Skirting the Columbia River in the desert of Eastern Washington, is a lovely canyon formed during the ice age, and brimming with gorgeous scenery. It’s the perfect getaway for novice backpackers, families who are trying to ease their kids into wilderness camping, or those eager for an early spring and snow free trip. For me, it was a girls’ night out: I took my dog! Here’s what to expect.
I had a couple of days off from work mid-week, and I was feeling restless. The two previous days had been stressful due to a lump forming in my underarm, which turned out to be a rather painful blocked sweat gland. After a hot compression through the night, the swelling went down and, I assume, the mass drained itself (gross, I know). On top on that, I had been dealing with some work stress and the unexpected death of a loving family member.
The weather in western Washington was its usual self for Spring: wet, windy, and just cold enough to be completely miserable. The avalanche danger in the Cascades was very real, so that was no longer an option (not that I wanted to make camp in the slush). I checked the weather to the east, and was happy to see it was sunny and a very comfortable 60 degrees.
I decided on heading out to Ancient Lakes; a series of ponds nestled somewhere in between the sprawling vineyards of Quincy, the Columbia River, and the infamous Gorge Amphitheater. I had been there two times previously; once on a brutally hot August day outing, and another on a failed backpacking trip in July with one of my best friends (we bailed because of the intense heat). Do you see where I’m going with this? Maybe don’t go in the summer. It’s the desert, therefore it’s hell fire.
Early spring seemed like a perfect chance to experience this area, so I packed up my gear and my pup, Nebula, and headed east. The drive was an interesting one; as we experienced some startling cannon fire during avalanche maintenance while going over Snoqualmie Pass, driving rain in the eastern foothills, and the forceful winds of central Washington near Ellensburg. I was doubting the positive weather report that had been my motivating factor for adventuring away from home, but by the time we reached Vantage and crossed the river, the sun was shining and we were cruising with the windows down and with the wind in our hair (or fur).
Once we got to Quincy, some two hours later, I followed the directions narrated to me by Google Maps, along long stretches of road named only after a single number or letter of the alphabet. It’s flat farmland all around, miles upon miles of twisting grape-vine, fruit trees and fields of alfalfa. Nebula is weary of the road trip now and is impatient to get outside. The pavement ends and we hit a rough road for a few more miles, then finally reach the dusty trailhead. There’s only a handful of other cars there, which gives me hope of a bit of a private campsite for my socially anxious dog.
I finish getting my things packed away in my bag, including the 6 liters of water to get us through the night, and leash Nebula. We set out just after 2 pm, with the warmth of the sun on our shoulders. Nebula dashes around the trail with excitement, giving everything a good sniff. Her happiness makes me beam from the inside out.
There are several paths zigzagging around the area, and we choose to keep to our left, skirting the magnificent canyon wall of eroded basalt. A tall and thin waterfall makes an appearance as we round the corner, spraying a fine veil of silver mist into the air. We traverse up and over rolling hills covered in bitter sage and newly sprouted grass. I aim to make camp at the top of one of the hills, with a view of another waterfall which empties into one of the several small lakes in the canyon. We pass a group of equestrians, and then encounter a couple of mountain bikers who warn me of an aggressive off-leash dog just ahead. After confirming that the naughty dog and owner are camping in the same area that we were heading to, I decide to head down towards the shores of another lake and we make our way up a narrow trail to the top of a different hill.
From the top of the hill, I can see that there are several people camping around the canyon, although far apart from one another. We head for the opposite end of the area, following a narrow gap between the lakes. I spot a thrilling site: two otters scurrying through the reeds along the banks of a smaller pond. They dive into the water, frightening the ducks that were relaxing on the water’s surface. My dog barely takes notice, as she is busy peeing on the nearby coyote scat.
We settle on a campsite near one of the lakes in the evening. I had hoped to camp on a hilltop to avoid condensation and cold temperatures, but most had been taken already by other hikers. I lay out a blanket for Nebula and she happily lounges in the sunshine with her treat ball, keeping a close eye of the bird population near the edge of the water. After pitching my tent, I sit with her and cook some dinner and watch as the canyon bursts into the colors of the sunset. Once the sun disappears behind the walls of the canyon, the coyotes begin to howl and the mosquitoes swarm. We retreat to the tent, and Nebula is a bit on edge with the sounds of the night. She finally settles down and squeezes inside my sleeping bag with me, and we keep one another warm.
We rise early in the morning with the sun, having gotten a good rest. The night was quiet, and there was just enough of a breeze to keep the condensation from forming inside my tent. After making some coffee and eating a bagel for breakfast, I break camp and we head out. We take a different route back towards the trailhead, following a path along the west side of the canyon and catching glimpses of the Columbia River. We arrive back at the car by late morning, having completed about 12 miles round trip.
My Favorite Gear for this Trip
Ursack Major Bear Bag
This is a food storage bag that is claimed to be ‘bear proof’ by its manufacturer, Ursack. It’s made of an extremely tough fabric called Spectra that, when stored right, will prevent wildlife from getting into your food while you are camping. I’ve used this in bear country on a few occasions and I can’t attest to if it is truly bear proof or not, however it is rodent proof, which is why I used it in Ancient Lakes. I’ve always found that the mice in Washington are far more ferocious than the bears, especially when it comes to camper’s foods. I stored all of my food and toiletries in here on this trip, tied the top according to instruction and hung it from a nearby tree branch. My trail grub was left in tact by morning. Are there bears in the Washington desert? Sure. Probably not a lot though, and it’s doubtful you’ll see any in Ancient Lakes.
Six Moons Designs Lunar Solo Tent
I bought this tent a couple of months ago in preparation for my southbound PCT hike this summer. So far, I’m really impressed, although this was my first time using it in the field and the conditions were mild. It uses a trekking pole to pitch, and it took some adjusting to get it all pegged out properly. It held up nicely when the wind picked up at night, and for being a single wall tent, it didn’t gather much condensation (even after camping next to a lake all night). Being that it is a single person tent, it was a bit cramped with myself and my 40 pound dog in there, but I was expecting this and it’s certainly not a deal breaker for me.
Outdoor Research Helium II Rain Jacket
It didn’t rain in Ancient Lakes, nor was it forecasted to, but this jacket is multi functioning and packs so small that I couldn’t help to bring it. Once in camp, a chilly breeze picked up by early evening and this doubled as a nice wind jacket. I’m totally in love with this jacket and will take it on every hiking trip in the future.
Dirty Girl Gaiters
I love my Dirty Girl Gaiters so much I might just wear them all the time! They keep sand, dirt, small stones and other desert prickles out of my hiking shoes. Plus they have a funky fresh design. I’ll never hike without them.
Nebula’s Favorite Gear for this Trip
She’s a pretty easy-going pup, given her social anxieties around dogs larger than her (she doesn’t like to be approached by other dogs, so we thank you for keeping your dog on leash despite how friendly they are). She loved having a fleece blanket to chill on in camp and inside the tent, as well as a treat ball called a ‘Monster Mouth’ by Jolly Pets (filled with peanut butter treats). This kept her busy in camp and was a good reward after a long day of hiking. I use a harness on her by K9 Explorers when we were hiking to keep her from pulling too much, which she sometimes does in new and exciting surroundings. Don’t forget to pack a water dish!
Planning a Trip to Ancient Lakes
Ancient Lakes is only a few hours drive east of Seattle on I-90, and is a perfect trip for novice backpackers and for those who are looking for a snow free hike in the spring. I chose this area because my little Australian Cattle Dog doesn’t like anything too strenuous, and she has about an 8 mile limit per day for hiking. Because of its gentle nature, this area is also great for parents who are looking to introduce their children to wilderness travel and camping. Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding the area:
- The best time to go, in my opinion, is in the spring. There are several reasons for this: the hills are still lush and green, the days are warm, and the rattlesnakes are still hibernating. If you choose to go in the summer or early fall, you are likely to face unbearably hot days with little shade to escape under, and the possibility of rattlesnakes warming themselves in the evening sunshine on the trail or near your camp. Obviously, the extreme heat and snakes pose a great danger to children, dogs and yourself. Be smart, be safe.
- Beware of ticks! Spring is the time for ticks in eastern Washington. Protect yourself by wearing long pants and sleeves, and check yourself, your dog and your kids before getting in your tent for signs of ticks. Know how to remove them and know the warning signs of Lyme disease.
- Pack in all of the water you need. The water of Ancient Lakes is undrinkable due to the neighboring farmland. In fact, all that clear water flowing over the canyon walls and into the lakes in nothing more than polluted irrigation run off. It is contaminated with pesticides, which a water filter can’t thoroughly remove. Know how much water you will need for drinking, cooking and for your dog if you’re bringing your furry companion.
- You will need a Discover Pass. The trailhead uses a Discover Pass for parking a vehicle. There is no water at the trailhead, and the only toilet is a port-o-potty. Also, it goes without saying, leave nothing of value in your car. As for directions to the trail, follow the ones given on WTA.org (also great up to date trip reports). The directions on Google Maps lead me astray, just saying.
- Check the weather. It doesn’t rain much here, but the winds can be extremely powerful and therefore it may be impossible to pitch a tent. The nights can be chilly too, so be prepared with the right amount of cold weather clothing.
- Check for current fire regulations. This area gets incredibly dry and windy, so a campfire may be impossible. There isn’t any wood to burn anyway, except for a few tumbleweeds here and there. People seem to pack in things to burn, as is evidenced by the many fire pits in various campsites; just don’t be the jerk that starts a wildfire.
Ancient Lakes is a truly special area, and you can make your trip as long or as short as you’d like. There are several intertwining trails running throughout the area, with campsites nicely situated throughout. Just remember to be respectful of the area and its wildlife, and always follow Leave No Trace ethics (pack out your trash and bury your waste properly).
Have a fantastic time, I know Nebula and I sure did! And as always, Happy Trails!
P.S. Interested in more hikes in the Pacific Northwest? Check out my post on the Rogue River Trail in Oregon!