Hikes: Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Wildlife Refuge so close!
Tracy and I were looking for a short walk to stretch our legs and do some birdwatching close to the doctors’ offices we were visiting in Vancouver, Washington. We found the ideal spot just a few miles away in Washougal, off Evergreen Highway. The Refuge has a view of Cottonwood Beach, noted in the Journals of Lewis & Clark on their 1805 trip down the Columbia River to the Pacific. As the Washington Trails Association guide notes, “The refuge includes mixed wetlands and pastures with riparian strips lined with cottonwoods and white oak trees. More than 200 species of waterfowl and songbirds have been recorded here, making it the perfect place to slow down and enjoy nature.” We spotted a beaver in the water and deer in the distance as well, so the wildlife mammals showed up for good measure.
The view from the Levee is pretty cool. And although it looked fairly torn up by tractors and tree trunks and shrub planting four-wheelers, it is clear that the recently planted willows and alders and Oregon grape will soon take root and provide the riparian treasure envisioned by the Washington Trail Association.
Recent $25 million Renovation
On May 1, 2022, Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge reopened after a two year, $25 million project to restore 965 acres of habitat. Gone are the wide-open grassy areas, straight trail and old levees. Visitors are now greeted with more wetlands, a longer trail system, new bridges, bronze statues, and field interpretive features — and the promise of a future filled with a greater diversity of wildlife.
The restoration project included a complete reconfiguration of the existing levee system, reconnecting the refuge and Gibbons Creek to the lower Columbia River. According to the Washington Trails Association, the new trail system is 2 miles longer, and it’s also a lot more diverse. Instead of just walking along the river, the trail now weaves into and out of the refuge and crosses a couple of channels with new bridges.” The Levee is a stark break from the development of businesses and residences to the west of the Wildlife Reserve, which seem to be near flood planes that may have been inundated by the Vanport Floods of the last century.
The hiker-only Mountain View Trail starts at the parking lot and, after a gentle 5% grade up, follows the top of the west levee for one mile one-way, out-and-back to the Columbia River. At this southernly most spot, the trail intersects with the Refuge River Trail. The trail is 12 feet wide compacted gravel and provides views of Mount Hood on a clear day. This elevated trail is great for wildlife observation of birds on the lakes, shorebirds and wildlife photography. There are some nice carved wooden benches for resting and viewing, but there are no shaded areas or wind protection screens on this trail.
According to the kiosk at the beginning of the walk, the Refuge River Trail is “open to hikers, joggers, horseback riding, bicycles and dogs on leash”. This out-and-back trail follows the dike top along the Columbia River. The trail can be accessed from the western entrance of the Refuge near Index Street at the east end of William Clark Park or by the hiker only Mountain View Trail. There are a myriad of trails on the site, but we spent our time birdwatching on the Refuge River Trail and the Gibbon Creek Wildlife Art Trail. The trail surface of the trail is mostly compacted gravel except for .3 mile of soft sand between the Wildlife Art Trail connection points. We got a glimpse of Steigerwald Lake, Scaup Lake, Redtail Lake, and Reed Island on the Columbia River.
We shared the trail with some serious birders, some strolling families, and some outdoor lovers, which for a Wednesday during Spring Break seemed amazing. The 1 mile Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail is a dubbed a “hiker-only” trail and hikers access it from the Refuge River Trail, a short distance east of its intersection with the Mountain View Trail. The Wildlife Art Trail wraps around Redtail Lake and over two bridges before reconnecting again with the Refuge River Trail. We did not find many signs to read, but there were several displays of art to discover along the way. Hikers and walkers should keep on the lookout for quotes on the stony paths and hidden among the stone benches, unique sculptures, and wildlife cutout bike racks. A small out and back trail heads west off the second bridge to a short dead end looking out over a wetland. There is also supposed to be a fish ladder near that end-point but we did not spot it. The return hike along the Refuge River Trail reconnects with the Mountain View Trail in about 1 mile.
Map of Steigerwalk Lake National Wildlife Refuge
We spotted many of the birds on Redtail Lake, as they dove and flew short distances, and came flying overhead.
Great Blue Herons
Canada Geese (we saw about about a dozen on land and 75 of them as they headed west in chevron flight)
Violet Green Swallows
Greater Yellow Legs
Green Winged Teal