Hanford Reach National Monument has one of the strangest reasons for existence: it was designated to protect a former buffer zone to a secretive military nuclear facility from the 40s connected to the Manhattan Project (the B Reactor of the Hanford Site was the first one in the world to produce plutonium which was used in the first atomic bombs, and it can be visited with guided tours). After years of radioactive material being dumped in the region, the activity eventually stopped and it became the site of the costliest clean-up operation in US history. Meanwhile, in the untouched buffer zone, wildlife returned in large numbers and the original vegetation took over the formerly cultivated fields. Just across the border of the monument now stretch large farming operations, orchards and vineyards. In 2000, this 194,000 acre (78,500 ha) buffer zone was declared a national monument under the direction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, together with the nearby Saddle Mountain Wildlife Refuge. One side of the national monument, the West Unit, remains closed to the public and protects plant communities that were previously unknown to science. Hanford Reach was named after the last free-flowing nontidal section of the once mighty Columbia River which passes through the monument, a place where Upper Columbia River spring-run chinook and Upper Columbia River steelhead are still found in important numbers, as are sturgeons and bull trout. The monument has become an important place for hunters and anglers, and the region has for long played a sacred role in the lives of Native tribes which worked for many years to see Hanford Reach protected. If you’re planning a visit, the closest city to the national monument is Richland, Washington (together with Kennewick and Pasco they are known as the Tri-Cities). Richland has all the amenities and accommodation options you would need for a short stay and is located less than an hour away from the entrance in the national monument. Camping within the monument is not available, but we went to a nearby campground in the Horn Rapids Park (not a wild, very private experience, but OK for one night). We visited Hanford Reach in late summer and the landscape we encountered was an arid one, but if you are there in spring an explosion of color from wild flowers should welcome you. The islands and wetlands on the Columbia River harbor small pelican and shore bird colonies, as well as dozens of swallows and gulls. When we arrived in the monument in the middle of the day, it seemed at first like there wasn’t much to see. It is not developed for tourism, but its importance goes well beyond that. However, as the sunset time approached, we made our way to the White Bluffs trailhead (on Google Maps it’s marked as the Hanford Reach-North Trailhead), which leads to some amazing sand dunes on the Columbia Plateau, rising above the majestic river below. Up there, with coyotes howling in the distance, lizards moving quickly at our feet, and a golden sunset light, we discovered a true hidden gem of beauty and biodiversity which can be visited in one day. To be prepared in this rather isolated place, make sure you bring lots of water and consult the recommendations of the Fish and Wildlife Service. If you want to get involved beyond visiting and help support the monument, you can find out about opportunities from the Mid-Columbia River Refuges organization on their Facebook.
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