Taking a day trip down the last wild section of the Columbia River
Great rivers have awesome power. When mountains crumble to the sea, it is rivers that carry them there.
Almost every drop of water that falls from the sky to Earth ends up back in the sea, and rivers carry these too.
And sometimes the finest stretches of the greatest rivers have the capacity to carry us back in time.
The Columbia River’s Hanford Reach is one such place.
This 51-mile stretch north of Richland is the only undammed section left of the West’s biggest river. The Columbia’s main branch is 1,249 miles long, originating more than 2,650 feet above sea level in southeastern British Columbia, and flowing south and then west. But on this one remaining, brawny free-flowing stretch in eastern Washington state, it carries boat-borne visitors both downstream and in another direction entirely—backward in time.
Lined by plains covered with big sage and cottonwood groves just as it has been for hundreds or thousands of years; thronged by countless birds who have visited every year for millennia; bounded by ancient bent-knee cliffs and a cloud-specked azure sky—paddling down the Hanford Reach delights in its timelessness.
Floating the Hanford Reach
You put your canoe, kayak or raft in at Vernita Bridge, just below Priest Rapids Dam, which is about a three-hour drive from either Seattle or Spokane.
Once on the water, it takes about a half day to reach the White Bluffs takeout—four to six hours, according to the federal agencies that manage Hanford Reach National Monument.
Those half-dozen hours can be stretched to a whole day. It would be silly to look at your watch, pointless to measure miles per hour, obnoxious to hurry. The river is your journey, and it’s in charge.
What it provides is endless natural inspiration. Counting the birds would be impossible, but they include herons, eagles, geese, ducks, pelicans, loons, gulls, kingfishers, sandpipers, cormorants, swans and more.
Deer can be spotted off shore among the big sagebrush that can reach 8 feet in height. Swallows and swifts have colonized almost every cliff and raised bank; farther downstream, a herd of elk magically appeared years ago, and have laid claim to the plains surrounding the river. All these beings represent the past, present and, one hopes, the future.
An outsize stretch of water in every way, the Hanford Reach has produced its share of tall tales—legendary sturgeon the size of semis, salmon the size of tractors. When you sweep around a quarter-mile bend beneath 100-foot chalk cliffs, huge eddies, boils and whirlpools stir the vast stream like water-quakes—and stir the imagination of what might lurk beneath these waters.
This stretch of river does hold 10-foot sturgeon and is key to the survival of one of the Columbia’s much-depleted salmon races, an autumn chinook run whose estimated 60,000-100,000 fish are a prime remnant of what used to be several million salmon a year in the river long ago.
“Down her wild mountains and canyons she flew,” Woody Guthrie sang of the great river in his famous 1941 song. “Roll on, Columbia, roll on, your power is turning our darkness to dawn.”
Returning to “Civilization”
During World War II, the Manhattan Project — which developed the first atomic bombs and included the plutonium-producing Reactor B nuclear plant in this area — commandeered thousands of acres on the west shore of the lower Reach, and the remnant buildings look for all the world like ancient monoliths left behind by an alien civilization.
The Manhattan Project ruins are the first signs of civilization after hours of floating. Stop for lunch on a sand bar to listen to birdsong, the ripples of the current and cottonwood leaves shimmering in the breeze. Consider everything at your feet and before your eyes, the wonder of the river and its limitless family.
After all these years, the captive waters of the dammed portions of the Columbia watershed still are responsible for about half of America’s hydroelectric power—a virtually carbon-free resource that, alas, turned most of this mighty stream into a cascade of stagnant, salmon-killing lakes.
When you power up your phone onshore, all those texts and emails, tweets and posts and chats may have been carried by Columbia power.
Perhaps, then, you’ll want to head back upstream. I did at the end of my trip, wondering where the river would carry me. The salmon turn back here every year, and I hope they always will.
About the Hanford Reach: The Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing, non-tidal section of the Columbia River. The 51-mile stretch is a haven for white pelicans, blue herons, deer, elk, and other wildlife. In the fall during the salmon run, bald eagles flock to the area.
Floating the Hanford Reach: You launch from the north shore just west of the Vernita Bridge. You need a Discover Pass to park there. The float trip is rated Class I, with easy, smoothy water. About 19 miles downstream from Vernita Bridge is the Class II Coyote Rapids.
Directions to Vernita Bridge: From Richland, go 29 miles on Washington 240 West, then 5 miles on Washington 24 East. From Yakima, take Washington 24 East for 45 miles.
Other sights around the Tri-Cities: REACH Museum (Manhattan Project artifacts, fossils, special exhibits); Reactor B tour (free U.S. Department of Energy tour from Richland); Sacajawea State Park (public recreation, Lewis and Clark Expedition landmark); USS Triton Park (nuclear submarine relic); Franklin County Historical Museum (local history); Pasco Aviation Museum; Howard Aman Park (riverside park)
—Written by Eric Lucas
—Top Photo: john chedsey/AdobeStock
Eric Lucas lives on a small farm on San Juan Island, where he grows organic hay and heirloom corn, beans, garlic and apples.
Road Trip Tips
Before you go: Get ready for your road trip with a AAA Membership. Get peace-of-mind on the road plus travel and insurance services and much more.
Save on car insurance: AAA members save up to 8% on car insurance.
Get battery service: AAA Mobile Battery Service uses state-of-the-art technology to accurately diagnose battery-related problems. We’ll even replace your battery with a brand-new one if necessary, at a special member price.
Save with AAA member discounts: AAA membership gives you access to exclusive entertainment discounts nationwide.