Outdoor Explorations

Welcoming Spring on the Columbia Plateau

Why is it that every time we put our feet to the trail, we realize it’s been just too long since the last time? For the last few weeks, Maurie and I have been itching to get out on the trail for a short backpack trip. So, the weekend of March 18 , we loaded up the packs and headed east for a night on the sagebrush steppe of the Columbia Plateau. More specifically, Ancient Lake just outside of Quincy.

We did this hike several years ago, and had the place to ourselves, and we hoped it would be this time as well.

We left Seattle around 10:30 or so on Saturday morning. After a stop for coffee in Issaquah, we were off to central Washington. As anxious as we were to get on the trail, we didn’t rush things, making a couple of our usual stops.

Lake Easton State Park was still blanketed in snow, and the road hadn’t been plowed to the day use area for several snow storms. As we drove in, we saw a small herd of elk resting in trees along the road.

Another stop was at Ginko Petrified Forest State Park. It’s always a pleasure to stop here for the views of the Columbia and to look at the petroglyphs. The park is special to Maurie, as it’s the first place she’d seen a Says Phoebe. It was nesting against one of the roof beams outside the visitors center. Well, we saw another there this year. Different beam, but definitely building a nest.

We got back on the road, and arrived at the trailhead at about 2:30 or so to find several cars, and at least one party getting ready to head out. A group of three guys with their dogs stopped to talk on their way out on the trail. Trying to decide on Ancient Lake or Dusty Lake. They apparently chose Dusty, as we didn’t see them at Ancient that night.

On the trail (like most of them in the recreation area, it is really an old jeep track), we wandered through the sage at the bottom of a coulee towards the east wall and the lakes. Our mouths were again agape at the beautiful rock formations and taking in all the sun and warmth. No wildflowers yet, but they’ll be coming soon.

As we approached the lakes, there was already a group of seven tents on a ridge separating two of the lakes, and another party going up to where we’d camped previously. We would not have the area to ourselves tonight. We wanted a bit of separation from the groups, so we moved to the west a bit onto a hill above the western-most of the lakes in the basin and made camp.

We settled in for a little food and relaxed a bit. As night approached, we took a walk around the area, heading south over small a ridge to see the lakes on the other side. As we wandered, we determined that there are six small lakes in the basin of what had once been a much larger lake.

Back in camp, we listened to the owls calling and watched the stars come up and the full moon rise above the ridge to our east. As it became visible, our shadows grew behind us as if we’d been gradually moved into a spotlight. The whole coulee was filled with the light from the moon.  We were surprised not to hear any coyotes that night.  Maurie did, however, hear some later when she woke up in the middle of the night.

We finally crawled into our sleeping bags for the night.

In the morning, we crawled out well after sunset. It was a cool morning, and the clouds were starting to build. As we ate our breakfast, we discussed how to spend our day. We decided to break camp and start out to the car. If we had time and the weather cooperated, we’d make our way gradually home along the old highway from Vantage to Cle Elum before getting on the Interstate home.

On the hike out, we took a different trail, making a bit of a loop out of the hike. Along the way, we were serenaded by Western Meadowlarks sitting on rocks in the open and hidden in the brush. We were passed by a couple of hikers who’d spent the night at Dusty Lake, and we saw several hikers heading out for the day.

Along the way we harvested a bit of sage to make a smudge stick (which is now curing at home).

We made it to the car just before the rains started. We drove through the rest of the Quincy Lakes area and after lunch at one of them, made our way home.

We had a wonderful weekend. It was a spectacular way to usher in the spring. The sage steppe is spectacular this time of year, and will grow even better as the desert wildflowers start to bloom.

You can see more photos here

(edit: Added mention of owls and coyotes…Maurie reminded me I omitted them)

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