There is a place in the middle of Washington where sandhill cranes stop for a rest and a snack in the spring, before they continue their migration. They congregate in the fields and wetlands around Othello, Wash., where they stand around in flocks, omit throaty whoops, and suddenly take off in a flutter of giant wings and dangly legs, as if on a secret signal.
Toward the end of March is prime crane watching time, but that doesn’t mean Seep Lakes and Potholes Reservoir Wildlife Areas aren’t worth a visit at a different time of the year.
This is a gorgeous natural area with a diverse habitat and landscape, and it is very accessible. Approaching from the east, on highway 262, you’ll drive across O’Sullivan Dam, which stems the Potholes Reservoir. The water level in the reservoir varies a lot, depending on the time of year, but it’s popular with waterfowl at any time.
From the shore, you’ll easily spot pelicans, Canada geese, mallards and swans. During peak migration times, especially in the spring, it’s estimated that millions of birds stop here. The entire wildlife area is part of the migratory route known as the Pacific Flyway.
Grand Coulee Dam made the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project possible in 1943. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Web site, the first irrigation water was pumped from the Columbia River in 1948. A system of canals, pumping plants and dams was expanded over the next 30 years – the Potholes Reservoir collects runoff from farms on the north, to be reused on farms to the south. Without irrigation like this, the area would mostly be desert.
Once you’ve crossed O’Sullivan Dam, continue west to Potholes State Park. Here you’ll find a beach, a huge park with camping and RV spots, a boat ramp, playgrounds and shower facilities. Near the park are the MarDon Resort and several other campgrounds and RV parks – and a golf course. There’s lots to do here for the entire family.
The best overview of Seep Lakes is from the viewpoint at Drumheller Channels National Natural Landmark, which is to the southwest of Seep Lakes. From highway 262, take road H SE south to McManamon Road – head southeast, and soon you’ll see the landmark. From there, you have an excellent overview of these channeled scablands that were left behind by the catastrophic ice age floods. Sand dunes and steep buttes, cliff, shallow ponds and little creeks intermingle, covering more than 4,500 acres. Don’t just stay up on the rim; heading into the Seep Lakes area is a must.
From McManamon Road, you can head north into the wildlife area. Roads are a little rough, mostly gravel, but they are clearly marked with directional signs and there are several trailheads.
One such trail is the Crab Creek Trail, 1.8 miles of a fairly level hike. It’ll take you through the four major types of habitat: riparian, uplands, rimrock and marsh. It’s a beautiful hike where you’re likely to see a variety of flowers, as well as blackbirds, hawks, pheasants and quail.
There are seven boat ramps with Seep Lakes as well as public hunting and fishing access. If you are the kayaking or canoeing type, you’ll delight in the fact that several of the small lakes are off-limits for boat engines.
The best times of the day to visit is at dawn or at dusk, when birds and animals are most active. And remember, there are no services inside the area – you’ll find restrooms and parking lots, but you’ll have to bring your own water and food.
And when you’re done hiking, Othello is less than 10 miles away and it’s a haven for homemade Mexican food. There’s nothing quite like a plateful of tacos at the end of a long day outdoors.