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McNary Wildlife Refuge

McNary Wildlife Refuge

By Melissa Queen

Wine enthusiasts are known to flock to the Walla Walla Valley on the first weekend in November every year for Fall Release Weekend. But around this same time every year, thousands upon thousands of other travellers also flock to the Walla Walla Valley en masse. And it has nothing to do with the recent news about Walla Walla Valley being named America’s Best Wine Region for the third consecutive year. Hardly interested in visiting wineries or tasting rooms, these special visitors prefer milling about in the region’s frost-glazed fields and wetlands in their large and cacophonous droves. 

These visitors are snow geese, which migrate south from the Arctic, stopping over to roost in the wetlands where the Walla Walla River feeds into the Columbia River. Their numbers are so plentiful that at a quick glance from a far distance, the fields where they land look covered in actual snow.

The McNary National Wildlife Refuge provides a haven to these migrating birds in the late fall as they pass through along their 5,000 mile journey south for the winter. 

The Refuge also provides a year-round opportunity for travellers of a different feather who flock to the Walla Walla Valley to immerse themselves in this unique and diverse ecosystem.

Just a short couple of miles off Highway 12 near Burbank at the McNary National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters is an interpretive nature trail loop that is easy to access. For anyone following their own migratory path along Highway 12 East from Tri-Cities towards Walla Walla, such as those road-tripping from the Seattle area, or those flying in to the Pasco Airport, the McNary National Wildlife National Refuge offers a rewarding place to stretch your wings….err…your legs.

The nature trail loop is 2.3 miles along a relatively flat path that has plenty of benches and viewing areas dispersed along the trail. There are also interpretive signs placed along the trail. The nature trail loop is paved most (but not all) of the way around. For people who rely upon wheels – like strollers, walkers or wheelchairs – for mobility, there is still plenty of fully paved trail that meanders for over a mile through the wetland grasses and shrubs teeming with wildlife. 

According to the Washington Department of Natural Resources, the McNary National Wildlife Refuge wetlands and surrounding shrubsteppe make up one of the “most diverse ecosystems” in the Pacific Northwest region, providing a “habitat for species found nowhere else in the state.” 

Close to the McNary National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters parking lot is a bird blind, which allows for viewers to quietly sit, observe and even photograph the waterfowl and other wildlife up close without being detected. It also provides some shelter from the cutting chill of wind on blustery days. 

After an afternoon exploring McNary National Wildlife Refuge, raise a toast to the biodiversity and unique wildlife of this region with a tasting at Canvasback Winery, named to honour the distinguished, red-crested waterfowl that inhabit these wetlands.  

Getting there:

From US-12 E, take the Wa-124 E exit towards Ice Harbor Dam and Waitsburg. After driving east for 1.7 miles on WA-124, turn right onto Lake Rd. Drive another 0.5 miles, crossing the pond. The parking lot for the McNary National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters and the nature trail loop will be on the right.

Things to know before you go:

  • The geographic region containing the McNary Wildlife Refuge, as well as the confluence of the Walla Walla, Snake, and Columbia rivers holds a great deal of historic, cultural, economic and environmental significance for the sovereign Native tribes from the Columbia Basin region. Learn more about how this geographic area and its complex ecosystems help to foster culture and support these tribes’ way of life.
  • If you pack it in, pack it out. If you aren’t already, get familiar with these basic seven principles of Leave No Trace for protecting and preserving natural landscapes.  
  • While there is no hunting allowed in the immediate area of the Headquarters and nature trail, there is hunting permitted in accordance with state regulations in nearby areas, so it is not uncommon to hear gunfire off in the distance during Washington’s waterfowl hunting season. 
  • The McNary National Wildlife Refuge is dog friendly, but dogs must be kept on a leash. If you bring your dog, please be considerate of others who are visiting the Refuge to observe birds and other wildlife, as dogs can be very disruptive. 
  • There is an Environmental Education Center at the McNary Wildlife Refuge Headquarters that is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Friday.  
  • Parking is free. No recreation passes or fees are required.

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