Sunday, March 28, 2010

Big Rocks, Little Flowers

This was the weekend to head east for hiking, flower spotting and relaxing. The flower I was so hot on seeing was the Hedgehog Cactus, a brilliant pink and yellow flower bursting forth from a lump of a dark, spiny cactus. But first, we set off for Frenchman Coulee and Echo Basin for some hiking and geological wonderment. I read up on the geology of the area in "Roadside Geology of Washington", learning about the lava that covered the area and then the floodwaters that followed. The drive to the area is transformational (for the terrain, but maybe a little for me, too). After crossing the Columbia River and passing the Horses statue on the hill, we exited at exit #143, the same that you'd take to get to the Gorge Amphitheater. From there, a left onto Vantage Highway and we dropped into the canyon, first with the road following a creek and a waterfall over a cliff, then basalt cliffs and vast basins came into view. We were both drawn by the sandy-looking area in the distance and parked and started hiking.

It was difficult for me to judge the scale of distance but soon the sand we had seen from the trailhead was before us- it was a sand dune in the desert! We both had our cameras out, doing our best Ansel Adams impressions and trying to capture the best images that juxtaposed the sand in the foreground with the mountains in the distance. While wandering, we came upon an easy route up to the top of the plateau where there were trees and tall grasses. Walking to the other side, we could see the climbers on the basalt towers on the other side of the basin.

Once we exhausted all the angles and viewpoints that we could capture with our cameras, we headed back to the car for part two of the day's explorations. We drove back across the Columbia and to Vantage where we took the old highway toward Ellensburg. There were two access points for Whiskey Dick Mountain and we chose the second one by default. While the coulee area was warm and sunny, this area was cool and windy and we endured the cold to get up to a viewpoint. The viewpoint was pointing in the direction of the wind turbines, a major source of power out here where the winds always blow. But just underfoot were some flowers and that's when I remembered that the scale of things here was much different than on the west side. The mountains, while shorter, seem taller and the flowers and small and dainty. We saw lots of violets and yellow and blue bells and buttercups. When we stepped off the road to go back cross-country, we saw the Hedgehog Cactus but it was not blooming yet. It looks like it will be another few weeks.

The following day was cool and cloudy so we were discouraged to drive to 2,600' for the Black Canyon hike and instead chose Umtanum Canyon, a place I had been to many times. We chose well, as the sun came out after a half-hour on the trail and the trail has seen much improvement over the years. Plus, I ran into 3 people I had hiked with in the past so I felt right at home. The creek crossings gave us some early season confidence for the necessary skills of backcountry hiking and we took even more photos of Ponderosa Pine, bassalt rocks and foliage. As a bonus, we hiked out just as the first raindrops of the day began to fall.

For the complete photos, click here.

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