Summer Guide: Hiking Hanford

Tales of waste leaks and radioactive explosion risks keep most people away from Washington’s nuclear-reactor sites. That’s what makes them great summer escapes.

Standing atop the towering sand dune perched over the Columbia River, our car looked minuscule and utterly alone on the spit of land that was once the heart of White Bluffs, Washington, but which is now a little-used boat launch and trail head located about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.

Starting in the 1850s, goods shipped up the Columbia by steamer would be unloaded at White Bluffs, then taken by pack train into the inland Northwest. Over the years, the heart of commerce would move across the river, where the skeleton of the First Bank of White Bluffs can still be made out in satellite photos.

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Also visible, both from outer space and the sand dune, are Hanford Reactors F, H and D, cinder-block-and-metal structures that look like grain elevators erected on a desert moonscape. The reactors, built to manufacture Ruskie-vaporizing plutonium during the Cold War, would spell the end of White Bluffs and pretty much every other non-military human activity across this 586-square-mile dish-bowl of land in central Washington.

Hanford rarely gets good press, but this year headlines have been particularity bad for the superfund site, all generally pertaining to the discovery that six underground tanks holding some of the most toxic waste known to man are leaking: “Inslee Says Hanford Leaks Could be 1,000 Gallons a Year”; “Nuclear Board Warns of Hanford Tank Explosion Risk”; “Hanford May Become Long-Term Temporary Site for Storing High-Level Nuclear Waste.”

At Seattle dinner parties, talk about hiking Hanford elicits tall tales of glow-in-the-dark mule deer and a genuine concern that such an excursion could render one quite cancer-ridden. But environmental disaster though it may be, a stunning dividend is paid by all those isotopes: a vast swath of intact desert habitat called shrub-steppe (cue dub-step joke here) that is neither force-fertilized into fruit production nor chopped into golf escapes for rain-soaked west-siders.

“Within the state of Washington, there are only two chunks of shrub steppe left,” says Dan Haas, Lead Planner for the Hanford Reach National Monument, which consists of 195,000 acres of protected habitat surrounding the Department of Energy’s nuclear sites. “Everything has been chopped into irrigated farms or developed or some way severely fragmented or flat-out destroyed.”

The result is an austere desert beauty completely foreign to the Puget Sound region: rusty cheat-grass precariously rooted in sandy soil; the barren Saddle Mountains spread out like a movie screen onto which the shadows of clouds are projected; dramatic clay bluffs cascading into a fast-flowing Columbia. Blackbirds, tanagers, and great blue herons congregate along the shore.

Striking as it is, people stay away. On a cool and partly cloudy May day, my wife and I are the only two people on the four-mile trail that skirts the ivory-colored bluffs and the sand dunes. We reached the trail head after a leisurely three-hour drive with multiple stops (pro tip: Skip the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park).

As summer temperatures rise, Haas says, visitors may enjoy the area better from a kayak on the river, perhaps using a guide service out of Kennewick. If anyone would care to visit. “People just don’t know about it,” Haas says when asked if maybe the nuclear waste is keeping tourists away. “People have heard of Yellowstone and Yosemite, but they haven’t heard of Hanford.” (It’s not a totally absurd comparison. A bill to add the first nuclear reactor at Hanford to the National Parks System is now moving through Congress.)

Hanford isn’t the only nuclear-disaster spot in the world to become a natural refuge. On a larger scale in every way possible, the area surrounding the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine has become a haven for wolves, lynx, and elk: Radioactive though they may be following the plant’s 1986 disaster, they appear to be thriving in one of the few places humans aren’t a major concern.

Beyond the eerie reactors dotting the Columbia are plenty of clear reminders of this wilderness’ dark roots and present danger: At one place along Highway 24, locals have snipped the barbed-wire fence for the purposes of drinking Bud Light and dodging rattlers, if the littered, sun-bleached bottles and ubiquitous snake holes are any indication. But the area, though it is a wildlife refuge, is technically closed to the public, to create a 40,000-acre buffer between the civilian world and a nuclear storage-tank explosion.

Hanford is also where the plutonium dropped on Japanese citizens in Nagasaki was made. And where the government allowed radioactive pollution to spew from and sicken its own citizens, the so-called down-winders of eastern Washington. And it’s where the pollution continues, seeping out of the underground tanks a private corporation had been tasked to oversee.

It’s a lot to contemplate, and the silent desert plains along the Columbia River, where few travelers go, are a perfect place to do it.

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