The White Bluffs are a line of spectacular sedimentary cliffs rising 300 feet above the Hanford Reach, the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River. The bluffs are composed of the pale Ringold Formation, ancient lake and slack-water sediments deposited by the ancestral Columbia River between 8.5 and 3.4 million years ago atop the underlying basalts. You’ll also find sand dunes here, as well as badlands and both ancient and more recent landslides. Behind the bluffs is gently rolling shrub-steppe, host to a lush array of shrubs, grasses, and wildflowers, including some sand-loving species not found in the more common rocky and loamy soils of the shrub-steppe. The entire area is home to a wide variety of wildlife, from lizards and mice to coyotes and deer. You may not spot any critters, but you’ll find plenty of sign, especially coyote scat and tracks of all sizes in the sand. And you’ll almost certainly see (and hear) large numbers of geese and other waterbirds.
For this hike, drive to the White Bluffs Overlook and head north on a clear game/boot trail. As you walk you’ll have magnificent views up and down the Columbia River, west to the Hanford Nuclear Site, Rattlesnake Mountain and the more distant Cascades, and north to the Saddle Mountains.
After about a mile you’ll come to an area of open sand, flat at first, then rising into a nice dune. Continue north over this dune down to a grassy area and on to the next area of open sand. There is no obvious trail, but the route is open and almost entirely on sand, so it’s impossible to lose your way. You’ll almost immediately climb another large dune, then follow a series of lower dunes to a final big dune, a little over three miles from the trailhead.
Once past the first area of sand, the bluffs themselves are not especially impressive as they have slumped away in the Wiehl Ranch Landslide complex, a recent landslide (1980s & continuing) caused by loosening of the Ringold sediments by irrigation water seeping from man-made Wahluke Lake and the unlined Wahluke Branch Wasteway.
This is an area of hummocky terrain typical of landslides that cries out for exploring. There are numerous easy ways down from the sand and plenty of game trails among the small hills and valleys, sandstone pillars, stands of common reed, and hidden ponds. The dunes above are being formed by the prevailing winds blowing loosened sediments up from the landslide below.
Once at the final dune, there are a number of ways to complete your hike. The easiest option is to retrace your steps for an out-&-back hike, but with some planning there are at least two attractive car shuttle hikes. One is to leave a car just south of the Wahluke Branch Wasteway on the road to the trailhead. Your vehicle should be visible from the top of the last dune, so just make your way cross country from the dune back to the road (about one mile).
A second option is to leave a vehicle at the trailhead for the White Bluffs North. From the last dune, make your way along the bluffs until you find an easy way down to river level and then walk north to your vehicle. And throughout your hike remember that the cliffs can be unstable, so use caution when near the edge.