Park Service recommended designation of the Hanford Reach, including the adjoining uplands, as a "RecreationaI" Wild and Scenic River and the Wahluke Slope a National Wildlife Refuge.

  • US Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and US Representative Norm Dicks (D-WA) have introduced legislation to declare the Reach a National Wild and Scenic River ("Recreational" category). US Representative Richard Hastings (R-WA) has introduced competing legislation to protect the river via a local commission lead by the adjoining counties and to return the Wahluke Slope to private ownership.

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