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Visitor Activities

Visiting Whitcomb-Cole CabinWhere's the lake? Because of past efforts to drain the lake, Conboy Lake is now a seasonal marsh. Early in the year, the lake is more apparent, complete with swans, geese and ducks. Although there is no lake for water-based activities, there are many other things to do on the refuge. Popular activities on the refuge include . . .

Wildlife Observation & Photography. Wildlife viewing is best in the spring and fall when flocks of migrating birds are present. In the fall, it is possible to watch both cranes and elk in the same field. Visit the refuge at first light or just before sunset; wildlife is more active at these times. To get a closer look, bring binoculars or a spotting scope. Move quietly and talk softly, if at all, so as not to disturb wildlife. Elk are consistently seen along the roads. If you spot wildlife from your car, stay in the car. Since cars don't look like natural predators people in cars are frequently not perceived as immediate threats. Please be cautious and courteous when pulling off the road. Parking is available west of the BZ/Glenwood Highway. Parking on the refuge is allowed in designated parking areas only.

Hiking. The Willard Springs Trail is a two-mile loop along the edge of the open marsh and into the pines. Beginning at the refuge headquarters, it parallels the west shore of the old Conboy Lake lakebed, with views across the lakebed and north to the 12,000-foot Mt. Adams. The trail is the most popular hike in the area and suitable for all skill levels, but it is not officially ADA accessible. The return portion of the Willard Springs Trail uses an old dirt road for approximately 3/4 mile. The trail has some gentle grades. Blackbirds, swallows and some hawks can be seen in the fields. Look for wood ducks and cinnamon teal in the canals near the trail. Cranes can sometimes be seen in the early spring just prior to nesting. Spring is also good for viewing snipe, elk, deer and, of course, wildflowers. Listen for woodpeckers and look for them on standing dead trees. Northern flickers, nuthatches, chickadees, towhees, flycatchers—all frequent the forest. In addition to these, look for such colorful migrants as tanagers, orioles, warblers, grosbeaks and crossbills. Watch the trail for elk or deer tracks. Signs of beaver and porcupine activity are also visible.

Cross-country Skiing and Snowshoeing. Winter can be magical at Conboy Lake. There's a good chance you'll have the refuge to yourself, with the solitude being broken only by the calls of year-round resident birds. The view to Mt. Adams is spectacular, especially as the day draws to a close. If you're lucky you'll see deer or elk or maybe the track of a cougar or bobcat from the previous night's hunt. Please note that these activities are limited to the same areas open to the public that exist the rest of the year, and please, please do everything you can not to scare wildlife. Your visit into the winter wilds is just temporary, but the wildlife must survive the winter and any unnecessary expenditure of energy can mean the difference between life or death or between bearing young successfully or not in the coming year.

Painting. Surprisingly, many people come to Conboy Lake NWR to paint. Or maybe it shouldn't be surprising considering how beautiful the refuge can be. Popular subjects include Mt. Adams, elk, the meadow and the Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House.

Hunting. Waterfowl and deer hunting are allowed. Please see Conboy Lake Hunting Regulations (PDF) for full information.

Fishing. Bank fishing is permitted on a 1/4-mile section of Outlet Creek, upstream from the bridge on Lakeside Road in accordance with state and federal regulations. Common fish include rainbow trout, brook trout and bullheads.

Learning About the Area's Culture and History. The use of Conboy Lake by Native Americans has a long history. Archaeological evidence shows encampments on the lakeshore dating between 7,000 and 11,000 years ago—possibly while ice age glaciers from Mt. Adams still reached into the valley.

The Klickitat people knew—know—this prairie as "tahk" and found it a reliable source for game and vegetable foods, often with a surplus for storage. Here they gathered, as did the Yakama, to collect camas plant roots in the spring. While the women dug and dried the camas roots, the men would hunt and fish.

In the 1850s Francis A. Chenowith, first Speaker of the Washington Territorial legislature, wrote letters to The Oregonian newspaper describing his travels in the region. One such trip took him to Camas Prairie, where he met Chief Kamiakin of the Yakama Tribe. Chief Kamiakin was one of the principle signers of the Treaty of 1855, which established the Yakama Reservation. When the treaty was violated by gold prospectors, he led the Yakama, Palouse, and Klickitat against the U.S. Army. He was forced into exile in Canada but eventually returned, renouncing his leadership role. He died in 1877 in Palouse country.

Drawn by accounts of the valley's abundant resources, settlers like Peter Conboy, for whom the lake is named, began arriving in the area during the 1870s. The Whitcomb-Cole Hewn Log House near refuge headquarters remains as an example of the homes they built and is one of only a few pioneer log homes still standing in Klickitat County. It originally stood two miles across the lake on land first settled by Stephen Whitcomb. In 1891, John Cole acquired the land from Whitcomb and built the main structure of the house, which included a large downstairs room that served as a kitchen, dining, sitting and family room. These were pretty cozy quarters for a family of seven!

The Coles sold the property in 1911 and and the house remained inhabited for another 40 years until abandoned in the late 1950s. As a result of its abandonment, the home fell into disrepair until 1987 when the entire structure was moved to its current location and restored.

Today, the house is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is open for visitors to wander in and imagine life in a common prairie home of over a century ago.

Conboy Lake NWR is a day-use only refuge and is open from sunrise to sunset every day, except hunting, which has slightly different hours of operation (see the Rules & Regulations page). 

Page Photo Credits — Whitcomb-Cole Cabin - Chuck & Grace Bartlett
Last Updated: Mar 12, 2014
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