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Potholes Wildlife Area

Central Washington


Central Washington -- Potholes Region
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4.0 miles, roundtrip


Gain: 0 ft.
Highest Point: 1050 ft.


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The Potholes Wildlife Area is enclosed in the nearly 40,000-acre Potholes Reservoir Unit near Moses Lake. Part of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, anyone who has driven cross-state has zipped through this enormous irrigation project, but few stop to enjoy the wide variety of wildlife it supports.

At the Wildlife Area, it's possible to do miles of roaming through mineral sand dunes, around lakes that are the reason for the name "potholes" in this wildlife area, and get views of the rolling Saddle Mountains.

A reservoir makes up the bulk of the water in this area, but because its intent is to gather wastewate and return flows from irrigated lands upstream and store water for reuse, the water level can fluctuate, offering visitors different vistas from day to day.

In addition to roughly 1,000 little islands that form when the water is at "full pool" in the spring, it's possible to see outcroppings of lava and sandstone, left behind by the Ice Age floods, which shaped this area millions of years ago. On these islands are willow trees, as well as cattail and bulrushes in the more northwest corner of the area.

Wildflowers abound here, loving the land inundated with water on an annual basis, but which sees very little rainfall annual. Look for plants of the shrub steppe here, like wild begonia and western wallflower, as well as phlox and balsamroot in the spring. The drier east side is sandier, while to the south lie sagebrush and basalt outcrops.

Wildlife too love this area, with bald eagles spending the winter here, while a variety of waterfowl are present year-round. You may even see some enormous sandhill cranes, stopping here in their migration path.

Your hike through this area can vary dramatically depending on what route you select, but leaving from the ORV Park and heading into the non motorized part of the wildlife area, you can get about four miles of hiking through sand dunes under your boots.

From the park, follow an old fisherman's path along the edge of the sand dunes. As you venture further into the Wildlife Area, the sound of motorized play fades, blocked by the dunes themselves. The way is relatively flat, lined with a riot of wildflowers in the spring, little critters and big game in the crepuscular hours, and impressive views of a landscape scoured by the Ice Age floods.


Potholes Wildlife Area

Map & Directions

Co-ordinates: 46.9709, -119.3486 Open map in new window


Central Washington -- Potholes Region

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Columbia Basin Wildlife Area

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Guidebooks & Maps

Best Desert Hikes: Washington (Bauer & Nelson - Mountaineers Books)

Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Moses Lake

Getting There

To get to the short Dunes Ramble hike, take the May Valley exit (169) off I-90. Heading east on I-90, you'll exit north, then turn south and cross the freeway. Then turn right at the T to get onto S Frontage Road.

Continue 2.5 miles and turn right onto at D.5 NE, and continue down this road 2.6 miles to a "T". Take the road heading south 1.1 mi to the end.

You can also Drive I-90 to Exit 169, just west of Moses Lake. Turn right (south) onto S Frontage Road NW and drive east for about 2.5 miles. You will see two large towers -- before you arrive at them, turn right onto a dirt road that leads onto a dike.

For a basecamp place to start, visit The Potholes State Park is 15 miles south of Moses Lake, off State Road 262. To get there, drive south on Highway 17 from Moses Lake for 10 miles, then turn right onto Highway 262. Drive past the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge on your left, and a mile past it, turn right into Potholes State Park.

It is also possible to take Sand Dune Road into the heart of the wildlife area.

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Potholes Wildlife Area

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