Thursday, March 26, 2009

3 days in the desert - 03.23.09-03.25.09

This is Jennifer's break before her last quarter of nursing school. She wanted to go on a mini-vacation before putting her nose to the grindstone again.

We decided to hit some sites in Eastern Washington where the weather should be drier this time of year. I also got the idea from my previous climbing trips to Frenchman's Coulee that it would be nice to cover some ground by mountain biking on the jeep roads through the desert. So we loaded up the bikes and set course east.

On the way over, we decided to drive far the first day to Palouse Falls State Park. This would mean we could hit sites on the way back, and have a shorter drive on our final day. So we passed the coulees of Central Washington, and drove through the flat farmland to reach our destination in the southeast portion of the state. After making a few scenic stops and to check out camping accommodations we arrived at Palouse Falls State Park in the afternoon. Guidebooks herald the falls as one of the best in the state. This is true. But part of the beauty of the falls is that the Palouse river flows through the deep basalt cliffs of Palouse Canyon below the falls. Not quite The Grand Canyon, but quite a wonderful site to see. We strolled around the grounds and viewed the falls and upper falls. There are a few scrambles that would take you closer to the falls, but we opted not to. The "Falling can be deadly" signs must have worked on us.

Since camping was available in the park, we set up the tent and stayed the night.

Palouse Falls pics here.

The next day we awoke to rain. So we decided to head south to Walla Walla and check out some wineries. On the way there, we hoped to stop in Lyon's Ferry State Park, but it was closed for the season. We were able to get in via access through some federal land and got to glimpse the lower Palouse Canyon and the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers at Lyon's Ferry. Lyon's Ferry State Park also marks the location where the oldest human remains have been found in North America. The dig site is now buried under water, but it is still an interesting place. We walked a bit around, then headed toward Walla Walla.

Sulfur Lake and the confluence of the Palouse and Snake Rivers

We stopped in two wineries in Walla Walla; the Three Rivers and L'Ecole #41. Both were nice and the old school house that is L'Ecole #41 was really quaint. It appears most wineries in Walla Walla charge for a tasting. (Usually $5 per person, but we were able to split the charge.)

After Walla Walla the weather cleared a bit, and we were headed to Potholes State Park to camp for the night. On the way there, we were going to stop at Twin Sisters Rock a little south of the Walla Walla River on the Columbia. In the guide book, it looks more impressive in size than it actually is. It is a cool formation, but with such easy access to the road, it is heavily vandalized. After a short hike up, we headed north to Potholes.

Twin Sisters Rock

We arrived in Potholes State Park and much to our enjoyment read that the camping fee was free until April 1st. We set up camp and hiked around a bit. Potholes State Park is centered around Potholes Reservoir which is a man made reservoir out in the desert. The damming of the stream, caused the water table to rise, and filled many of the potholes in the area with water. Unlike the rest of the desert, there tends to be lots of water, and it is a bit greener too. A little to the east of Potholes State Park is the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, which hosts many migrating birds. We hiked along the creek in Potholes and saw lots of deer tracks and coyote scat, but no mammals other than a muskrat.

We set our sites for the final day to ride the roads in the Wildlife Refuge through the desert. We went to sleep under clear but windy skies. The next morning we waited a bit for the sun to warm the desert before heading out. It is about a two mile road ride from the state park to earliest entrance to the refuge. You could ride along the narrow dam roadway if you wanted to enter the refuge farther east. We wanted to start our adventure as soon as possible and entered the refuge right before the dam.

Although it was clear the refuge had seen a fire some time in the past, the area is significantly more lush than the surrounding desert due to the higher water table. There is more variety of vegetation than the typical sagebrush and rye grass. We rode on jeep trails for a bit, until we noticed the sky darkening and rain starting to our east. We hoped to ride back to the west and out to avoid it, but wound up at a dead end. As we headed back to retrace our route, we went through a bit of a dust storm, and eventually the rain which was headed in the opposite direction of us. It was over before we got really wet, and we retraced our route back out to a location we could ride out from. Jennifer was a little tired, and we left to go home.

Overall, I'd like to do some more exploring in the desert on my mountain bike. It was a fun and faster way to get around than on foot. Although I did find it somewhat difficult in the more sandy sections. Hopefully I'll have more opportunity in the future to do it again.

Wildlife refuge pics here.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am planing a trip to Palouse Falls and wondering how to plan my time. Is it worth to spend there a day (from morning to night)? And what time is best to visit early morning or sunset? Thank you.

Gilbert said...

I think the falls are about a half a days time spent. I don't know if it makes sense to spend a whole day there. I'd think the light would be better in the evening, but it may be cooler in the morning.