Visiting Othello for the Sandhill Crane Festival

NOTE: This event has been canceled for 2020.

The Columbia National Wildlife Refuge begins in the small eastern Washington farming community of Othello. From the bustling Main Street, the refuge stretches northwest for uninterrupted miles upon miles of channeled scablands, rocky slopes, basalt landscapes and ancient, dried out creek beds.


The Drumheller Channels

The Drumheller Channels, an area of the Refuge with a vivid shrub-steppe landscape and views that stretch for miles, was designated a National Landmark in 1986 thanks to its impressive and profound condition, rareness, and the overall monumental value of the area for science and education. 

The Channels, carved out by the great Missoula Floods 13,000 – 15,000 years ago, are home to at least 150 separate channels and many more rock basins. The colossal power of the floods is evident and remarkable still today, through numerous landmarks found throughout the refuge and the miles of curving flood trail that surround the city of Othello. The quiet and vast beauty of the area is available year-round to witness and explore. Hiking trails sweep and turn throughout the scablands and silent, seemingly forgotten lakes are stocked plentifully with trout; the area is truly one of the best locations in the state for wildlife photographers and observers.

Sandhill Crane Festival 

There is one weekend a year, however, when the solitude of the rocky earth transforms into a whirring of excitement and wonder. The Sandhill Crane Festival welcomes nearly 2,000 visitors to the area every year from all over the country. This year, the festival will be held from March 20-22, 2020, with a “The Sounds of Spring” theme. There will be an expansive variety of tours and activities offered throughout the weekend. The guided tours include boat and farm tours, guided hikes through the Drumheller Channels, a biking tour and educational crane tours with lunch or dinner options.

Sandhill Cranes in flight near Othello Washington

Sandhill Cranes 

Up to 35,000 Sandhill Cranes choose the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and the farmlands around Royal City and Othello as a stopping point on their migratory return journey to the south-central wilds of Alaska each spring. The crane itself is a fascinating creature, standing up to four feet tall and weighing up to ten pounds. The cranes have an enormous wingspan of up to seven feet and can soar expertly, similar to a hawk or an eagle. The cranes travel in huge flocks and their shrieks can be heard from miles away.

Othello Sandhill Crane on the ground

Sandhill Cranes have very distinct features: Red foreheads, white cheeks, long dark beaks, beady, gold eyes, long, straight necks and long legs that dangle behind as they soar gracefully with their massive flocks. The cranes have been traced back millions of years and have been linked to prehistoric relatives. These majestic and mysterious birds, along with thousands of curious adventurers, have put Othello on the radar for nature and bird lovers from across the northwest and beyond.

Festival Access and Tours

All tours depart from Othello High School and Saturday’s festival is also held at the high school.

A general admission ticket is good for the entire weekend and allows access to the festival all day on Saturday, including all of the lectures. The festival offers a variety of vendors, many represented by state and federal organizations. There is also a photo booth with a digitized crane and an array of educational activities for children, a photography workshop, movies and a Saturday evening banquet to bring the day’s events to a close.

A handful of the lectures are followed up with an actual guided tour from the presenter. Bruce Bjornstad leads an “Ice Age Floodscapes” session and follows up on Sunday with a tour of the Drumheller Channels. Another local expert, Gary Kleinknecht, presents on the “Coyote Canyon Mammoth Dig: Victim of the Ice Age Flood” and follows up on Sunday with an actual tour of the mammoth site, which is located in south Kennewick.

Bald Eagles in trees at the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival

The Sandhill Crane Festival is packed with activities for all ages and is brimming with opportunities to meet experts, researchers, and bird and geology lovers alike. Othello is bustling with activity, education and commerce throughout the festival and has grown to warmly embrace the return of the cranes year after year. The festival is just one weekend in March, but the cranes must appreciate the rare and untouched beauty of the area, as they remain in the area for some time even after the last tour bus fades into a scabland sunset.

If planning a trip to the Othello area for the festival or just to experience the natural beauty of one of eastern Washington’s hidden treasures, there are some must-see stops to make when visiting.

The Old Hotel 

One of Othello’s most historic buildings at over 100 years old, The Old Hotel is a beloved relic to the history of the town. With a past that includes a scandalous affair and brutal murder, The Old Hotel today is committed to art, art education and preserving the history of the building and the artifacts found within. The hotel has developed a Sandhill Crane Art Contest for all ages and the art will be displayed at Saturday’s Festival. Additionally, the Othello Chamber of Commerce is housed inside the hotel and is a wealth of community information. 

Ironworks Cafe & Market

Owned and operated by Othello native Erika Rattray, the Ironworks Cafe & Market is a special place devoted to community. The Cafe itself is filled with furniture and fixtures that Erika and her father have repurposed from scrapyard finds, pieces that were already in the facility, (which operated as a welding business for years in Othello), and items the Rattray’s had on hand that they had already salvaged. The giant refurbished lights on the restaurant’s high ceiling were once the gym lights in the high school gymnasium that Erika rescued from a salvage yard.

Specializing in soups, salads, sandwiches and paninis, the Ironworks is the perfect breakfast or lunch spot when breaking from scouting for cranes. Grab a coffee on the way out and enjoy the gorgeous patio that Erika has created with more refurbishing and her artistic eye. Erika sells locally grown produce and hanging baskets in the summer months and hosts a variety of events year-round, including a past “Birds & Brews” event in conjunction with the crane migration. 

The allure and charm of Othello is abundant and welcoming. Even with 35,000 cranes making their way through this spring, there’s plenty of room to join in and embrace the magic of nature’s beauty.

Photos: Jane Grant, Erika Rattray, Sandhill Crane Festival, Summers Miya. 

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Summers Miya

Summers Miya was born and raised in eastern Washington, currently calling Pasco, Washington home. Working for nearly 10 years at Visit Tri-Cities, Summers has become an expert on marketing the Tri-Cities as a wonderful place to visit, live and explore. When Summers isn’t enjoying a gorgeous Tri-Cities sunset, she is out exploring other amazing areas of Washington state with her husband, two young sons and Labrador Retriever.

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