When Lewis and Clark camped on the northern shore of the Columbia River in 1806, the area east of Portland was a wetlands wonderland of geese, salmon and wildlife.
A dike later drained the land for dairy farms and sawmills. But now the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, east of Vancouver, Washington, is spending $25 million to restore a portion of the flood plain to its original splendor. In 2021 it’ll dismantle a half-mile of the dike, move a million cubic feet of dirt and let the Columbia River flood once more up Gibbons Creek to Steigerwald Lake.
In 2022 the refuge’s parking lot on state Highway 14 will reopen to a new configuration of hiking trails, lakes and artwork. In the meantime you can see what’s happening by hiking the Dike Trail from Washougal, Washington.
For a short 2.9-mile hike, start at Captain William Clark Park, where a loop visits Cottonwood Beach, a busy summer family swimming strand. For a longer 6.7-mile walk, start at the floating dock of Steamboat Landing Park. Dogs must be on leash on the Dike Trail, and are not allowed in the refuge. Likewise, bicycles are OK on the Dike Trail, but not the refuge.
From Interstate 205 in Vancouver, take Highway 14 east for 13 miles to the 32nd Street roundabout at the far end of Washougal. Turn right on 32nd Street for half a mile to a parking area at the entrance to Captain William Clark Park. At the restrooms, walk up across the dike and go straight to the beach.
On hot summer days the sand here is jammed with kids, picnickers, swimmers and sunbathers. Walk left along the beach through this circus for 0.2 mile, take a wide trail inland, and turn right atop the dike toward the refuge.
For the next 1.2 miles, as you walk the broad gravel trail atop the grassy dike, you’ll have views of the river to the right and Mount Hood ahead. What you find at the wildlife refuge boundary depends on when you come.
In 2021 the path ahead will be closed while the refuge demolishes the dike, builds a smaller dike closer to Washougal, and raises half a mile of Highway 14 to keep it above river floods.
In 2022 there will be a new network of trails that meander along the riverfront and loop back along Gibbons Creek.
This winter and most of next year you can hike the refuge’s old trails. After walking east atop the dike 1.2 miles, turn left on a path that crosses the end of Redtail Lake on a 200-foot-long bridge. Look for turtles sunning on logs. The shallow lake itself is almost entirely covered with pond lilies. Paddling ducks have cleared a few water paths. Osprey nest in cottonwoods by the shore, with juvenile osprey sometimes squawking for their parents to bring more fish.
After 0.6 mile, turn right on the Gibbons Creek Trail, lined with wildlife-appropriate artworks. This portion is open only in winter, from Oct. 1 to April 30. Then turn right at the creek’s outlet to return on the dike. An old fish ladder at the outlet of Gibbons Creek will be removed in 2021 as part of the project to make the wetlands more accessible to fish.
For a longer hike, start instead at Steamboat Landing Park. This is a starting point worth visiting, because it has a floating dock on the river. To find it from I-205 in Vancouver, take Highway 14 east for 12 miles to the traffic light at 15th Street and turn right into the parking area.
Walk down a gangplank to the L-shaped 500-foot dock. Blue-green river swallows zoom to their nests in the abandoned pilings of an old Pendleton Woolen Mills landing. From April to September watch for purple martins, the largest member of the swallow family, the size of purple shimmering robins.
Then climb up to the Dike Trail and head east. This part of the wide, gravel trail has a great view ahead to Mount Hood, and nice views to the right of Columbia River traffic. The view to the left is not as nice, with sewage ponds and a sawmill. After a mile you’ll reach Captain William Clark Park and the route described above.
As of 2022, however, you’ll probably want to drive Highway 14 another 1.2 miles east of the 32nd Street roundabout to the official Steigerwald Refuge parking lot. And from there you’ll have a whole new set of trails to explore in the reopened flood plain.
When Lewis and Clark camped here on April 2, 1806, they hunted elk while a scouting party explored the Willamette River. More than two centuries later, a portion of the Columbia River’s dikes are coming down to make the shore once again friendly for wildlife and adventurers.