Hiking Central Washington
By Barry Truman
Central Washington, bleached out and flat in the black and white hike-book photos, is nicely staged in person: walls of simple creek beds fold around you; in spring, flowered ridges go forever. In contrast to our west-side abstention from leaving the comfort of a recognized trail, any place in Central Washington without a standing “Private Property” sign is a trailhead. “That looks good,” is generous planning. Except for poison ivy and rattlesnakes, it’s just a big friendly lava flow. Come, take a walk, at four scenic hikes on the dry side of the mountain.
Ancient Lakes is part of the Quincy Wildlife Recreation Area, a pocket of lakes and rocks that drop off from the surrounding desert like a street artist’s 3-D painting. The four-mile round trip through Potholes Coulee is a pleasant sequence of cliffs and benches with desert plant displays unchallenged in the archives of landscape architecture. The trail, briefly flat, wiggles down through a crack in basalt cliffs. At the bottom, a faint trail to the left and up makes a five-minute side trip through a notch with views of Dusty Lake. For Ancient Lakes, keep right, presently reaching the top of a bluff with wide views of the lakes and the waterfalls at their head. Leave time to explore the easy terrain of this spacious basin. Swallows nearly smother the evening air, doves chase mouthy crows and geese make the biggest racket until the coyotes start howling.
Getting there: Four miles west of the town of Quincey on Highway 28, between mileposts 25 and 26, turn south on U-NW (White Trail Road), which becomes 5-NW. Six miles from Highway 28, turn right on T-NW at a “Public Fishing, Public Hunting” sign. Drive 2 miles to a public restroom and parking area across the road from Burke Lake. Facing west, the Ancient Lakes trailhead is 75 feet to your right in a small camping site.
If your patience with showy wildflowers has run thin, avoid the broad, sage shoulders of the Swakane Wildlife Area, its ridges building northerly from a wrinkle defined by Swakane Creek. Swarms of flowers pepper the open prairie slopes between the pines, colonizing the lower margins of retreating snow, leading up to long, generous easterly looks toward the Columbia. The shading and color is magnificent, even at mid-day. The Swakane area has a healthy herd of mountain sheep, which are easily spotted against the green spring foliage, and Golden Eagles and other soaring assassins patrol their debatable territories over adjacent rocky canyons.
Getting there: Drive US 97A north from Wenatchee on the west side of the Columbia River just more than 5 miles and turn left at the Swakane Canyon Road. Keep left at a junction (3 miles) and, at 4.5 miles, have pity on your car’s suspension by parking in an open canyon floor. Facing north, climb a ridge on your left, sometimes steeply, as far as time allows.
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park’s signature exwaterfall, previously several Niagaras in volume crashing 400 feet from a reservoir that reached Montana, is now in a long time-out. The park’s displaced boulders, towers and spires called “erratics,” having surfed on glaciers from their frenzied volcanic origins to the desert, are likewise passive. The simple beauty of the park’s lakes is sedative. Umatilla Rock, the 300-foot dorsal fin for some underground monster, is a fitting centerpiece for all this barren desert peace. Around it are trails on which you’ll scare up quail and pheasants and walk among the unlikely tall, tilted rocks of Monument Coulee, near the northeast end.
Getting there: From Highway 17, turn easterly into Sun Lakes State Park, about 3 miles south of Dry Falls Junction. At 1.2 miles on the park road, turn left on a road marked for Dry Falls and Deep Lakes and Camp Delaney (gated in winter). Park off the road or turn and drive a short mile to the Umatilla Rock trailhead (just beyond the junction that splits routes to Dry Falls Lake and Camp Delany). Walk north-easterly on any trail along the east side of the cliffs, eventually reaching the shores of Dry Falls Lake. State park fees and camping charges apply.
A castle wall of spectacular basalt columns and a great river walk along Wanapum Lake, one of the Columbia River’s dam-fashioned wide spots, fills a late-afternoon time-slot just off I-90 between Vantage and George. Take Silica Road westerly from Exit 143 for 0.7 miles to an unmarked road on the left. Follow this road (old U.S. 10) through Frenchman Coulee’s high drama to Babcock Bench, stopping off at The Feathers, palisade pillars freckled with helmeted rock climbers, at 2 miles. From a large parking area at 5.3 miles, walk down river on any track until the bank blocks your passage, looking over a couple of little side canyons on the way. In the last canyon, climb a ridge to a section of old highway, turn right and cruise down the road through basalt cliffs and sand dunes, meeting the river across the from a boat launch at sunset. Washington Department of Fish and Game Permits required to park, except in the state park. Websites for the fish and game department and the state parks department are wdfw.wa.gov and www.parks.wa.gov respectively.