Sunday, June 24, 2018

Hiking Central Washington: Seeking and Finding Solitude

On a blustery June day, hiking up through a lonely canyon to a ridgetop in central Washington provided us a measure of much-needed quiet time. Most trails with great views within an hour or two of Portland and Seattle don't offer much solitude anymore, even on week days.

 But in hiking through Black Canyon up to the crest of Umtanum Ridge, we got a taste of the old Northwest, when hikers were relatively few and far between. (Yea, I'm old enough to remember the days when you could backpack a week on the Pacific Crest Trail in late summer and see only a few other hikers.)

En route to the trailhead, we missed our turnoff and drove several miles beyond it on our first try. But we got to see more of the bucolic and historic Wenas Valley as a result.  

Despite being born in Seattle and raised in both Washington and Oregon, there are many places and trails left for me to explore in the region. So I was happy to see some new (to me) landscapes.

Wenas Valley
After backtracking, we managed to find the turnoff and proceeded very slowly up the bumpy, rough dirt road to a gate, where I had to hop out and unlatch, open, and close it after we passed through. In about another half mile, we reached road's end.

As we were lacing up trail runners and sorting out our packs, another vehicle rolled in and parked nearby. That father and daughter were the only other hikers on the trail, and we didn't cross paths. 

View back down valley from trailhead parking.
This being rattlesnake country, I carefully watched my step as we began walking up the narrow Black Canyon on an old road bed.

While it looks fairly arid, the bunchgrass, sage, cottonwoods, and abundant wildflowers were rich with a late spring green. Add the chorus of crickets, quaking aspen leaves, wildflowers, and a myriad of colors and sizes of butterflies, and it felt almost enchanted.

I wish I knew my native plants and wildlife better, so I could name everything I saw. I'm basically a "greatest hits" naturalist. But I did recognize the vivid pink wild Nootka roses as we ascended higher along the mellow grade now blocked to vehicles.

About a mile up the trail, we passed a vibrant green oasis beside a stream, where a dilapidated old log cabin still stood in a grove of quaking aspen.

At the top end of the canyon, where it widens out amongst sparse ponderosa pine forests, a three-wheeler ATV (all-terrain vehicle) came down the trail and turned up a fork in the road we didn't take. We didn't see or hear them again.

As we walked upward along the dirt road, I marveled at the lush and healthy pine forest, with almost no sign of the dreaded pine beetle damage that's killing forests all over the western U.S. (Yes kids, climate change is happening and wreaking havoc in ecosystems around the world.)

Along the way we passed a few forks in the gravel road/trail, but stayed right each time. When we topped out on the ridge, we were treated to views of the Kittitas Valley below, the jagged granite Stuart Range beyond, and miles of forest and range land. Unfortunately clouds obscured views of Mt. Rainer and Adams.

Stuart Range in the distance
Kittitas Valley
One could travel miles via foot or vehicle along the Untanum Ridge, which stretches 55 miles from the Cascades into eastern Washington. 

I was surprised to see the delicate flower pictured below growing on the windswept ridgetop in the dried, cracked soil. If any of you native plant geeks know what this is, I'd love to hear in a comment below.

I spied a coyote dashing through the forest below as we descended. Compared to the rangy coyotes I see around north Seattle, this one had a more brownish, bushy coat. I was very happy not to see any rattlesnakes, which aren't uncommon along this and many trails east of the Cascade crest.

Wind and spits of rain swept through the canyon as we trekked down, flattening the bunchgrass in waves and trembling aspen leaves like thousands of tiny cymbals. It was a visual symphony.

Aspen grove

 At about 7 miles roundtrip and an elevation gain of 1,250 feet, this was a good, not-too-strenous workout through lovely, quiet country. By now the wildflowers are likely past their peak and rattlers are probably more prevalent as the heat rises. Hiking guides say this trail is best from April through June, but I'd try it in the fall too when the aspens are turning gold.

Happy trails and thanks for visiting Pacific Northwest Seasons! 

In between blog posts, visit Pacific NW Seasons on FaceBook, Twitter, and Instagram for more Northwest photos and outdoors news.

When You Go

With over 13 miles on dirt road from Ellensburg, overall it took us well over 2 hours drive from north Seattle to the trailhead. We took I-90 east and got off at Exit 109 onto Canyon Road, then turned left just about 1/4 mile onto Umtanum Road, which crossed back under I-90 and wound 22.5 miles to the trailhead  through a gap in Untanum Ridge and on into the Wenas Valley. The turnoff to the trailhead is marked by a big sign with a map for the Wenas Wildlife Area.
A Discover Pass is required to park at the trailhead. 


Suezy Proctor said...

I have been looking at this ever since you posted it. My tears have not stopped falling.

That delicate pink blossom is bitterroot-one of my all time favs, During a year long retreat in SW Montana, up in the Bitterroot Mountains, you'd see valley floors and mountain slopes freckled with them -oh, what a sight!

Thanks for the sharing the beauty of Washington. I'm so homesick!

jill said...

Ah Suezy, I'm happy to have moved you with a glimpse of our hoomeland. I hope you can come visit sometime soon! hugs my friend.

Anonymous said...

Hey, my grandparents farm was off the road in Nile valley. Very familiar with this lovely part of the world. Love those long and lonesome views. This post is a huge treat for me. Been too busy this year to make the trip over, in fact out to pick blueberries and cherries. Loaded up after I didn’t think the cherries were going to produce. It’s fridat and we are at the farm to harvest. Miss you, mary lou

Auntie C said...

Ah, Jill. YOur photos and writing capture the ecstasy of being in nature.,..and in tune with her...
tell that volcano to stop spewing CO2...along with Seattle's air, we're putting enough in so the forest can't keep up!!
Sure wish I could hike , or at least walk a bit..
There's a new Land Bank cleared hike between Artworks and Buck Bay...moderate, waterfalls, and great views...hikers love it...

Thanks for your post....
and come see us...maybe early September when the terrorist (whoops, I mean tourists) are fewer...

Unknown said...

All that space! I sometimes feel jailed by the walls of conifers. Can't even see 100 feet off the road. At least I can look at your photos. Sylvia

jill said...

Hey Mary Lou! Been too long, hope to connect this year. Harvesting at the farm sounds wholesome. Enjoy!

Hey Carol,Oh, I really miss Orcas (and you). Hope to make it up this summer! Hugs back.

Sylvia! Is that Aussie Sylvia or my aunt Sylvia in Port Townsend? Glad you enjoy the shots, yes definitely wide open spaces out there.