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Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

At 23,000 acres, Columbia is the largest national wildlife refuge in Washington. It sits in the state’s most arid region -- a ruggedly scenic area of basalt cliffs, canyons, buttes, sagebrush grasslands, and small- to medium-size lakes whose riparian edges harbor willows and Russian Olives. Columbia’s location in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains prevents much precipitation from reaching the refuge: annual averages are less than 8 inches.

This fascinating geological area is set in the Columbia River Basin’s Channeled Scablands, which got a topographic facelift when Glacial Lake Missoula, located on what is now the Idaho-Montana border, burst its glacial dam between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago. The strangely jumbled terrain of the refuge’s northern half, the Drumheller Channels, best shows this topographic scarring, and was named a National Natural Landmark in 1986. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 dropped up to 4 inches of ash on the refuge area, some of which is still in evidence today as a white powder on the ground. Tracks of common yet secretive Coyotes, as well as Mule Deer, are frequently found in the ash.

The most productive seasons for wildlife-viewing are spring and early summer, when almost the entire refuge is open to the public. The sage habitat is at its peak early in this period, with specially adapted bird life and lots of blooming wildflowers, but it grows rather dry as the heat of summer increases. Look for lovely Sage Mariposa Lilies and pink Long-leaved Phlox. Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers are sage specialists, and both sing elaborate songs. There are Bobcats and American Badgers here, too, and Muskrats abound in the lakes.

The many “pothole” lakes, which owe their water to the Grand Coulee Dam irrigation project, are amazingly busy with wildlife in summer. Raucous Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Caspian and Forster’s Terns, Blue-winged and Cinnamon Teals, and bright Ruddy Ducks compete in sound and color. The increasingly scarce Burrowing Owl maintains a foothold here, and Gopher Snakes are ubiquitous. A good number of Western Rattlesnakes also reside here, especially around rocky areas and wet edges; they are most active during the cooler hours, especially in the evening.

The ledges and holes in the basalt cliffs provide nesting grounds for Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels. The numbers of migrating Sandhill Cranes that visit the refuge are increasing. Thousands of waterfowl winter here, with the largest concentration of these birds flocking to undisturbed areas of the refuge that are closed to the public during fall and winter migration seasons. The waterfowl can be viewed, however, from the overlook onto Royal Lake at the southern end of Byers Road.

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  • boating
  • camping
  • fishing
  • hiking
  • paddling
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