by Andy Stepniewski

revised by Scott Downes

This is a scenic, lightly traveled, 28-mile alternate route from Ellensburg to the Columbia River. Prior to the completion of I-90, this road was known as US-10; today many call it the Old Vantage Highway. This popular birding route offers access to good-quality shrTub-steppe habitat, where many of the shrub-steppe obligates of the Columbia Basin can be found. A Discover Pass is needed for many sites, including the Quilomene Unit and spots along the Columbia River.



You can reach this road from either Ellensburg or Kittitas. From Ellensburg, go east on University Way from the corner of Main Street at the north end of the Ellensburg business district. Stay on this main road as it heads out of town into farmland and becomes the Vantage Highway east of Ellensburg. To reach this highway from Kittitas, take eastbound I-90 Exit 115 (the last interchange before the Columbia River). Turn north over I-90 and follow Main Street through downtown Kittitas. Turn right on Patrick Avenue for 0.2 mile and then take a left to Number 81 Road. This will take you to the Vantage Highway in one mile.

The highway continues east through irrigated fields. Long-billed Curlews are often found in the spring and early summer in the eastern irrigated fields, particularly those near Parke Creek Road (about four miles east of Number 81 Road). About a half-mile farther, at milepost 11, the road leaves the irrigated fields and enters unfarmed shrub-steppe habitat. Watch for Burrowing Owls on both sides of the Vantage Highway near Sunset Road. In recent years, owls have nested in this area; adults in the spring and young birds in the summer may be found sitting along the highway. In spring and summer, look for shrub-steppe species such as Loggerhead Shrike, Mountain Bluebird, Sage Thrasher, and Sagebrush Sparrow as the winding highway continues to climb for 5.8 miles to a divide.

The highway begins a gradual descent along Schnebly Coulee toward the Columbia River. In 1.8 miles, pull off to the left at a sign for the Quilomene Wildlife Area. In spring this is a great spot for Mountain Bluebird and Sage Thrasher. From the parking area, a rough road leads into a vast expanse of largely wild country, stretching north for 22 miles and east eight miles to the sheer basalt cliffs of the Columbia. Most of this land—some 134,000 acres—lies within two state wildlife areas, Colockum and the L.T. Murray, which can also be accessed off the Colockum Road. (Quilomene and Whiskey Dick now are units of L.T. Murray.) These lands are open from April 1 through November 30 and require a Discover Pass. Birding is excellent in varied habitats of rimrock, shrub-steppe, riparian vegetation along several creeks, and Ponderosa Pine at the upper edge. Motorists should not attempt to enter this country except in a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle and with emergency equipment, including a spare tire.

Another entrance to the wildlife unit is 1.7 miles farther east. Just inside is a dense stand of Bitterbrush and Big Sagebrush with deep Bluebunch Wheatgrass, prime habitat for Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s and Sagebrush Sparrows. In April and May, the wildflower display can be quite beautiful. Winds are frequently fierce, especially during spring months. These lands have a small population of Gray Flycatchers along with other shrub-steppe birds. The roads can be good for Common Poorwill just after sunset.

Winter birding can produce Rough-legged Hawk, Golden Eagle, and Prairie Falcon, among other interesting raptors. Gyrfalcon has been noted on this highway. Be sure to look through winter Horned Lark flocks for Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting. Winter birding is best when there is some snow cover on the surrounding lands. Northern Shrikes are often found along this stretch during the winter, but a few Loggerhead Shrikes may linger into winter months, so careful observation of shrikes is needed.

The highway soon begins a sweeping curve to the left, dropping down and swinging back to the east around the north base of Hult Butte through excellent Sagebrush Sparrow habitat. In 1.9 miles, at milepost 22, Schnebly Coulee narrows and starts to descend more steeply. Stop at a pullout on the right in 0.2 mile at a low cliff with lichen- and moss-encrusted basalt columns. Great Horned Owls frequently nest in this band of basalt columns. Brush patches in the moister spots harbor songbirds, especially in migration. Chukars are common in this area and may be seen or heard along the rimrock in early morning and near sunset. Checks of the scattered patches of riparian vegetation about two miles beyond MP 22 can turn up migrant songbirds. Before a 2004 fire, a pair of Ash-throated Flycatchers bred here and may once again return once the vegetation matures.

In 3.5 miles, the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Trail entrance is on the left. During spring and fall migration, you might find a few migrants in the small collection of trees at the parking lot, which constitutes a micro migrant-trap. During the winter, the few juniper trees often host a Townsend’s Solitaire or two. In 1.7 miles, turn left onto Recreation Drive. On the left in 0.3 mile, there is a small white gate that leads to state park lands to the north. Most summers a Black-throated Sparrow or two can be found singing on the slopes here. Continue to the end of the road where a small grove of trees serves as a good area to search for spring and fall migrants and where the waters of the Columbia can be scoped. This area, known as Rocky Coulee Recreation Area and managed by Grant County PUD, has picnic tables and a restroom.

Returning up Recreation Drive, take a left and wind up the road to the Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park Interpretive Museum. Here you can scan the waters of the Columbia River. The wide expanse of the river has been dammed to create Wanapum Lake. Ducks, loons, and grebes are found from fall through spring. With careful scanning you may pick out unusual birds such as scoters and Pacific Loon. White-throated Swifts nest in the cliff face below and Chukars are often heard in the rimrock during the early morning and late evening. The trees here often produce an array of migrants, with some potential for vagrants: American Redstart and Blackpoll Warbler, for example, have been found here. Take Ginkgo Avenue to Main Street in Vantage and turn left. In 0.5 mile you can get onto I-90 (Exit 136) for points to the east or continue south to Huntzinger Road destinations below.

Just north of I-90, take a left at Boat Ramp Road and follow it to a parking area on the north side of I-90 at the Columbia. From October through April, a mix of wintering waterbirds including ducks, loons, and grebes can be found. If water levels are low, gulls may roost on the shore here, and terns can be found from spring through fall. Unusual species such as Black Scoter, Pacific Loon, and Mew Gull have been noted here.



The I-90 interchange in Vantage is at the west end of the Columbia River bridge. Winds can be fierce in the Vantage area, especially during the spring. During windy periods, morning birding is the best. Go south from the interchange onto Huntzinger Road, which follows the river through several excellent sites for birds of the arid shrub-steppe and rocky cliffs.

Drive south on Huntzinger Road and turn left into the Wanapum State Park Campground (2.5 miles). The trees in the camping area and trees and edge habitat in the day-use areas can host a diversity of spring and fall migrants and wintering birds. Numerous vagrants have been found here, so check the flocks carefully. Be sure to scope the waters of the Columbia. Large rafts of ducks are found from October through April, with uncommon birds such as scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and Red-breasted Merganser occasionally noted. Tufted Duck has been reported here a couple of times, so scan through the scaup flocks carefully. In summer the campground is crowded and noisy, especially on weekends and during the Gorge Amphitheatre concert season. At such times try to visit early in the morning or during the weekdays. Labor Day weekend is especially busy.

Watch for Chukars along Huntzinger Road. Listen for their raucous calls, and keep an eye open for them along the roadside or standing motionless on the rimrock. Chukars are most active in early morning and late evening. Check the slopes of Huntzinger Road for Black-throated Sparrows. Most years at least one singing male can be found along this road and during years of influx, multiple birds have been noted.

Once again driving south, stop along the road, on the right, by a gate in a rocky bowl with sparse shrub-steppe vegetation (0.7 mile). This spot has been reliable for Black-throated Sparrows some years (late May through early July). Farther south on Huntzinger Road is The Cove, (formerly called Getty’s Cove), a day-use area managed by Grant County PUD and Washington State Parks and requiring a Discover Pass (0.7 mile). The pullout on the river side allows you to scope the Columbia River.

As at Wanapum State Park, large flocks of waterbirds can be found between October and April and unusual birds such as scoters, Long-tailed Duck, and loons may be found among the more common scaup (both Greater and Lesser), Common Goldeneye, and grebes. The impoundment on the right side of the road is worth checking for waterfowl (look closely for Eurasian Wigeon). Walk the grounds of the day-use area during migration. These trees and shrubs can host a diversity of migrants, and vagrants have been reported here. A Bald Eagle nest is located within the day-use area; the area around it is closed off during nesting months.

The west end of Wanapum Dam is in 0.8 mile. Continue another 0.4 mile beyond that and turn left below the dam onto a track that leads to the Columbia, at a Grant County PUD site called Huntzinger Boat Launch—a good place from which to scope for waterbirds in winter. Facilities here include a restroom and parking lot. Barrow’s Goldeneye is regular here in the winter. Red-breasted Merganser is possible among the more numerous Common Mergansers during fall and winter months. Most winters a Pacific Loon can be found here, and Yellow-billed and Red-throated Loons, both rare in the Columbia Basin, have been noted.

In 0.6 mile from Huntzinger Boat Launch access, Huntzinger Road goes through a rock cut and crosses a short fill; pull off on the right at either end of the embankment to look for Say’s Phoebe, Rock Wren, and Canyon Wren. Canyon Wrens are resident here, and Rock Wrens often are found during winter. This area often hosts Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches in winter, and they occasionally roost along the rimrock. Scope the gravel islands in the Columbia for American White Pelican, gulls (mostly Ring-billed and California, but, in fall and winter, also Herring and Glaucous-winged), and Caspian and Forster’s Terns, plus Common Terns in migration. Unusual gulls, including Mew, Thayer’s, and Glaucous, have been noted. Barrow’s Goldeneye and unusual loons are possible along this stretch. Gulls are most evident when water levels on the river are low, exposing large areas of gravel.

South from the rock cut, Huntzinger Road approaches the base of the towering cliffs where the Columbia cuts through the Saddle Mountains at Sentinel Gap. Near the gap, an old railroad bridge crosses the river. A pullout on the left allows you to scope the waters around the bridge. Watch for Great Egrets from spring through fall—a good variety of waterbirds can be found, including loons, grebes, and American White Pelican. From the bridge, drive south along the cliffs, scanning them for Chukar, Golden Eagle, White-throated Swift, and Peregrine and Prairie Falcons.

Turn around when the road leaves the cliffs and retrace your route to Vantage. You can take I-90 eastbound to birding sites of the Columbia Basin (page 348). If you are traveling I-90 back to Ellensburg, stop at the Ryegrass Summit rest area at the top of the 10-mile grade west of Vantage. In spring and early summer, this is a good spot for Sage Thrasher and Brewer’s Sparrow.