These five hikes offer an early-spring escape to the arid basalt canyons and sagebrush country of central Washington. Easily accessed off I-90 near Vantage and the Columbia River, hikers looking to explore this beautiful and geologically fascinating region can plan a day trip or make it a full weekend adventure. Check out the Washington Trails Association website for more info and driving direction for these and other early spring hikes in the Columbia Basin.
Frenchman Coulee Overlook (Easy)
Climbing may be the main recreational draw at Frenchman Coulee, but the views afforded by the footpath beyond The Feathers make this a worthwhile hiking destination as well. Take the initially well-worn trail leading left from the parking lot for a short hike with an impressive viewpoint that doesn’t require any rope skills. This is the main climber’s path, but the trail becomes increasingly narrow as it ascends the slope beyond the most popular climbs. At intersecting trail forks, some of which are climbers’ paths and some of which are game trails, choose the paths that tend generally west and higher in elevation. There are no official trails here, so don’t expect trail signage on this short hike of under three miles. In addition to the unique geography and geology of the area, hikers can expect to find spring wildflowers and abundant bird life. The trail tops out at a grand overlook, showcasing massive basalt columns overlooking a valley far below. Part of the Quincy Lakes Unit of the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, visitors to Frenchman Coulee must display a Discover Pass on their vehicle.
Frenchman Coulee Waterfall (Easy)
Hikers who seek the waterfall at Frenchman Coulee should choose the path leading to the right out of the parking lot. This route avoids almost all the vertical experienced by the nearby climbers as it follows an old roadbed to a viewpoint near the base of the waterfall. The trail ends in rocky outcroppings as hikers approach the falls, a testament to the amount of rock fall that can occur in the area. It’s best to view the falls from a safe distance, then retrace the same route for a hike of approximately four miles. It is possible to explore nearby game trails to extend the hike.
Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies (Difficult)
Located a short distance farther west along I-90, this short hike showcases both the impressive geography of the area as well as a popular public art installation. Created by the sculptor David Govedare, this high point above the Columbia near Vantage consists of 15 steel horses galloping across the ridge. The easiest access is via a pull-off parking lot on I-90 eastbound. From the parking pull off the hike is a mere half mile round-trip, but should be considered difficult due to elevation gain and rough, rocky terrain.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Trails (Easy)
From I-90 just west of the Vantage Bridge, take the Vantage exit and proceed through town on Main Street, then three miles up the Old Vantage Highway to Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park. There is a paved trail loop taking visitors on an interesting journey through time beyond the Ranger residence, which is equally notable for its Civilian Conservation Corps-vintage architecture. While the area is currently a desert, it’s interesting to imagine a distant past when massive trees flourished in this location, as demonstrated by their fossilized remains. Unfortunately, the fossils must be caged in order to prevent unethical visitors from stealing the remaining bits of history. Discover Pass required.
Whiskey Dick (Easy)
Whiskey Dick Backcountry area is part of the L.T. Murray Wildlife Area, and is located directly across the Columbia River from Frenchman Coulee. Access through the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility requires advance planning to secure a free permit. It is also possible to utilize pull-offs on the Old Vantage Highway to access the wildlife area, where the best trails have been created by wildlife rather than by humans. Watch for rare hedgehog cacti along with wildflower blooms. Head for the high points for the best views of the surrounding area. //
Feature photo: French Falls // Tim Connor