Photo: Holy coulee! Take your pick of the scablands at Columbia Wildlife refuge.
By Shelly Forster
When I enlisted for the year with WenatcheeOutdoors, my head filled with exhilarating images of live-from-the-field reports about grueling 70-mile hikes, scaling monolithic crags, and paddling bone-crushing torrents through jagged canyons. What a shocker when I learned that my first assignment would not be a wilderness-induced injection of adrenaline but an urban visit to the metropolitan hotspot of…Moses Lake. For those who haven’t been to Moses Lake, it’s flatter than the skillet the pancake came from, so I was mystified by the prospect of finding respectable hiking within striking distance. However, with a little bit of research and some dumb luck, I struck gold half an hour south of Moses Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge.
The refuge encompasses about 19,000 acres of public land in the Drumheller Channels, which are a National Natural Landmark, and are considered by some the most spectacular scablands on the Columbia Plateau. The scablands are a hodgepodge of coulees and basalt columns that were violently scoured into shape 12,000 to18,000 years ago by the famed Missoula Ice Age floods (an example of an awesomely named phenomenon called a jökulhlaup).
Thousands of years later, the clustered basalt columns in the channeled scablands appeared to my sun-addled brain as a bizarre mix of cliffs, ridges, pipe organs, and crowded French fry boxes. My favorite were the mysterious round mesas with Stonehenge-like towers of basalt crowded together like kids in a lunchline, each jockeying for first position and tipping its neighbors askew. Dotted across the curious landscape were sage and rabbitbrush shrubs that seemed to be swarming the cliffs, racing to the top for the finest view.
Most incongruous in the desert landscape were the remnant ponds and channels, which were filled to the brim following the Great Floods, but now survive the heat solely through the mercy of the sixty-year old Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Irrigation water keeps Crab Creek flowing through the refuge and feeds a system of marshes providing a desert oasis for thousands of migrating birds.
The refuge maintains three interpretive trails paralleling Crab Creek that can be easily connected for a six- mile flat hike through riparian and shrub-steppe habitats. The longest hike to Frog Lake (roughly 3 miles) offers mind-melting panoramic views across the desolate but awesome scablands. This is the only hike of the three with any sort of elevation gain.
Natural history geeks will enjoy the interpretive signs but may also find them absurd if local wildlife is on hiatus. Visitors in late summer may find the marsh withered and discover that the only evidence of the vast waterfowl hoards the Marsh Loop signs describe is a vibrant smattering of turds the migrants smeared across the signs as a monument to their visit. The interpretive trails may also be bare of human visitors, as CNWR seems to be a well-kept secret for all but avid hunters and fishermen. With the exception of being stopped by a US Fish and Wildlife wondering whether I was lost (did my dorky fanny pack and GPS make it so obvious?) I spent a full day wandering the refuge in solitude.
Beyond the Crab Creek system, a drought of well-marked, well-used trails suggests that hiking is not high on the local management plan. For instance, a couple hours of shuffling through puncture vine revealed that the Goose Lake Plateau Trail is now defunct. Proceed with caution and long pants.
Despite a shortage of formal trails, the refuge is layered with a web of usable game trails. Vehicles (and presumably mountain bikes) are permitted only in designated areas, but roaming on foot is kosher wherever game trails provide free access. The refuge is open to hunters, so use caution during the appropriate season when hiking off the main trails and roads.
The short-but-sweet summary:
Would I visit the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge if….
…I lived 2 hours away in Wenatchee and was looking for a challenging and lengthy hike? No.
…I lived in nearby Moses Lake and wanted to forsake humanity for a day? You bet.
…I was looking to catch a glimpse of migratory waterfowl? Sure thing, depending on the season.
…I was a geology nut hunting for zany formations? These Scabs are an excellent pick!
Maps. See our topo map of the route.
Activity: Hiking, trail running, fishing
Nearest Town: Moses Lake/Othello.
Skill: 1 to 2.
Fitness: 1 to 2.
Distance: (round-trip): Any combination you like of 1.0, 1.8 and/or 3.0 mile trails, for a possible total of 5.8 miles.
Elevation Gain: A towering 200 feet, but only if you opt for the bonus scenic loop on the Frog Lake Trail. Otherwise, the interpretive trails are flat from start to finish.
Best Seasons: March and April are best for spotting thousands of migrating waterfowl. Fall migrations are also a spectacle, but much of the refuge is seasonally closed to human visitors to protect wildlife. For those without bird fever, a visit during the avian off-season is still worth the trek.
Access. From Moses Lake, take State Route 17-S to 262 W. Turn left on Road K2 SE (also called Morgan Lake Road), which is marked with a sign for Columbia Wildlife Refuge.
For a backroad approach, follow SR 17-S from Moses Lake for 3.2 miles. Turn Right on Road M and drive 6.4 miles to the intersection with 262-W. Turn right on 262-W, then left on Road K2 SE/Morgan Lake Road.
To access the Frog Lake/Marsh Loop Trailhead, follow Morgan Lake Road for 2.2 miles and turn right. In 1.0 mile, take the main road to the left (continuing straight will bring you to a dead end at Goose Lake), following the sign to Othello. Drive 1.1 miles to parking area on the right-hand (western) side of the road. The trailhead is across the street on the left (east).
1. Crab Creek:
Crab Creek has its own trailhead off of Morgan Lakes Road, but it’s not well marked and is difficult to find, so begin hiking from the Frog Lake/Marsh Loop Trailhead (elevation, 814 feet).
- Walk northeast along the gravel path that splits to the left of the informational signboard at the main trailhead. You’ll walk by a “no fishing sign”, and the trail will turn into a single-track dirt path
- In 0.4 miles, the trail forks — go left and walk straight until the trail ends. If you turn right you’ll descend rickety wooden steps leading toward Crab Creek and before long the trail will be swallowed up by sedges, puncture vine and swarming mosquitoes. Still, if you’d like a chance to flex your navigational muscles and “ain’t afraid of ‘skeeters”, descend the steps and follow the trail best you can, generally heading northward and parallel to the creek. This will yield a view of a waterfall in about 0.5 miles.
- At the end of the trail, return by retracing your steps or by following Morgan Lake Road back to the parking lot.
2. Frog Lake:
- From the information board at the trailhead, head east on the gravel path running to the right of the board. After 50 feet, cross a grassy impoundment. At the “T”, turn left (north) to select Frog Lake Trail. The grassy impoundment will soon change to a narrow, sandy trail following Crab Creek and slooowly gaining elevation. Along the way you’ll see a smattering of interpretive signs describing plant/animal adaptations to desert life.
- In 0.8 miles, you may see Frog Lake. According to the sign nearby, “Permanent water sources, like Frog Lake, are critical to the survival of desert wildlife.” Too bad for desert wildlife because on the day I visited, Frog Lake was drier than a mouthful of Saltines.
- In 0.1 miles choose to turn back or continue onward (right at the fork) to Mesa Loop. Turn back only if you’re feeling really beat, because Mesa Loop is the most spectacular part of the three-trail system.
- Climb up a gully through a wide basalt gate, and in another 0.2 miles the trail will hit a “T”, which is the edge of the loop. Choose left or right – with 0.6 miles of walking, either direction will bring your feet right back to the “T” again.
- After the loop, retrace your steps downhill for 1.8 miles. At the fork, turn right to return to the spot where the Frog Lake and Marsh Loop Trails connect.
- In 0.1 miles, turn right to return to the parking lot.
From the informational sign at the trailhead, embark eastward on the gravel path that runs to the right. After 50 feet, cross a grassy impoundment.
- In 0.1 miles, choose Marsh Loop by turning right (southeast) and following a gravel road.
- In another 0.2 miles, you’ll reach an interpretive sign about marsh management. This is where you’ll choose a direction for taking the loop. I turned right, but the signs are easy to follow whichever direction you choose.
- In another 0.3 miles, the road forks to the left, leading to off-trail exploration of the impoundment if you wish. Otherwise, continue straight to follow the interpretive signs.
- In 0.2 miles, the trail splits again. Head left to stay on the interpretive trail, or follow the road to the right to meander off-trail through the marsh.
- In 0.2 miles, turn left (north) again, following the sign for Marsh Loop
- In 0.3 mi, follow the mysterious arrow on your right (pointing north) that points to a single-track dirt trail leading into the sage brush. This feels like a sketchy departure from the road, but the trail is hard-packed and distinct, so trust it. Meander through sagebrush about 0.1 mile to an interpretive sign about invasive. (Did you know that invasive bullfrogs can be voracious enough to gobble up ducklings?)
- In 0.3 miles, the trail returns to the grassy impoundment. Finish the loop by turning right and following signs in 0.2 miles to either Frog Lake or the parking lot.
Photo Left: Wildlife refuge management goals tend to favor land conservation and boosting populations of trophy animals. Unfortunately for Ducks Unlimited, refuge waterfowl were severely limited by the late summer drought.
1. Rattlesnake sightings are possible, but not highly probable. CNWR literature reminds visitors that rattlesnakes are protected on the lands they manage– please do not harass or harm any rattlesnakes you do encounter.
2. With the exception of rattlesnakes, “Wildlife Refuge” designation does not directly translate to “Don’t kill animals here!” Keep a weather eye (and ear) out for hunters and consider leaving your favorite antler-hat behind for this trip.
Allowed (or not). Bicycles are allowed only on gravel roads. Dogs are permitted on the refuge, but must be leashed at all times.
Land Ownership. CNWR is one of 500 federally owned wildlife refuges that collectively protect 93 million acres of land and water.
Fees/Permits. None required for parking or entry into the refuge.
Additional Information. Although the designation of “Wildlife Refuge” may suggest that CNWR is a bastion of virgin land, the refuge area has actually been heavily managed since cattle farmers began their bovine blitzkrieg of the Columbia Basin in the 1860s. After overgrazing the land, farmers also introduced sheep and feral horses and made several unsuccessful attempts at cultivating the desert soil. In the 1950s, the Columbia Basin began receiving offerings of water from Grand Coulee Dam. This created the chain of lakes and marshes (including the boisterously named “Marsh I” and “Marsh II”) in CNWR that are still actively managed as wildlife sanctuaries and research sites.
A list of birds and the seasons when you might expect to see them at the refuge.
To see the refuge without making the drive, check out this gorgeous interactive panoramic.
Other Trips. Blythe Lake is also located on the refuge. Potholes State Park and the Winchester Wasteway are a few miles down the road and are good options for strolling and paddling.
Reporter (and date). Shelly Forster, 9/25/2012
Leave It Better Than You Found It. This should be every outdoor user’s goal. Pick up trash left by others, pull some noxious weeds along your route, throw branches over unwanted spur trails, don’t ride or walk wet trails when you’re leaving ruts/footprints deeper than ¼ inch…
Disclaimer. Treat this information as recommendations, not gospel. Conditions change, and those contributing these reports are volunteers–they may make mistakes or may not know all the issues affecting a route.You are still completely responsible for your decisions, your actions, and your safety. If you can’t live with that, you are prohibited from using our information.
Photo: The Marsh Loop is a great place for migrating birds and migrating hikers.