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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Friday Getaway

I needed an escape and took advantage of the quiet before the storm at work to grab a day off. With the new season there are so many places to get to as they wake up. I headed for one of the most isolated, seldom visited areas of the state.


Not really Hanford, inside the loop of the Columbia River. That place with reactors and cores and armed guards and security checks. I have had the privilege of visiting inside the reservation proper as well as the ALE, Arid Lands Ecology unit to the immediate west. I also once made a wrong turn and wound up at one of the sentry gates.

No I visited the wildlife areas to the north; Saddle Mountain and White Cliffs both part of the Wahluke Slope National Wildlife Area part of the Hanford Reach NWR.

This is desert sage brush country. The Hanford reservation, in some spots, gets less than 10 inches of rain per year

It was lovely. There was very little wind, characteristic of other parts of the eastern Washington region. The temperature was just perfect and of course the day was perfect and blue.

Some people might think that there is little life out here. It was a quiet day, I will admit but when you get out and start looking closely, you quickly figure out that a lot of life out here is very small.

Driving east on I-90 you take a right after the bridge at Vantage and very soon are at the town of Mattawa. Here there has been a real boom in fruit and grape cultivation. The apple trees are just starting to bud.

Most of the land here, however is harsh. Many sand dunes form off the west and south face of the Saddle Mountains. The area north of the Saddle mountains, which rise about 2000 feet from the surrounding land, is highly irrigated and under cultivation.

South of the mountains all the area for about as far as the naked eye can see is the Hanford Reservation. The Hanford Reach has recently been put under further federal protection as it is the last of the free flowing Columbia River. In the picture below you can just see some of the buildings of the Hanford site. All of the area to the left of the river is the high security restricted area.

Arriving at the Wahluke Wildlife Area, this Horned Lark could not be bothered to stop singing from the entry sign.

The road would steadily uphill for about 4 miles. I caught a quick glimpse of a Chucker and I could hear Meadowlarks singing all about.

At the top there are no formal trails. You are just able to ramble all over the upper slopes. The south slope is covered in grasses and rocks. Many of the rocks have extensive populations of lichens.

The north face of the mountains show the effects of the Bretz Floods and they are sheer rock face scoured off as the mountain range channeled the massive floods at the end of the last Ice Age.

I was a bit dismayed at first, thinking that there was little in the way on new Spring growth but I found many Woolly-pod Milk Vetch patches.

Further down slope the Balsamroot was starting to bloom. I was delighted as Balsamroot attracts so many bugs.

It is a bug eat bug world!

I drive back down to Hwy 24 and east a little way then entered onto the Hanford reservation proper. White Bluffs is a wonderful spot along the Columbia River as the face of the hills is old sand dune , rather than the more familiar basalt and other rock face to the north and south. The road ends at the old historic village of White Bluffs. The only remaining structure is a shack that was said to be the blacksmiths building. A stunning, stark area. You can easily ramble for miles and you will likely see no one once you are beyond the parking area.

Here Spring has not quite arrived. I did find some Yellow Bells which seemed to love the sandy dry soil. They were quite a surprise in this harsh environment.

I look forward to getting back here in a month and see how the Spring is progressing. The season is short as soon the lack of moisture and the brutal heat will take its toll.

The Hanford Reservation and the Yakima Military Reservation immediately to the north form two of the largest protected ecology areas in the state. The rare and sensitive sage and upland areas are home to species that exist no where else in the state. We are fortunate that there is ongoing efforts to protect these sensitive areas.

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