Our region in the springtime is notoriously variable – rainy, chilly, slower to bloom than the territory immediately to the west. Fortunately, for climbers dying to get out on warm, dry rocks after a long winter, relief is only a few short hours away. The desert environment provided by Vantage, Washington, about two hours from Spokane on I-90, makes for excellent spring climbing. A large ravine with towering cliffs that also draws hikers year-round, Frenchman Coulee is a developed climbing area featuring pillars of columnar basalt. Routes are split fairly evenly between trad and sport climbs, range from 5.5 to 5.12+ and are particularly popular with crack climbers.
To get there from the east, take Exit 143 off I-90 and take a right and then a left to get to Old Vantage Highway. There is camping by the trailhead, and getting to the routes requires a hike in. The Sunshine Wall provides some great climbs and is often good on cooler days – follow the trail from the parking lot and then continue along the ridge line, paying attention to the marked signs to wind your way down into the gully. You’ll need to navigate some drops and narrow passages, so pack accordingly and wear decent hiking shoes.
Vantage Point (5.8), just right of the Sunshine Wall, makes a good warm-up, and if you pause to look around, the views are great. The climb feels more exposed than the 5.8 and 5.9 crack routes surrounding it, but it’s fun for anyone who prefers face climbing.
The hardest routes on the Sunshine Wall, Red M&Ms (5.12a), has a somewhat controversial rating. Toproping it brings it down to something in the 5.11c range, but placing gear in the route’s thin, twin cracks makes for part of the more difficult grade. To attempt it on toprope, scale George and Martha (5.10a) on the crack to the left; the anchor is shared by both routes. Even if you can’t climb 5.11 grades, you should get on this route – the start is easier and it’s fun to attempt. As with most of the harder climbs in this area, move strategically, and when in doubt, stem.
On nice days in the springtime, the area can draw a reasonable amount of traffic, and after several years of planning and fundraising, its first toilet facility was opened to the public on February 21, 2014 in an effort to protect the desert ecosystem. However, there is no running water available, so bring in plenty with you. Storms can roll in as well, and the coulee can get quite windy, so it’s best to check the weather forecast before heading out. If you’ve ever tried tossing a rope down to rappel a tall pitch on a windy day, you’ll know how tricky a breeze can make things. //
Frenchman Coulee Hiking: Prime Time for Desert Views and Spring Wildflowers
While the coulee is best known for its columnar basalt rock climbing, it’s also a stunning stop for hikers looking to soak up some gorgeous desert views and spring sun in the sagebrush. Formal trails are rather limited, but the main 4-mile roundtrip trail hike from the parking lot to the waterfall can be extended with off-trail side excursions. From the trailhead, the path leads straight up the coulee. Look up at the walls for rock climbers as you go and enjoy the fragrant sage and wildflowers along the trail. About two miles from the trailhead, you should reach the seasonal waterfall. Turn around here and return the way you came. Find a full hike description in “Best Desert Hikes: Washington” by Dan Nelson and Alan Bauer. //