by Allen Cox
In 2000, President Clinton preserved 560 square miles along the Columbia River in south-central Washington as the Hanford Reach National Monument. This scenic and rugged area offers excellent opportunities for outdoor adventure, is home to many species of wildlife and is rich with Indigenous and early settler history. At the monument, you will find a varied and sprawling landscape shaped by ancient lava flows and epic floods, which left today’s basalt cliffs, shrub steppe, wetlands, sandstone formations and dunes with the mighty river slicing its way through the desert on its long journey to the Pacific.
History of the Reach
The Hanford Reach National Monument was home to Native Americans for thousands of years. Petroglyphs, pictographs, ancient village sites and fishing encampments stand as testimony to their presence. Settlers also moved into the region, and the remains of their presence include historic homestead sites and ranches.
This stretch of arid land also carries a darker legacy—it was home to the Hanford Site, a U.S. nuclear production complex, now decommissioned. The Hanford Site was part of the Manhattan Project, producing plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in World War II. Later, it continued to produce nuclear materials up until the 1980s.
Exploring Hanford Reach
The Hanford Reach National Monument is divided into five distinct administrative units—Saddle Mountain, Rattlesnake, Wahluke, Ringold and Columbia River Corridor—managed by two federal agencies: the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Energy. Public access is restricted to specific units and areas within units; follow signage and respect restricted areas. Entrances are off of Highway 24 at milepost 60 and 63.
One of the most remarkable features of Hanford Reach is its wide-open spaces. As you drive into the Monument, you can stop at many points of interest. And at the Wahluke Slope Overlook, you can take in panoramic views of the Monument and beyond. Along the loop, keep an eye out for birds, like sandhill cranes and falcons, as well as mule deer, coyote, bobcats and other wildlife.
You can stretch your legs on the scenic 3.3-mile White Bluffs Trail, which begins at the White Bluffs boat launch and follows a route along sandstone cliffs and dunes above shoreline. This section of the Columbia River is officially designated as a Wild and Scenic River; those with canoes, kayaks or standup paddleboards can get out on the water from the boat launch.
Manhattan Project National Historical Park
The Manhattan Project National Historical Park at the Hanford Reach National Monument provides insight into one of the most significant scientific and engineering accomplishments in history. The park preserves the historic sites that played a critical role in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II.
The Manhattan Project was a top-secret research program launched by the United States government in 1942 to develop an atomic bomb. The program was headquartered in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but several other sites across the country were also involved in the project. One of these sites was the Hanford Site, which played a critical role in the production of plutonium, a key component of the atomic bomb.
At the park, you can take a guided tour of the B Reactor (reservations required), a decommissioned nuclear reactor and learn about the history of the project, the science behind the project, as well as the environmental and safety concerns associated with nuclear production.
The Reach Museum
Before heading to the Hanford Reach National Monument, stop in at The Reach Museum in the nearby city of Richland. This state-of-the-art museum offers exhibits and knowledgeable staff that can provide an overview of the geologic, natural and human history of the Monument. Once you drive out to explore the Monument, you will have a deeper understanding of the significance of the place you are visiting.
When you go
- Hanford Reach National Monument
- Manhattan Project National Historical Park
- The Reach Museum
- Visit Tri-Cities