Andrea is in town this week and had never been to a desert before, so I figured that this was the time of year for that kind of adventure. We headed eastbound on I-90 through the Kittitas Valley, stopping in Ellensburg to avail ourselves of a wine tasting Groupon before continuing along to Vantage (a bit over 2 hours total).
Crossing the Cascade crest at Snoqualmie, one can sense a dramatic change in the landscape as the next two dozen miles roll by. Dense Douglas and silver fir forest transitions to drier, more open stands of Ponderosa pine. Passing through the city of Cle Elum, the forests turn to grassland and alfalfa fields. The contrasting ecological regions are a consequence of the Cascade rain shadow, where Pacific moisture rises on the west slopes and falls out as precipitation near the passes, drying out the air before it makes it to the other side. East of Ellensburg, the rain shadow effect is at its strongest, producing an arid shrub-steppe landscape straight out of a Western movie. It may not technically be a desert but it sure looks like one.
Our first stop was in the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park, where we enjoyed the polished petrified wood specimens at the interpretive center for a few minutes before heading out on the trail. The trail started north of the visitor center on Recreation Road, crossing mostly BLM land I think (trailhead description here). The terrain was open and afforded good views of the Columbia River and lots of wildflowers. We saw a few mountain bikers but nobody else.
After we had our fill of the desert vistas, we hiked the interpretive loop at the Petrified Forest which was a little underwhelming. The petrified wood is protected by metal grates which makes it look a little bit like a petrified wood zoo – kind of odd. The samples in the visitor center were much more interesting.
The Wanapum State Park campground has a great location on the Columbia River but the price ($30+ for a tent!) was more in line with RV camping – the options are limited though.
The next morning, we headed to Frenchman Coulee on the other side of the river for the odd combination of desert hiking and waterfalls! This one is a must-do for spring hikers looking to escape the west side gloom.