We are spoiled with natural beauty. It is easy to say that as residents of Clark County. We have at our doorstep nearly endless opportunities to spend time with our families in the great outdoors all around southwest Washington. From stunning volcanoes and picturesque state parks to wildflower-filled hills overlooking the mighty Columbia River, we have the best of everything just a short drive from home. Some of the best places to go for fun, educational and beautiful adventures are our region’s National Wildlife Refuges. Here in Clark County, we have four that are a short drive from home along the Columbia. Taking a road trip and a walking adventure in these wildlife refuges with your family will ensure you have a great time in the natural splendor around our backyards. With the migration season just around the corner, now is the time to start planning your next adventure to a National Wildlife Refuge.
1. Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Perhaps one of the best-known wildlife refuges in southwest Washington, Ridgefield has been a family destination for generations. Just 20 miles from downtown Vancouver, the 5,000-acre refuge has been a cornerstone for our region’s outdoor recreation since 1965. If you haven’t visited Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge, you need to add it to your must-visit list. Offering hiking trails (some open year round, others open from May to the end of September) and a year round car tour route, this is a fun destination no matter the season. The car route has some great stops to look for wildlife, as well as informational displays to help you spot and identify local animals. In the fall, watch for the return of migratory birds – like Sandhill cranes and numerous species of shorebirds – while coyotes, bobcats, beavers and mink roam the flats. To best see these animals and birds, visit in the early morning hours or just before the refuge closes. The animals can and may be seen all over the refuge, so make sure you look high and low every chance you get. You should also remember to remain quiet when looking for animals, scanning with your eyes or a pair of binoculars that you have brought with you. Remember that with all wildlife refuge experiences, patience and stillness bring the greatest rewards.
2. Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Twenty miles east of Vancouver, located along the banks of the Columbia River, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge is home to another incredible wildlife watching experience. Open daily during daylight hours, this often-overlooked wildlife refuge has great family hiking experiences and incredible birding waiting for you. Over 200 bird species visit this refuge each year. Some can be seen year-round along the miles of trails that lead down to the Columbia River. Accessible from both a parking area right off of Highway 14 and by foot from the Captain William Clark Park in Washougal, an adventure here will have you forgetting about the stresses of the city. What makes this place so unique is that birds from both eastern and western Washington mingle in the wetlands and ponds. The refuge isn’t just for birders; Steigerwald is also home to 20 species of mammals and 15 species of reptiles and amphibians. To best see the birds and other animals around, remember to walk the trails quietly and remind yourself and your children that you are a guest in this natural gem.
3. Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Few people ever take the time to stop and admire Franz Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Located between Highway 14 and the Columbia River, this refuge contains one of the few remaining natural wetlands still connected to the Columbia River. Created in 1990, this small refuge is inaccessible to visitors except for one overlook near the main highway. While that may deter most from making the stop, a hidden secret should make it a frequently visited destination during the fall and winter months. The secret? Each year, the lakes of the refuge become the destination for migrating Tundra swans, providing much needed rest and food as they travel through the region. As many as 1,000 Tundra swans have been seen flying above and swimming in the lake, so make sure you add this to your fall and winter outdoor itineraries.
4. Pierce National Wildlife Refuge
Farther upstream along the Columbia, just east of Beacon Rock, the Pierce National Wildlife Refuge is another forgotten destination for those interested in the wildlife and unique ecosystems found along the Columbia River. What makes this place so incredible is that it is home to one of the last remaining runs of chum salmon on the Columbia River. It is also the home to a population of 200 western pond turtles, an endangered species in Washington State. The refuge is just one of three locations where these rare turtles have been found to breed along the Columbia River. While the majority of the refuge is closed to the public, spring and fall guided tours are available. All you have to do is contact the refuge and plan your trip.