Plan Your Visit
The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge provides numerous recreation opportunities to thousands of visitors every year. People enjoy viewing the unique geology and diverse wildlife, whether boating, driving or hiking. Regulation of recreation activities allow for public enjoyment of the refuge while still protecting the wildlife and habitats. For question about recreation, please contact the refuge office.
International Migratory Bird Day: International Migratory Bird Day celebrates the incredible journey of migratory birds. On the second Saturday in May, public events are held internationally that promote awareness and conservation of migratory birds. The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge participates in the celebration by offering a birding tour on the refuge. Visit the International Migratory Bird Day website for more information.
National Wildlife Refuge Week: Each autumn the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service devotes a week to celebrating our National Wildlife Refuge System. During this week, the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge hosts a sunset wildlife tour. This bus tour provides a great opportunity to enjoy and learn about one refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System.
Watching wildlife can be a very exciting and rewarding experience. The refuge offers many great places to observe the unique wildlife of the region. Wildlife observation is permitted in areas open to public use. March and April provide the greatest concentrations and numbers of wildlife for viewing when tens of thousands of ducks, geese and cranes are visiting. Refuge farm fields off Barton, "E" SE, and Corfu Roads are popular viewing sites, while Marsh Units 1 and 2 are excellent wetlands to observe.
During spring and summer almost the entire refuge is open to the public. This is a great time to view wildlife in the marshes and beyond. Several species of ducks nest on the refuge, with mallards, gadwalls, redheads, cinnamon and blue-winged teal, and ruddy ducks being the most common.
In the fall northern migrants return, and much of the refuge closes to all public entry to provide critical undisturbed sanctuary for the birds. Refuge lands important as wintering waterfowl sanctuaries are closed to all public entry from October 1 to March 1 with one exception; the Frog Lake Trail from the trail head to Frog Lake on top of the bluff is open year round. However, good viewing opportunities remain at Migraine Lake, visible from the Soda Lake Dam. Also, thousands of ducks and geese can be seen throughout the winter at Royal Lake from the overlook at the south end of Byers Road.
Wildlife Viewing Suggestions:
- Visit the refuge early in the morning or just before sunset. Animals are usually more active then, especially during the warmer times of the year, and can often be observed coming and going to feeding and resting areas.
- Watch for wildlife in areas where two habitats meet. Animals are attracted to the variety of food and shelter found in these transition zones.
- Stay in the car. Vehicles are an excellent observation and photographic blind. Animals have grown accustomed to seeing people in cars and are less threatened than by people on foot.
- Use binoculars and spotting scopes to get a closer look. The next visitor will appreciate animals not being scared into hiding.
- Human voices and sudden movements scare wildlife. When hiking or observing, minimize talking and move slowly.
- Study and learn more about wildlife. Many good identification books can assist in determining what species are present or common to the area.
There are many resources that provide information about wildlife observation in the area. Some of them discussing viewing sites at the refuge include:
- Washington State Birding Trail: Coulee Corridor Scenic Byway (brochure)
- Washington Wildlife Viewing Guide
- Important Bird Areas of Washington, compiled by Tim Cullinan
- Birders Guide to Washington, by Hal Opperman
Throughout the year there are wildlife viewing events held at the refuge. Please check back for more information about specific wildlife viewing opportunities.
Maps designating areas open for public use are available from the maps page. General information about the wildlife at the refuge is available on the wildlife and habitats page.
A hike on the refuge provides a great opportunity to observe some of the magnificent plants, flowers and wildlife of the area. Hiking is permitted in areas open to public use. There are three interpretive hiking trails.
Frog Lake Trail: The Frog Lake Interpretive Trail is 3 miles long with an elevation gain of 200 feet. Although starting out near Crab Creek, this trail promptly leads into the drier shrub-steppe habitat. After meandering past striking columnar basalt formations, the trail ascends, circling the top of a mesa providing a beautiful view of the refuge.
Marsh Loop: The Marsh Loop is about 1.8 miles long and, except for a small incline down from the parking lot, has no elevation change. This trail follows Crab Creek and circles two marshes, remaining in the low lands near wetland habitat. Interpretive signs along the way discuss the habitat and species living in the area.
Crab Creek Trail: The Crab Creek Trail forms a loop about 1 mile long. The loop primarily follows Crab Creek, offering an immersion into its riparian habitat. With scattered willows and large patches of wild rose bushes, this trail is a favorite among many birders. For an extended hike, there is an additional 3/4-mile section of trail connecting the Crab Creek Trail loop to the Frog Lake and Marsh Loop trailheads.
Boats or other flotation devices are not allowed on impoundments in or along Crab Creek in Marsh Units I and II. During the hunting season, non-gasoline motored floatation devices are allowed within Marsh Units I. Boats propelled by gasoline motors are prohibited on Upper and Lower Hampton, Hutchinson and Shiner Lakes. Powered and non-powered boats are allowed on all other waters open for fishing. Personal watercrafts are not allowed on any waters found within the refuge boundary.
A recommended area for canoeing is at the Hutchinson and Shiner Lakes. View a map of the Hutchinson Shiner Canoe Area at the maps page.
Following the auto tour route is a great way to observe the rich geologic history, habitats and wildlife of the refuge. Remember, all gravel roads are primitive so use caution. A map of the auto tour route is available on the maps page.
Drumheller Overlook: A great place to view the geologic evolution of the refuge, specifically the eroded canyons and isolated cliffs caused by the glacial floods, is from the Drumheller Interpretive Site. This overlook was created in 1986 when the Drumheller Channels were designated as a National Natural Landmark. This designation recognizes the geological significance of the Drumheller Channels on and around the refuge. The auto tour map notes the location of the Drumheller viewpoint, which is also the start of a short trail that leads to the overlook where there are interpretive signs.
Marsh Unit 1: The marsh units on the refuge are developed marshes that attract lots of wildlife. Many species of birds find the areas ideal for resting, feeding or nesting. Parking for the overlook of Marsh Unit 1 is noted on the auto tour map by the binocular symbol.
Hunting and Fishing
|Millions of people visit National Wildlife Refuges every year. Signs grant or restrict certain activities to provided optimum freedom for visitors, while also protecting refuge elements from undue abuse. Please respect the following signs.
||This sign marks refuge boundaries. You may enter the area only on designated access routes. Respect the refuge boundaries. Unauthorized entry upon private lands is a trespass violation.
||This area is closed to all entry. No hunting, fishing or sight seeing is permitted. No roads or trails are open to the public. Posting of seasonal closures varies. Contact the refuge office for more information.
||This sign can be used alone or beneath a boundary sign. The area behind this sign may be hunted as permitted by refuge regulations.
||No vehicles are permitted beyond this sign, only foot travel is permitted.
Unfortunately, along with the advice we're giving you on visiting the refuge on this web site, we also need to include the "don't do's." Sorry, we're trying to protect wildlife and habitats; we can't help ourselves.
- The refuge is open from 5:00 a.m. to 1/2 hour after sunset.
- Parking is allowed in designated parking areas only. No overnight parking is allowed on the refuge.
- Most areas of the refuge are very remote with no restroom or drinking water facilities. Refuge visitors should plan their trips accordingly.
- Littering is unlawful and can seriously injure wildlife. Help keep the refuge clean by removing all trash.
- Firearms and other weapons are subject to state law. At all times, persons possessing, transporting, or carrying firearms on the refuge must comply with all provisions of state law. Firearms may only be discharged in accordance with refuge hunting regulations, i.e., only during the lawful pursuit of game during legal seasons. Weapons allowed for hunting are shotguns and bow and arrows. Only federally approved nontoxic shotshells may be possessed or used in the field while hunting, except when hunting deer.
- Other prohibitions on the refuge are dogs off-leash; off-road vehicles; and collecting of plants, animals, minerals, antlers and artifacts.
A couple words of caution:
- The western rattlesnake is regularly encountered on the refuge and might be found anywhere during warm weather. They are most abundant in rocky areas. Visitors should be alert for them, but must remember that they, like all other species of wildlife on the refuge, are protected.
- The refuge covers a variety of habitats including rough terrain, deep waters, dense stands of vegetation, stubble fields, and ditches. Access difficulty varies by area, and users should examine their own abilities and limitation before visiting the refuge. Contact the refuge office for suggestions on using the area safely.