November 22-25, 2018.
Thanksgiving weekend, 2018. I asked my husband Aaron to pick a destination for our outdoor holiday adventures. He said “how about Eastern Washington? We’ve never been there.”
Eastern Washington. A land with no mountains, no points of interest that immediately captured my attention. I did some research and saw a lot of the same: lakes, rivers, rolling hills. It was a landscape formed by the Missoula Floods between 15,000 and 13,000 years ago. Glacial Lake Missoula, held in place by a 2,000 foot tall ice dam, periodically broke through the dam and sent cataclysmic floods across the Pacific Northwest. The coulees, channels, rock islands and giant current ripples in modern Eastern Washington were formed as the floodwaters scoured the earth. So this year we’d take a tour through some of this unique and fascinating geology.
Our first stop took us to one of many Washington State Parks we’d visit on this trip. We began at the interpretive center, which was closed for the day. But just outside the front doors lay several examples of petrified wood. Down a set of stairs we found a display of basalt pillars covered in petroglyphs. The pillars had been moved from their original location and put behind a fence to protect them from vandalism. More on that later.
From there we drove up the road to the Trees of Stone Interpretive Trail. The landscape had suffered from what looked like a recent burn. We walked under a thick, gloomy fog across a nearly barren landscape. Every few yards we’d spy a chunk of petrified wood. How would we know? They were all cached inside thick metal cages. Yes, we’d entered a rock zoo.
To learn more about this park and to find out when the visitor’s center is open, check out their website.
Lenore Lake Caves
In advance of this trip I saw lots of cool photos coming from this area so I arrived at the trailhead eager to explore. A clear path led uphill towards a series of “caves” in the basalt cliffs. The caves were more like overhangs, carved out by water and subsequent erosive forces. As we hiked we picked up trash near the trail. And in the first cave, we were instantly disappointed. Graffiti. Everywhere.
Well, I thought, maybe if we walked a bit further, the other caves wouldn’t be so marked up. I was wrong. We walked from cave to cave, seeing loads of signs of obnoxious visitors. None of the trails were marked so herd paths led all over the place. The caves were all marked up. There were cans and bottles and debris strewn about the rocks. We got over this place real quick.
In an effort to get away from the human impact, we searched for a way to return on a loop, off-trail. Luckily, Aaron spotted a little ramp that led down the seemingly impenetrable cliff and we circled back towards a path near the water. Along the way we found lots of interesting things: animal bones, cool plants, cracked soil. It was scenic and beautiful and mostly unscarred by humans.
At the trailhead I unloaded the trash from the side pockets in my backpack; there was a garbage can right at the trailhead. I noticed that the bulk of the garbage came from single-use beverage containers: soda and beer cans, glass beer bottles, plastic water bottles. How complicated is it to pack a re-usable water bottle and bring it back with you? I wonder about the future of our natural spaces if people can’t even be bothered to carry an empty drink container a half a mile back to their car.
As we headed towards our next park I eyeballed the map. In my research I had noticed a “Unique Natural Features” symbol near the town of Soap Lake. I’m a list person, I love checking things off of lists. And visiting all the the Unique Natural Features list in my Delorme Road Atlases is something I’ve been working on since moving west.
And so we pulled in to the not-quite-thriving town of Soap Lake. The mineral-rich lake had been known since before pioneer time to have “healing waters.” Thus, it became a destination for tourists to come and seek a cure for their ailments. We walked through a city park on the water’s edge and dipped our hands in the water. Felt like water.
Today the town had more boarded-up buildings than operable ones. On one corner downtown a small Ukrainian food market seemed to be doing quite well. We stopped in for some snacks and continued on our way.
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park
I had been really excited to see Dry Falls and it did not disappoint. Even on this dreary, cold and gray day, the vista from the Dry Falls Visitor Center was absolutely stunning. From the edge of the parking lot we looked into a chasm that rivaled the views at the Grand Canyon (minus the people and stench of pee).
There wasn’t much hiking to be done from the top, so we drove through the main park entrance to a trailhead 400 feet below.
As we strolled among the grasses and rocks in the basin I looked all around me in a state of awe. It was difficult to comprehend the size of the space I was in. I felt small. We climbed on top of rock piles, took lots of pictures and then checked the time. It was Thanksgiving, and it was time to find a place to camp so we could eat some turkey.
Steamboat Rock State Park
We rolled into Steamboat Rock State Park just before sunset, giving us enough daylight to find a nice campsite to call home for the evening. There were hundreds of campsites in three separate campgrounds; only a few areas were open during the winter and I could count on one hand how many people were actually camping. Only one other tent was pitched nearby.
As soon as we set up our tent and got a fire started, it started to rain. I worked quickly to warm up our Thanksgiving meal and get everything ready to eat. As the rain picked up we made up our plates and shuttled into the tent to eat our dinner out of the cold rain.
In the morning, we had some hiking to do. Steamboat Rock, a flat-topped butte rising up out of Banks Lake. The lake lies within the Grand Coulee, one of the most impressive features left behind by the Missoula Floods. We packed up for a cold and possibly rainy day and set off from a marked trailhead below the rock.
The trail passed through a surprisingly colorful sandy hillside. The sagebrush and other hardy plant life had taken on hues of gold, orange, brown and red for the winter. At the base of Steamboat Rock, we hiked up a jumble of talus that led to the rock’s broad summit plateau. From there, social trails led every which way. Nothing looked terribly official up there. So, we went left.
For the next hour or so, we walked where our curiosity led us. We hiked to overlooks above the slate-blue lake. We explored erratic boulders, left behind an ice age ago. We looked for wildlife but mostly found poop and tracks. There were lots of poop around the boulder piles. The animals up there apparently liked to hang out in the same places I liked to go. After circling around much of the rock formation we headed back down.
Grand Coulee Dam
Just before lunchtime, we rolled into the parking lot at Grand Coulee Dam. Grand is an understatement. Here we found another impossibly big structure, this time one constructed by man. We watched streams of water trickle over the edge of the 550′ tall concrete dam, then walked through the Visitor’s Center to learn more about the construction, history and impact of the dam.
I remained interested in the educational nature of the center until my hunger got to me. Back at the car we assembled some lunch: a turkey leftovers wrap for me and a meat and greens salad for Aaron. We had a long drive ahead.
We were tight on time yet again. These short November days were really hard to manage. The dark skies were sprinkling down rain. As we turned down the road to the falls we were greeted with a flashing highway sign that foreboded: “Danger. Four recent deaths.” I had read about one of them while I was planning this trip. Our goal today was to stay on the marked trails, get some views, and hurry back to the car to find a campsite.
The falls and the canyon below the falls were gorgeous. I was blown away by the dramatic cliffs, colors and churning water. I could see why it lured so many people in.
But the rain and cold was getting pretty grating. We walked a short path along a railing and then returned to the car. Finding a campsite that evening was not as easy as I thought, since the campground I planned on staying at was closed. Another 40 minutes of driving brought us to Potholes State Park well after sunset.
Potholes State Park
I happily gobbled down a piece of pumpkin pie for breakfast as we burned a pile of firewood to warm up. It froze last night; we awoke to a landscape covered in ice crystals. With earplugs it would have been an idyllic morning. But the constant whine of motorboats and frequent, piercing shotgun blasts reminded us that most people don’t come here to just quietly be in nature.
We took a short hike before heading to our destination for the day. The signboard at the park indicated a trailhead, with dots leading off the sign in the direction of an indeterminately long trail. We walked a short loop in no time at all, strolling through a lovely wetland near a bright blue inlet stream. We could see snow-capped mountains far in the distance.
Hanford Reach National Monument
We arrived at Hanford Reach on a perfectly clear, bluebird morning ready for a full day of hiking. I’d read about the White Bluffs, a stretch of cliffs above the Yakima River, which offered pretty trails and wildlife viewing opportunities.
This monument is unique in that it preserves an area around World War II nuclear reactors. The land in this area has been undeveloped since the 1940’s, when the nuclear program was active there. As a result, this “involuntary park” remained a sanctuary for wildlife and was designated a National Monument by Bill Clinton in 2000.
The Subaru stood alone in a small, empty parking lot as we began hiking up the hillside.
I breathed deeply, the crisp and dry air filling my lungs. It felt good to get out on a real hike. Today was the first day since catching a cold three weeks ago that I felt like a whole person again. Down below we heard whining coyotes. Over our head we saw vee-formations of geese. And all along the trails we saw animal tracks. It was a wild place.
The trail climbed up to the top of the bluffs through familiar high desert brush. But then it revealed its other side: long, undulating sand dunes that disappeared into the distance. It was beautiful. I took my socks and shoes off to explore the cushy sand.
The first set of dunes became engulfed in brush for awhile, then it re-emerged into open sand. As I was adjusting my footwear a man popped up from the sage. We chatted for awhile. He’d lived in the area and had lots of great stories and hiking recommendations for us. As he was leaving he said “Well this is the end of the line for me. It’s just a lot of sand up ahead.”
That’s what I was excited about. We bid adieu and I gleefully strode barefoot out on the sand. We eyed the highpoint of the dunes for our lunch spot. And as we were up there I started thinking. Could we get to the river? The bluffs were sheer, but it appeared that there were a few ramps cutting through the cliffs. Yes, we’d give it a try.
We dropped in elevation and Aaron scouted a route down to the flatlands below. With not too much trouble we made our way to the water’s edge. The earth was mushy and unstable here. There wasn’t much of a beach to hang out on. We re-traced our path towards the dunes in fear of getting cliffed out. The rest of the walk was an easy ramble.
Hat Rock State Park
That night we stayed in Kennewick. The following day was just a drive day. But I threw in a couple of bonus stops outside the Channeled Scablands to enjoy some lesser visited parts of Oregon.
Located on the Columbia River, Hat Rock State Park preserves a basalt plug that was allegedly used by Lewis and Clark as a navigational landmark. The rock was set behind a chain link fence, which was quite disappointing, but we managed an interesting hike on and off the trails. We hiked out to a beautiful viewpoint of the river and then walked cross-country to the top of Steamboat Rock, another highpoint in the park.
John Day Fossil Beds: Clarno
Lastly we took a quick detour to the quietest of the John Day Fossil Beds units in Clarno. This place is on the way to nowhere, so you really have to make a point of coming here. But it has one of my favorite trails in the state: The Trail of Fossils.
We first assembled a lunch of all the scraps left in the cooler before hiking all three trails in the unit. Our route began on the Geologic Time Trail, where trail markers told the story of the rock and fossils here as if we were literally walking back in time. Next we hiked among the fossil-laden boulders, searching for leaves and sticks encapsulated in stone. Finally we trudged uphill to a viewpoint beneath the Clarno Arch. It’s a very scenic park that would no doubt see more visitors if it was in a different location. I’m glad it’s not, though. We only saw a handful of people and it was a lovely way to finish our Thanksgiving adventures.