Don’t Miss the Potholes Reservoir, Downtown Othello and Mesa
Rather than rejoining the interstate, our tour follows Pioneer Way as it continues south and becomes state Route 17. Fields of crops of all stripes dominate this stretch.
Nearly 18 miles beyond Moses Lake, we turn west on state Route 262 following a sign for the Potholes Reservoir. Farmland yields to sagebrush as the road climbs uphill, where the rolling landscape shifts to barren, dusty hills.
After about 7 miles, the road descends and reveals a body of water that roils like a large sea on windy days. This is the Potholes Reservoir, a storage lake that collects runoff water from farms in the northern part of this region — and redistributes that water to farms to the south. The reservoir is noted for the hundreds of islands that pockmark its surface to the northwest. Heading west, the highway crosses the 3.5-mile-long O’Sullivan Dam, an impressive earthen structure that impounds the water.
At the southwestern corner of the Potholes Reservoir is Potholes State Park (Discover Pass required), one of Washington’s most popular spots for summer camping. The park occupies over a mile of the reservoir’s shoreline and is a favorite of anglers as well as the jet-ski/water-ski crowd. Camping facilities here include standard and normal tent sites, RV sites and cabins.
From Potholes State Park, return to state Route 262. Head east for just less than a mile, and turn right to head south on H Road SE. This byway chugs up a steep slope and provides passengers with a birds-eye view of the reservoir before barreling back into orchard country. Another 4.5 miles pass until a junction with McManamon Road. Hang a left to head east on McManamon Road; after about a mile, a sign announces your entrance to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. This preserve is home to a vast desert landscape, teeming with sagebrush and bunchgrasses — and is home to a rich variety of wildlife, including coyotes, dragonflies, beavers and sandhill cranes.
Just beyond the first sign for the refuge is a small parking area at a breathtaking scenic overlook of the Drumheller Channels, a series of craggy, scab-like buttes and mostly dry channels that began to take shape with the Missoula Floods thousands of years ago. Activities within the scenic refuge include a 22-mile auto tour route, motor-free paddling on Hutchinson Lake and Shiner Lake, fishing, hiking and the three-day Othello Sandhill Crane Festival (usually held in late March).
Following McMahon Road east beyond the refuge, our tour route traverses sagebrush and shrub steppe until farms and orchards reappear near the agricultural center of Othello. In town, continue south to reach the downtown core as McMahon Road becomes Broadway Avenue. If it’s a nice day, your first stop should be Lions Park — so turn left to head east on East Cedar Street for about a half-mile, at which point you’ll arrive at Othello’s largest park. The expansive park is home to picnic tables, four lighted tennis courts, two lighted basketball courts, restroom facilities, a skate park, street hockey rink, large playground area and more.
From Lions Park, head west to return to Broadway Avenue and continue south. At the corner of South Broadway Avenue and Larch Street, art enthusiasts can check out the Old Hotel Art Gallery, a former boarding house for railroad folk dating back to 1912. Today, the gallery hosts paintings, sculptures and other works from Pacific Northwest artists.
From the gallery, head north on Broadway Avenue for two blocks, and turn right to head west on Main Street as it rolls out of downtown Othello; after 2 miles, we rejoin state Route 17. Turn right to head south onto state Route 17, and settle in for roughly 21 miles of highway that glides by farm country and passes through the hamlet of Mesa.
Just past Mesa, turn right to head southbound on Highway 395 as it begins its run to the Tri-Cities.
Families eager for a break should stop for a bite at the Country Mercantile store roughly 17 miles south of Mesa. The store serves a mix of fresh deli sandwiches, wraps and enchiladas, as well as a variety of artisan foods — including hot sauce, jam, jelly, kettle corn and decadent chocolates. If traveling in late September or October, stop by for Country Mercantile’s Harvest Festival — which usually includes a pumpkin patch, corn maze, straw bale pyramid and other fun activities.
– Written by John King, last updated in October 2022.
– Top image of children canoeing at Potholes Reservoir. Photo courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation.