Sunday, May 22, 2016

Hanford White Bluffs- North Slope

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River
6.5 miles round trip, 530 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; some route-finding is necessary
Access: No pass needed. Good gravel road to trailhead.

Hanford. For half a century, the name of this remote corner of the Washington desert was associated with the nuclear bomb. The Manhattan Project chose this desolate site as the place to generate plutonium for the bombs detonated at Trinity and Nagasaki. Today, the connotations of death and decay have yet to fade: leaking nuclear waste and widespread contamination has made the area inside the Department of Energy site the most contaminated Superfund site in the nation. Yet amidst this decay, the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River, a great bend in the Northwest's mightiest river, is a landscape of life. The secrecy around the bomb and the Hanford site allowed this corner of the Columbia Basin to escape farming and retain its wild sagebrush character and also ensured that this last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia in the United States remained undammed. The end of the Cold War heralded the end of weapons production at Hanford. During his last year in office, President Bill Clinton used the Antiquities Act to declare a portion of the Hanford Site's sagebrush country as the Hanford Reach National Monument and transferred it to the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

The White Bluffs North Slope hike explores a cliff-lined stretch of the Columbia in the Hanford Reach National Monument and visits some of the greatest wilderness sand dunes in Washington State. The hike has minimal elevation gain and thus is not physically difficult to hike; however, the trail does peter out at the first set of sand dunes, about two miles from start; accessing the second set of dunes near the White Bluffs requires some basic navigational skills. Additionally, the trailhead is not marked at all and can be a little difficult to locate. Most hikers will find the trip interesting enough for the sand dunes and the views of the river, but those interested in history or ecology can gain a particular appreciation for this hike due to its distinguishing characteristics in those aspects.

I hiked White Bluffs on a stormy day. Flood watches and warnings had been posted all over Western Washington, so I decided to try my luck on the east side of the Cascades. The storm followed me into the desert, though undoubtedly the brief light rain during my hike was trivial compared to the two inches of precipitation at Snoqualmie Pass that day. I followed I-90 east from Seattle across the pass and past Cle Elum and Ellensburg. After crossing the Columbia River at Vantage, I took the first exit after the bridge for State Route 26. I followed Route 26 south briefly before taking the right fork for Route 243 south when Route 26 began to climb up the columnar basalt cliffs and away from the river. I followed 243 south along the Columbia River past Wapanum Dam and Sentinel Gap to Mattawa; here, I turned left onto Road 24 and followed it east through the irrigated farmland at the foot of the Saddle Mountains. I continued on Road 24 until it met up with State Route 24 (how confusing!); I turned left here and followed Route 24 east for at least another 10 miles until I came to the junction with a gated gravel road leading into the Wahluke Unit of the Hanford Reach National Monument. I turned right onto this road; the gate is open until sundown every day. As I followed the gravel road south, a sudden blast of wind from the storm rolled a tumbleweed across the road. While this might be a common desert sight, I was shocked and a little thrilled to have seen such an iconic sight of the western desert. I followed the gravel road until it came to a four-way intersection. Here, I turned right to head towards White Bluffs landing. After the turn, the road became paved once more. The paved road headed west over the flat Wahluke Slope before descending down a gully cut into the White Bluffs to a small level area near a boat landing. The trailhead was at a small gravel spur road on the right side of the paved road reached right after coming out of the gully. If you reach the boat launch, you've driven too far.

The Washington Trails Association website indicates that a Discover Pass is needed to park at the trailhead: however, this is incorrect. The trailhead lies on land operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and not the State of Washington; additionally, there isn't much of a "trailhead parking area" to speak of anyway.

The trail heads north from the parking area, directly towards the White Bluffs. It immediately climbed up a lower set of bluffs and brought the first views of the Columbia.

Ascending White Bluffs
A few hundred yards past the trailhead, the trail started a second climb that brought it to the top of the second set of bluffs, placing the trail maybe two hundred feet above the river. The trail continued skirting the top of the bluffs for the next two miles, providing consistently good views of the free-flowing river and a large island that split the river in the Reach. A part of the Hanford Site came into view when I turned and looked back- the remnants of the F reactor lay to the south. It was easy to see how the bomb could've been kept a secret throughout its development in this empty landscape.

White Bluffs at Hanford
The views of the river were made all the more impressive by the fact that in the Hanford Reach, the Columbia River flows. At face value, this seems like nothing special: after all, rivers flow. But within the borders of the United States, the Hanford Reach is the only place the Columbia River flows, the only place where the great river of the Northwest is not slackwater. From the Bonneville Dam at the beginning of the tidal Columbia to the upper reaches of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Lake at the Canadian border, every section of the Columbia River is dammed save this stretch between the Priest Rapids Dam near Sentinel Gap and the McNary Dam near the confluence with the Snake. The siren song of cheap hydroelectric power proved too strong to save any part of the Columbia River besides the stretch kept off-limits by a secretive Manhattan Project site.

The cheap and plentiful hydropower birthed Hanford in the first place. The unprecedented electrical output of the Grand Coulee Dam provided the energy necessary for plutonium enrichment at Hanford. During the war, the populace of the towns of White Bluffs and Hanford were relocated and a wide perimeter of sagebrush around the site's nuclear reactors was put in place to maintain secrecy. This perimeter remained through the end of the Cold War: even as the rest of the Columbia Basin turned into a network of dams, irrigation canals, and reclaimed agricultural fields, the land around Hanford remained sagebrush and sand. Inadequately rigorous disposal of nuclear and chemical waste during plutonium production turned the west bank of the Columbia into a toxic Superfund site. Luckily, the waste problem has been largely localized to the Hanford Site side of the river, leaving the Wahluke Slope on the east side as a haven for wildlife. Today, the Hanford Site remains largely off-limits to visitors except on guided tours operated by the Department of Energy and the National Park Service.

The contrast was striking: on the other side of the river, a symbol of death and decay, on this side of river, a quiet, unassuming sagebrush wilderness full of life, saved only because of the secrecy necessary for the Faustian creation across the river. Salmon swam in the river below and Canada geese glided silently above the Columbia.

Birds in flight at Hanford
About two miles into the hike, the trail died out as I approached the first sand dune on the hike. The first complex of sand dunes was rather small, though the dune itself was still at least 40 or 50 feet tall. As I climbed the dune, my feet alternatingly sinking into sand slope, I saw in wonder the 30-mile-per-hour winds whipping sand past the crest of the dune. Standing atop the crest of the dune, I could feel sand blasting around my legs: it almost seemed as if I were fording a river of sand.

Windblown sand
Among the blowing sands, I spotted a Jerusalem cricket, a species that is neither a cricket nor a resident of Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Cricket in the sand dunes
Past the first set of high dunes, I wandered through a sandy area with more vegetation. At this point, there was no trail; I simply walked in the direction of the next set of dunes that I saw. As I walked towards those dunes, the storm rolled in, completing engulfing the Saddle Mountains to the north with clouds and rain. Before the storm reached me, the cloud cover momentarily broke and the sun illuminated the sand blowing on the nearby dunes.

White Bluffs sand dunes
Across the river, I spotted the cocooned shell of the H reactor, one of the many plutonium enrichment reactors at Hanford. In total, nine plutonium enrichment reactors were built at Hanford, three of which were finished during WWII to provide plutonium for the bombs being assembled at Los Alamos. H reactor was built later during the Cold War; at the height of weapons production, Hanford and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina provided all plutonium for warheads built in the United States. At the end of the Cold War, the Hanford reactors were decommissioned; the buildings around the reactors were torn down and the reactors themselves were left in place and cocooned in protective covering. The Manhattan Project National Historical Park- a recently established park preserving sites at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos- now offers tours of B reactor, the first large-scale nuclear reactor to go critical, a rare chance to enter and visit an otherwise strictly off-limits zone.

Sand dunes, with cocooned Hanford H reactor across the river
At the foot of the second set of dunes, I donned my rain gear and sat down in the sand to momentarily escape the driving rain and the intense wind. It was not apparent as I hunkered down whether much of what was hitting me was sand or water; but I waited out the brief period of heavier rain and then began to ascend the second dunes once the rain transitioned to light showers.

The second set of dunes was substantially more impressive than the first: there were perhaps as many as seven or eight sand mounds all connected along a single ridge of sand. I followed the crest along the dunes, struggling as I fought the collapsing sand up each dune. The views from the top of the highest dunes to the flat Wahluke Slope, the river, and the surrounding mountain ranges were quite remarkable.

Sand dunes
The Columbia River at White Bluffs
After descending the tallest dune, I decided to call it quits for the day. There was still a decent amount of sand that stretched northward- it would certainly be possible to extend the hike beyond where I stopped and explore to the end of the expanse of sand. I slid down from the sand crest to a sandy basin on the east side of the tall dunes, then walked along the base of the dunes until I reached the sandy inter-dune area. From there, I retraced my steps to the trailhead, leaving the monument just after the sun set. I didn't see another person all day on the trail; the only other people I met were a couple of guys from the Priest Rapids Hatchery who were catching some salmon from the river at White Bluffs Landing to stock the hatchery. Although it hasn't been well advertised, the landscapes at Hanford are extraordinary and well worth the trip from Seattle.

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