Washington is full of surprising places that even impress life-long residents. Potholes Reservoir, just South of I-90 near Moses Lake, is one of these incredible destinations, a desert oasis full of wildlife, geological marvels, and sand dunes that beg to be climbed.

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One of the greatest things about living in Washington is the abundance of surprising corners to impress and surprise you long after you think you’ve seen it all. Case in point: Potholes Reservoir. Just a few minutes south of I-90 near Moses Lake, it’s a vast desert oasis teeming with bird life, boating, fishing, sand dunes and water sports.

An Ice Age flood carved the eponymous “potholes” — divots — in what is now arid Eastern Washington. In the 1940s, the Columbia Basin Project flooded the region to create an enormous lake. The reservoir soon became a premier spot for inland fishing, and when water levels drop in summer, roughly 1,000 small sandy islands emerge to create a maze for boaters and exceptional habitat for birds and fish.

“Just add water” is an expression my wife uses for raising our 3-year-old son, Ian. A water-based activity will keep a child entertained for hours. I wanted to take Ian on a father-son campout, and my atlas promised that Potholes would be an interesting landscape to explore.

But the region blew my expectations out of the water with a myriad of unusual sights, sounds and activities to keep his little brain (and mine) humming with interest.

Wildlife walks in Potholes State Park

Within the first minute of arriving, I knew our lakeside camping spot at Potholes State Park would be a huge hit. We immediately discovered a puddle teeming with tadpoles: As Ian splashed into the water, it erupted in a frenzy of fat future toads.

Don’t expect your campsite to be quiet – not due to noisy human neighbors, but ubiquitous animal life. California quail scampered around, and the cooing of mourning doves welcomed the day. The shoreline grasses were home to constant whoops from waterfowl, buzzing dragonflies and copious frogs.

After dark, the campers next to us launched a small boat mounted with a spotlight and fished the labyrinth of waterways by starlight. Perch, crappie, bass, rainbow trout and walleye are all abundant.

From the state park, we walked the 3-mile Frenchman Hills trail that meandered among desert shrubs and riparian habitat along the wasteway. We spotted beetles and watched birds hunting along the water. Upon learning that this flooded creek goes on for at least 30 miles in a ribbon of water cutting through the refuge, I kicked myself for not bringing a kayak.

Sand dunes and game trails

Unstructured play is one of the best aspects of taking your kids outdoors. If your time includes sand dunes, there isn’t a kid alive who won’t have a blast. As sunset neared, we drove a few minutes to a dead-end road in the middle of the Potholes sand hills.

We quickly climbed a game trail up to a 360-degree view of the lolling Winchester Wasteway (another narrow channel that can be kayaked) and the reservoir in the distance. There were no organized trails per se, but miles of game trails led through the rolling shrub-steppe.

It’s possible to make a day (or night) out of exploring, but Ian immediately found his happy place on the steep rolling sand. For Ian, it was an adventure in sliding headfirst down sandy embankments and leaping off little sandy cliffs. He found a fragment from a clay pigeon that he used to shovel clean beautiful sand into his shoes. Perhaps our saying should be updated: Just add sand.

Thousands of animal footprints crisscrossed the dunes; we spent long moments guessing what creatures would call this environment home. The reservoir is home to abundant mule deer, beaver, mink, porcupine, skunks and coyotes.

As the day cooled, the setting sun turned the sky a golden orange, and the desert came alive, first with the thumps of grouse followed by the yowls from coyotes. Then the sweet aroma of sage flooded the air.

A perfect bird habitat

The next morning we drove 5 miles to the Columbia National Wildlife Reserve near the O’Sullivan Dam where basalt cliffs overlook trails and seepage from reclamation projects flood into marshes and small lakes.

Fifteen million years ago, hot magma coated the land, and cataclysmic floods cut through the cooled lava.  The creeks and marshes in the Crab Creek Basin now coexist with the arid cliffs and ravines to create the perfect habitat for birds.

We took the Crab Creek trail for 2 miles, guided by the antics of red-winged blackbirds in the thick riparian vegetation. Judging from the amount of scat we spotted on the trail, it’s also a hot spot for mammal life like deer, coyotes and bobcats.

At the end of our hike, I saw what looked like a stick lying across our trail. When it moved, I realized it was actually a 6-foot Pacific gopher snake. From a safe distance, we crouched down and watched it carefully.  Ian trembled with excitement — and a bit of fear — as he studied a snake that was twice as long as he was tall. For a memorable time in nature, just add jumbo snakes.


If you go:

Potholes State Park: A good base for exploring the reservoir. From I-90, take exit 164 and travel south on Frenchman Hills Road. Turn left on Highway 262 and drive 10 miles to the state park. Camping and cabins are available.

Sand dunes at Winchester Wasteway: Not to be confused with the ORV dunes near Moses Lake. Travel west from the state park on Highway 262 for 4 miles to C Street Southeast and turn right.  Drive to the dead end and cross the footbridge. A Discover Pass is required. There are no designated trails, so route-finding is essential.

Columbia National Wildlife Reserve: Five miles east of Potholes State Park. After crossing the O’Sullivan Dam, turn right at the boat launch. Drive 2.2 miles and turn right, then another quarter of a mile, bearing left at the Y.  The Crab Creek trailhead is about a half mile farther.