Walk, watch and learn at Wild Horse solar and wind farm
It’s rainy, it’s sunny, it’s cold, it’s warm. Regardless, it’s a great day at Wild Horse Solar and Wind Farm.
The farm, located outside of Ellensburg, welcomes upward of 14,000 people each season, which runs from April 1 to Nov. 15, and it opens its doors to visitors, tourists, locals, scientists, neophytes, schoolchildren, and the occasional critter.
Wild Horse is one of three wind farms owned by Puget Sound Energy. The newest and largest is the Lower Snake River Wind Facility in Pomeroy, northeast of Walla Walla. The Hopkins Ridge Wind Facility is just to the south of the Lower Snake Wind Facility, outside of Dayton.
The turbines at Wild Horse were made by Vestas in Denmark and Vietnam, with some parts made in the U.S. and numerous other countries.
The tours of the Wild Horse wind farm also allow access inside one of these gigantic turbines, with detailed explanation of their inner workings.
The tour goes no farther than the base of the turbines, so if you were expecting a Statue-of-Liberty-crown sort of view, you may feel a little bummed.
Still, just being inside one of these turbines is pretty cool, said Mikaela Nickolds, an anthropology major at Ellensburg’s Central Washington University, who earns college credits as an intern at the farm’s visitor center.
In addition to the tours of these turbines, which stand from bottom to tip of blade more than 350 feet high, visitors to the wind farm may enjoy a variety of wildlife hikes.
The tours and hikes are also rain-or-shine, but may be canceled in case of lightning or extreme temperatures.
“We do get a lot of seniors, and extreme temperatures can affect the young and the older population,” Nickolds said. The best way to find out if the tours are a go is by calling 509-964-7815, from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m.
Tours of the turbines are off-limits to small toddlers and infants because they can’t fit into hard hats, which are required for the tour. The center does have hats with chin straps, Nickolds said, “so we can make it work most of the time.”
The hikes require people to keep 300 feet away from the turbines, Nickolds said, but allow for a variety of wildlife encounters, particularly with birds.
People are required to sign in and get a recreation permit at the visitor’s center before heading out on a hike, Nickolds said.
The Ridgeline trail hike is a strenuous hike, with an elevation change of 300 feet, from 3,500 to 3,800 feet.
The Ridgeline trail does pass under power lines and near solar panels, but there’s no major risk of being shocked, and it offers a great view of the entire wind facility, solar array and the Kittitas Valley.
The Bluebird Canyon trail hike, as its name indicates, has a considerable number of feathered friends keeping people company along the way. In truth, birds are more interested in the nesting boxes that Wild Horse has made available than in the human guests.
Wildlife sightings grow more common as the sun heads west, with elk and deer making appearances as the weather begins to cool. And that’s just at the tail end of the day. During the day, bluebirds, lizards, rubber boas and rattlesnakes show up.
“We have seen black bear and cougars from time to time, but very rarely,” Nickolds said.
Wild Horse’s rattlers, the Northern Pacific rattlesnake, are smaller and less dangerous than most anywhere else in the region, but it’s still very venomous, and it’s best if they are left alone.
“Give it a wide berth, don’t touch it, make sure you make a lot of noise,” Nickolds said. “They normally slither away if you give it some space,” a foot or two at a minimum.
Animals tend to be rather skittish when they encounter humans, so it’s worth remembering that just because they are there doesn’t mean you’re at a petting zoo, especially during the evening, when large elk cross the roads around sunset.
The birds outnumber pretty much any other creature, with bluebirds, ravens, thrush, sparrows and other small birds making appearances.
The big turbines and the little birds coexist quite nicely, Nickolds said, with the occasional bird taking the wrong turn.
The interaction between wind turbines and birds are studied extensively to ensure that wind facilities are not making long-term impacts to bird populations.
The big game like the turbines, in particular during summer, for the shade they provide. But that is nothing compared to the reaction the turbines elicit from the humans, some of whom come from as far as Indiana and Mississippi to see turbines making electricity with generators and magnets.
“Most people when they come up here, they haven’t been this close” to the turbines, Nickolds said. “So they think they are pretty fascinating and significant. When people get up here and never have been up close and personal with these, it’s an amazing experience.”
Every now and then, someone will think them an eyesore, Nickolds added, but they still make the trip to see them.
Of course, some folks carry their own electricity inside them, which may cause them a bit of trouble, so people with pacemakers should not go inside the towers, Nickolds said. They can take the tour and go on the hikes, just can’t go inside the turbines.
Even without that part, the experience is second to none, she said.
“Tell your friends it’s beautiful up here,” Nickolds said. “It’s well worth the drive.”
Sebastian Moraga, firstname.lastname@example.org