Why Tri Cities:

Given my funemployment, I searched for trips that could not accomplished in a weekend from LA. One of those places is the Hanford Reactor in Hanford, Washington, which can only be toured on a weekday. Additionally, the only flights from Southern California to the region are mid-day, requiring you to take a vacation day on either end of the trip. I scored a rare ticket to tour the Hanford Reactor on a Wednesday, which was perfectly positioned between a Tuesday outbound and a Thursday return flight from Burbank on Avelo for very cheap.  

June 18, 2023: The Great Confluence of the West

After a fantastic afternoon and evening in Walla Walla, I drove my rental red Camaro back northwest to the Tri Cities, a metropolitan area in eastern Washington named for the cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland. 

The Tri Cities are positioned at the confluence of the two most important rivers in the northwestern United States: the Columbia and the Snake. A third river, the Yakima River, also converges into the Columbia here. 

On October 16, 1805, the explorers Lewis and Clark canoed down the Snake and camped at the confluence. They had heard legends of the mighty Columbia River from tribes, but this was the first time they laid eyes on it. It was here that they knew the ocean was within reach. The confluence could be considered the western twin of the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers near St. Louis, Missouri where the expedition first began.

Today, the confluence is known as Sacajawea State Park in honor of the teenage Shoshone women who guided the expedition through most of the West. There is a small museum, but most people come here to launch their boats for some fun on the water. 

Confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers

I spent about 10 minutes walking around the site checking out the historical plaques on the Lewis and Clark expedition, but had to leave after 10 minutes to avoid the ranger who would have ticketed me for not paying the parking fee. 

It was a 20 minute drive to my Airbnb, a house located in a suburban neighborhood. 

June 19, 2023: Hanford

Today was the big day! My tour of the Hanford B Reactor, the world´s first nuclear reactor, began at 11:30. After a lazy morning, I drove to the Manhattan Project National Historic Park visitor center in Richland to check in. This is one of 3 sites around the country that together comprise a single national park unit: Hanford, Washington produced plutonium that powered the first atomic bomb, Los Alamos, New Mexico is where the thought leadership and final assembly of the bombs occurred and Oak Ridge, Tennessee was the location of another reactor that produced enriched uranium that powered the second atomic bomb. The government decided to use two different sources and methods to build the bomb to increase their chance of success.

After checking in, I explored the exhibits and then watched a short park film about the Hanford Reactor and its history. 

The reactor was built as part of the much larger Hanford Site, which was established in 1943. 

The site was established in Hanford because the region was remote and largely uninhabited (1,500 people had to be relocated) and had the recently dammed Columbia River giving the area power and a constant source of water for cooling (a key part of the reactor because it needed an amount of water equal to a city of 1 million people).  

Construction of the reactor and the many other buildings on the site (which no longer stand) was run by the DuPont Corporation, involved more than 40,000 workers, and took just 13 months. 

The reactor is called the B Reactor because it was located in the B sector of the Hanford Site. Other reactors were later built in the D and F sectors. 

Once construction was complete, the process then began to produce the plutonium needed for the bomb. That process took 5 weeks of round-the-clock work to create the first batch, which was completed in February 1945. The 6 kg (13 pounds) of enriched plutonium was shockingly delivered in a box carried by unaccompanied soldiers riding passenger trains. The museum described a funny interaction that occurred in Los Angeles´s Union Station where the soldier who accompanied the plutonium from Hanford to Los Angeles ask the soldier who would travel onward to New Mexico if he knew what was in the box. The second soldier said no. The first soldier replied that the box contains something worth more than $1 billion to which the second soldier said that he would purchase a private compartment instead of his planned second-class seat for the trip. 

The first atomic bomb, dropped on the Trinity Site in New Mexico on July 16, used the plutonium from Hanford. The Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, used the uranium from Oak Ridge, but the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 also used the plutonium from Hanford. 

After World War II, the reactor then switched to producing tritium which was used to power the hydrogen bomb detonated over Bikini Atoll. 

The reactor stayed in operation until 1968. It was opened to the public in 2009. 

Once we learned aaallllll the history, we boarded a bus that took us to the Hanford Site and the B Reactor. The drive took 45 minutes and was narrated by a former nuclear scientist. The drive went through empty land. Eventually we pulled through a locked gate and reached the reactor. We disembarked the bus and entered the building. Soon, we were greeted by the grand central core! 

Core of the reactor

Here, we were joined by a few other retired nuclear scientist docents who gave us a 15-minute overview of how the reactor worked. It is way over my head, so I´m not going to even try to explain. They then gave us 75 minutes to explore the reactor. At set intervals, there would be 15-minute talks in the control room and in the pit of cooling equipment. 

Part of the cooling equipment

I was amazed by the reactor; there were so many switches and controls, as this was before computers! In addition to a technical overview, there were many exhibits on the historical context of the reactor, the history of the site and on the impact. While the efforts at Hanford led to the end of the worst war in human history, it unleashed an age where humans now have the power to destroy all life on earth in seconds. 

After 90 minutes at the rector, it was time to head back. We hopped back in the bus and drove the 45 minutes back to the visitor center. 

With the rest of the afternoon, I decided to visit the nearby Red Mountain AVA, which was supposedly the new hot area to drink wine. I had a tasting at one for $15, a full 40% cheaper than a tasting in Walla Walla for (in my mind) no difference in quality. 

After visiting 2 wineries and a local grocery store, I went out to find somewhere for dinner. The Tri Cities area has shockingly few local restaurants. Nearly everything is a chain and there are no walkable areas with retail- perhaps this is due to the area being wholly developed during the age of the automobile. I settled for a Southern BBQ chain with 3 locations. 

June 20, 2023: Badger Mountain

My flight home was not until the afternoon so I still had some time to explore. Unfortunately, there is not much going on in the Tri Cities. I decided to hike Badger Mountain, the most popular hiking area in the region.

The golden mountain is covered in trails. I opted for a 3.5-mile loop that took me to the summit and then down a canyon back to the parking lot. Even though it was not even 9:00, it was almost 90 F. Along the hike, I found many other hikers including a kids summer camp. 

The views from the top were nice and I really enjoyed the hike. 

For lunch, I found a local Mexican restaurant (one of just a few decently-rated non-chains). It was a permanent food truck in Kennewick called El Fat Cat Grill. I ordered a burrito bowl with a pineapple salsa. The staff was very friendly and spent a full 10 minutes in awe of one of new quarter designs.

It was then time to head to the airport to fly back to Burbank. 

Final Thoughts:

Out of all the American cities/metro areas I have visited, the Tri Cities seems to have the least to do and the highest percentage of chain restaurants. Because there are 3 small car-dependent cities instead of one larger city and because the major employment center (Hanford Site) is in a rural area, there does not appear to be the density nor the willpower to support a walkable area. 

That said, touring the Hanford B Reactor is alone worth the trip to the Tri Cities. The building is so impressive, and the tour guides do a fantastic job at explaining everything you could possibly want to know. 

There are also many great wineries just outside the city. Red Mountain, Candy Mountain and Horse Heaven Hills are all within 30 minutes and Walla Walla (a superb destination) is under an hour away. 


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