Thursday, November 18, 2010

Northwest Fall Road Trip: Canyons, Plateaus, and Puffer Butte

Today's post is the third in a series on a recent fall road trip to southeastern Washington and northeastern Oregon.

I love it when traveling with a loose agenda brings serendipitous surprises. Have you been so lucky too?

It doesn’t always happen of course. But when it does, stumbling upon a beautiful place you didn’t know existed is like an unexpected birthday present—regardless of whether it’s your birthday.

Today we’re in for such a gift. After lunch in Clarkston, Washington, we’re headed south on State Route 129, rolling past dry grassland scattered with clumps of ponderosa pine and golden larch forests. We’ve climbed up to over 3,000 feet in elevation here, back into the western larch zone. This area on the flank of the ancient Grande Ronde volcano is still one of the higher parts of the Columbia Plateau.

About 30 miles south of Clarkston, we pass through the metropolis of Anatone, one of those “if you blink you miss it” towns.

Just a bit south of town, we see a sign for Field Springs State Park. “Hey, let’s see if they have a bathroom we can use,” I say. So we pull in and drive through the forest up to a restroom that’s fortunately open in the off-season.

While I’m waiting for Rich, I wander over to a trailhead sign at the edge of the parking lot. It’s a mile to Puffer Butte—just long enough to stretch our legs before hopping back in the car.

As we’re ascending through the mixed forest of pine,small maples, and dry grasses on the narrow trail, rain starts falling gently. Several times we reach junctions where other trails criss-cross. These are cross-country ski trails during the winter.

The trailhead sign warned of bear and cougar, and about a half mile up the trail we come upon some sizable scat in the middle of a big scratch mark in the trail. Cougar? I fear big cats more than bears when I’m out hiking.

After about half an hour of hiking, we top out at a dirt road and walk about a hundred yards to the edge of the forest, where we find a locked up ski warming hut. (I want to come back and cross-country ski here in the fast-approaching winter.)

And then our jaws drop.

Spread below us is a magnificent panorama of arid canyons and mountains partially veiled in clouds. The sense of scale reminds me of the Grand Canyon, except with more curvaceous landforms. Being the only ones here heightens the magic of this place, this view, this splendor.

We’re close to the Idaho border; to the south are the snow-covered Wallowa Mountains in Oregon, although they are mostly obscured by clouds today.

For about half an hour we wander down the scrubby slope, taking lots of pictures, thinking we’ll drop to the smaller rise below. The farther we go, though, the more we realize it’s farther than we thought.

Our short hike extends to a couple hours, but by mid-afternoon we continue south on 129 as it switchbacks down dramatically into the Grande Ronde Canyon. This stretch of highway is also called the Rattlesnake Grade.

“Wow! This road reminds me of something you’d see as a stage on the Tour de France!” says Rich, who regards hills and slopes in terms of how fun they would be to ski or bicycle.

I wish I could bottle the quiet out here and immerse myself in it during the often stressful life I lead in the city. Each time we stop to take pictures (at my insistence), I make a point to stand still and listen for a few minutes. The silence, broken only by the breeze rustling through the grass and a single car far off down canyon, is like a soothing balm.

We dip down and out of the canyon back onto the plateau, skirting past Joseph Canyon (now we’re in Oregon) on our left, where the Wallowa Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) Indians spent winters before being forced onto reservations by the Union Army in the latter nineteenth century.

And then its on to Joseph, Oregon, tonight. Lucky for us the snow-dusted Wallowas provide a beautiful backdrop for the later afternoon drive. Really lucky, as it turns out, because of the weather we’re in for tomorrow…

When You Go
Click here for some photos and maps of the stretch of Highway 129 (in Washington) and Highway 3 (in Oregon) that we drove.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Northwest Fall Road Trip: Scenic Southeast Washington

This is my second post about roadtripping east of the Cascades Mountains in Washington and Oregon.

Stretching from far northern California into southern British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade Mountains divide the region into strikingly different political and geographic areas:

Blue state/red state.

Rainy and green/arid and dry.

Moss and ferns/sagebrush and tumbleweeds.

This morning we’ve left the interstate and hit some back roads here on the dry side. Just a few miles outside Pasco, we’re driving down the two-lane State Route 124 past orchards heavy with fat red apples, yellowing rows of hops, and dusty brown hills that undulate and roll away to the distant horizon.

Yup, it’s wide open spaces.

When we near the small town of Waitsburg, about 20 miles north of Walla Walla, the highway passes close to several farms. Here in the Columbia Basin agriculture dominates.

We’re too early for lunch in Waitsburg (named one of the 10 coolest small towns in America in Budget Travel Magazine), so just spend an hour or so browsing the two-block main street. “Downtown” Waitsburg is a charming mix of historic two-story brick buildings circa 1880s and 1890s, many of which have been renovated. A gleaming contemporary art gallery and hip-looking Cajun and Etruscan restaurants are juxtaposed next to the old mercantile crammed full of fishing tackle, tools, and rescue cats.

This close to Washington’s burgeoning wine country, Waitsburg has been discovered in the last few years. One of the local men we meet tells us that a prominent wine critic has purchased one of the buildings up the street and is undertaking a renovation. As the economy picks up, look for more shops to open here. Plans are apparently in the works for a boutique hotel, coffee shop, a dance studio with a dancer-in-residence program, a distillery, a tavern featuring craft beer, and a wine-tasting room.

A gaggle of gray-haired men in animated conversation are clustered around an old farm contraption parked across the street from the Whoopemup Cafe. It just looks like an ancient assemblage of old wood and metal to me, but it’s cause for excitement for the guys. Apparently it’s an antique feed mill. (Whatever that is…I’m a city girl myself.)

“I grew up here and moved away, but came back when I retired and got the opportunity to live in the house I grew up in. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” says a one of the older men, balding and wearing faded jeans and a denim workshirt. “Southeast Washington is it. Waitsburg is a small town but we’re like family.” His friendly face and affable manner make us Seattle visitors feel welcome.

Within a few miles we pass through Dayton, another quaint small farm town, then drop into a draw and meander past grain silos, red barns framed by clusters of golden-leaved trees. Where the land isn’t ploughed and growing crops, it’s brown and dotted with sagebrush.

We follow the Snake River canyon along the historic route of the Lewis and Clark expedition into Clarkston (right across the river from Lewiston, Idaho – Lewis and Clark, get it?), where the Grande Ronde River flows into the Snake. After a stop at a mega new WalMart (camera problems) and tasty lunch of turkey-veggie wraps at quirky Hazel’s Good Eats in Clarkston, we head south on SR 129.

Just outside Asotin, the road quickly switchbacks up and up and up above and away from the river onto a plateau of golden grassy hills above the Grande Ronde River.

This sparsely populated area is the very southeastern most corner of Washington, and it feels remote. We’re in for a serendipitous surprise soon. Next blog post!

When You Go
Click here for a map of southeast Washington. Note that Waitsburg isn’t shown, but it is just a few miles southwest of Dayton.