Just east of Washougal, as you enter the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, you’ll find a beautiful place to wander, photograph wildlife and relax. The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is open to the public and makes for a close-by escape to a quiet, natural habitat.
The Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge was once a dairy farm owned by a Portland family. The Steigerwald family kept a herd of dairy cows in the Steigerwald Lake flood plain. Originally the farm included a large barn said to have been located west of the current Bi-Mart store’s location in Washougal. Their dairy store in Portland was on the corner of 37th and Sandy Boulevard. It was shaped like a giant milk bottle and was built in 1926.
When a second powerhouse was constructed at Bonneville Dam, upstream, it was known that more lowlands would be flooded. Refuge lands were established to minimize this impact. As you explore Southwest Washington, you’ll encounter these refuge lands: Steigerwald Lake, Franz Lake and Pierce National Wildlife Refuges.
Today, the Steigerwald refuge lies on 996 acres adjacent to the Columbia River. The refuge is primarily flood plain habitat, so you’ll encounter marsh birds and turtles.
Trails were established, and the area was opened to the public in 2009. With the addition of a fanciful and educational 2.8-mile art trail, thousands of visitors use the area for walking and learning about the wetland habitat.
Wildlife Art Trail
We enjoyed the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail, with metal sculpture installations that will surprise you at every turn. The informational art adds interest to the wildlife you will discover at the refuge.
The 2.8-mile Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail loops through the refuge. Part of the loop is closed from October through the end of April to protect the migrating wildlife, but you can extend your walk by heading out to the dike trail along the Columbia River.
In addition to the wide range of local and migrating birds you can see at the Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge, you’ll find over 20 species of mammals and 15 species of reptiles and amphibians. Add to that insects, fish and plants and there is plenty to discover. The day we were there we saw turtles, colorful dragonflies and marsh birds. I am sure that if we had paused from our walking, we would have seen even more.
Purple Martins and the Fish Ladder
From May through September you can find nesting Purple Martins at the entrance to the refuge from the dike trail. Volunteers put up 40 white nesting gourds and eight wooden nesting boxes for the birds. The Purple Martins migrate here from places in South America like Brazil, Argentina and Peru. The efforts to attract the birds have been successful, with the artificial nesting sites filled almost to capacity.
Also at the Gibbons Trailhead off the Columbia River Dike Trail you’ll see a fish ladder on the Columbia River side of the dike. Gibbons Creek connects fish spawning grounds to the Columbia River. When the dike was constructed, this channel was cut off. A fish ladder was constructed so Coho salmon, Steelhead, and Pacific and Western Brook Lamprey can use this channel to access their spawning grounds.
Gateway to the Gorge
This refuge lies partly within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, and has been designated as the location for a “Gateway to the Gorge” visitor center. This facility is currently in the planning stage, with a portion of the construction funds already secured.
For now, the refuge is a haven for birds and animals and provides a great opportunity for people to view them and enjoy the habitat. Because it is a refuge, no pets, bicycles or jogging is allowed on the trail.
When You Visit the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge
To find the preserve, drive east on SR-14 past the Washougal exits to the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge on the right side of the highway just past mile post 18. There is no fee for parking.
Seasonal birding walks with a naturalist are listed on the Steigerwald Lake website.
The Refuge is open every day during daylight hours. Closing times for the automated gate are posted on the gate at the refuge entrance. No pedestrian access is allowed after dark.
The Columbia River Dike Trail, which runs from the parking lot at the Washougal Pendleton Woolen Mills to just past the preserve, is open to biking, running and dog walking. You can access the preserve from this trail, but remember that the preserve trail is for walking and observing and no dogs are allowed.