Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Eastern Washington Getaway: Hiking Frenchman Coulee

From mossy temperate rain forests to arid sagebrush and exposed rock formations, the Pacific Northwest is rich with dramatic diversity. 

I like to head east of the Cascades every so often to rediscover this:  The "dry side" is just as compellingly beautiful as the lush green forests that to many epitomize this region.

On an unseasonably warm February weekend, our destination is to hike some of the coulees along the Columbia River in the Vantage/George/Quincy area.

When I was a kid, this was farming and scrub land we zipped past on the interstate. Today rock climbers flock to the Columbia River basalt columns above Frenchman's Coulee to hone their skills. Concertgoers make the pilgrimage to the nearby Gorge Amphitheater for outdoor summer concerts, while hedonists seek the wineries and luxury spa and resort at Cave B Inn.

And of course lots of us go to walk, jog, or hike through this striking landscape.

After missing the easy-to-miss turn off to Frenchman Coulee just off I-90 past the Columbia River crossing, we drive a couple miles down Vantage Road wedged close to the side of a sheer cliff, without guardrails.  Probably not a concern for the rock climbers who don't mind exposure. For me, a tad scary.

However, soon the road reaches a flat "bench" above the Columbia and we park near the clearly marked trailhead.

Basically you can't get lost here--start by following an old jeep track, which traverses the mostly flat but occasionally undulating coulee a couple miles to the very visible waterfall.

For the sake of the native shrubs, do your best to stay on the track. And there are rattlesnakes lurking about too, but they are hibernating until things warm up even more in the springtime.

Essentially it's a stroll up the coulee to the seasonal waterfall, which dries up in the hottest months.

Millions of years of Columbia River basalt breaking down.

I heard that the waterfall is the result of an agricultural lake formed during the Columbia Basin irrigation project in the 1930s and 1940s, an outgrowth of Grand Coulee Dam.

So we stop a lot and take shots of the stark but stunning landscape, which is such a contrast to the west side of the Cascades.

Looking back down the coulee.

On the way back, we traverse the north side of the coulee, which puts us a little higher. (And yes, we went off piste.)

All in all it's a lovely couple hours enjoying the landscape and incredibly sweet fresh air.  As the lichen crusting many rocks attests, the air quality out here is good.

With a mid-afternoon start, the sun is close to setting on this winter day as we get back to the car and meander back up the ridge. We walked a little over 4 miles, with a few slight detours to explore.

View down into Frenchman Coulee.
 Looking back down into the coulee, I'm reminded of looking down into New Mexico's Chaco Canyon (without the ancient dwellings) from the mesa above. But for whatever reason we don't call them mesas here in Washington.

After Hiking Eats
Even though it's Valentine's Day and we're told to not bother coming for dinner at Cave B's Tendrils Restaurant because it was fully booked, we stop by anyway. Because you never know.

View of Columbia River gorge from Cave B Inn at Sagecliffe Lodge.
We get there before 6 pm and are graciously seated at the bar for a full dinner.  What a treat after a hike! I'm so hungry that I don't bother snapping a shot of my excellent King salmon with seasonal veggies or salad.

And because this is a winery too, I have to get a glass of excellent viognier. Can you say happy hiker? Instead of ordering dessert, I indulge in a freshly made chocolate chip cookie from the cookie jar in the lobby. Nice touch.

We don't drive back to Seattle but instead booked a room at the Crescent Bar Resort on the Columbia a few miles upriver.  Because it's still winter with campgrounds closed and it's a splurge kind of weekend, we don't camp. We'll be up and out early for another coulee hike the next day (and another blog post soon).

Have you been to this area? Would be interested to hear your experiences too. Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons.

 When You Go
The turnoff to Vantage Road that goes down to the trailhead for Frenchman Coulee is just 0.8 mile north off eastbound I-90 Exit 143, 135 miles east of Seattle. You'll need a Discover Pass to park.  Cave B Inn/Resort/Winery is about 5 miles north up Silica Road from the Vantage Road turnoff. It is a splurge, with a meal for two with a starter, entree, and wine well over $100. But we all can use such a treat now and then, right?


Anonymous said...

Such a treat to see these pictures, I love this landscape, the lack of visual clutter, the fresh clean air and the remarkable light. And,of course, the ability to see the rocks which means that you can see the geologic history, also remarkable. Its the landscape of my childhood and, to me, the long vistas without all the brush and trees - vegetation is nice but also nice to be in a place without them. A place of remarkable beauty, this post is such a gift, Mary Lou

Jill said...

Thanks Mary Lou, so glad you enjoyed the photos and the post. Yes, the drama of the geologic features is wonderful.

Alpine Lily said...

What a lovely spontaneous Valentine's weekend! I've driven by Frenchman Coulée many times but never stopped there. I will have to check it out sometime! Great photos!

Ron Mitchell said...

Stunning Photos, Jill!

jill said...

Hey Alpine Lily, thanks, you definitely should stop by and walk up Frenchman Coulee. But I'd not do it in the heat of summer. It's supposed to be splendid with spring wildflowers, which we were ahead of.

Hey Ron, thanks!! Stunning landscape.