Visitors to Washington State are sometimes surprised to discover it is not all heavy forest and tall Cascade peaks. As a Midwesterner by birth, I sometimes need to get out of the trees and back to open spaces with wide horizons.
And when I do, I head over Snoqualmie Pass and east, to the Columbia River.
Once back out in the “open” one of my favorite spots is right where Interstate 90 crosses the Columbia River. The road drops down steeply from the bluffs on the west side to a long bridge next to the small town of Vantage, WA, with a population that hovers around 20 year-round residents.
Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park
The quick drive on the only road through town takes me to the Gingko Petrified Forest State Park. The park is in two sections, totaling 7,400 acres. The park includes boat access to the Columbia, maintained trails, and a swimming area.
Camping spaces can be reserved for the Wanapum Recreation Area. High above the Columbia, there is also a museum / interpretive center, as well as the home of a full-time park ranger.
All the buildings were originally constructed as a Civilian Conversation Corp project starting in 1936. The CCC was a federally funded project during the Great Depression that provided work for young men.
They were organized into “camps” and who then moved around the United States working on improvements to public lands. They used local materials to create buildings, picnic shelters, bridges, interpretative centers, trails and facilities so that people could enjoy parklands.
Their distinctive use of local stone developed into what has since been described as “parkitecture,” heavily influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright in using local materials and matching the form of buildings to local landscapes.
Inside the airconditioned museum there are explanations for how trees become petrified, along with ancient petroglyphs created by ancestors of native peoples on local basalt cliffs.
The area where the petroglyphs were originally located was flooded to create the Wanapum reservoir, so a small number were moved to the interpretive center.
The interpretive center / museum overlooks the river while blending into the stony landscape. Its long horizontal roof makes the building seem anchored onto the cliff’s edge. In the summer this is great place to picnic under some of the few trees in the area. The local big horn mountain sheep are frequent visitors to this part of the park, and during the warmest parts of summer days, there is a pretty good chance to see them there. Be sure to look closely for them. They blend into the landscape amazingly well.
So, how is this a forest park when there are hardly any trees? In 1927 one of the most diverse forests in the state was discovered by construction crews building a road to the town of Vantage.
The trees were petrified, turned to stone when buried under a lava flow. The park is named for the rarest of these petrified trees, the Ginkgo. Examples of these petrified trees are scattered through out the museum grounds so visitors can get a close look.
These are some of the largest examples of the official state gem of Washington, petrified wood.
A parking area, restrooms, and electric vehicle charging station are located two miles up the road from the museum.
This is high desert, so I try to walk this trail early or late in the day if I can. There is always a bit of wind, and sometimes even a pretty stiff breeze, so I carry a windbreaker with me. The trial is short, only 1.5 miles for the shortest loop or 2.5 if I take the longer addition.
However, there is no cover or water so sunscreen, a brimmed hat, sunglasses, and water are important. Between the sun, the wind, and heat reflected back up off the rocks, dehydration sets in quickly if I am not mindful.
I plan for at least two hours to walk the smaller loop, but I often find myself walking slowly, stopping to read markers with the trees, watch local wildlife, and take in the open vistas. Even though I have been here before, I always seem to linger for at least half a day.
The trail entrance is through another CCC era building, and I am always glad for that cool bit of shade when come back through on the return to the parking area. The flagstone floor is smooth and cool, so I switch out of my hiking shoes and into flipflops her because. I also like the feel of the stones under my bare feet. It’s a smart spot to drink a bit more water.
The first sign out from the trailhead gently reminds visitors to be aware of all the area’s inhabitants, including rattlesnakes. I know they are around, though I rarely see them. It is generally prudent to wear hiking shoes, or perhaps boots with a higher ankle and long pants. I also observe my father’s rule when hiking to “mind your hands.” It is best not to reach into dark spaces in the heat of the day where wild creatures may be trying to stay cool. And those rattles? They do make a distinctive sound, so listening and being aware of my surroundings is important, just as on any hike in preserves and remote parks.
The trail climbs quickly on smooth pavement that lasts up to and a little past the first “tree in a box.” While not perfectly accessible, the paved section does make this first walk easier access for visitors with mobility challenges.
The stone and steel frame “containers” were built by the CCC to protect example of the forest in their original locations, while still giving visitors an opportunity to see them. The CCC excavated 22 of these petrified trees, along with constructing the two loop trails.
Signs identifying each species are located next to the trees.
On this visit, in April, plants that grow in the rough, rocky soul are busy flowering. Showy Phlox, with abundant white flowers is aptly named. Bright yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot often grows adjacent to the Phlox. By later in May, several species of daisy will start to flower, too.
The trail climbs to the top of a section of rolling hills, and for me, the chance to look east toward the wide open with all that horizon is one of the best parts of this hike. The loop wanders across the hillsides past each of the petrified tree displays. This is also a lovely spot for watching hawks, ravens, and small songbirds bustle about in the open sky.
East side of the Columbia
Back on I-90 east, there is a long bridge over the Columbia River, and then the road climbs quickly up the bluffs on the other side. At the top of the rise, I always stop at the wild horse sculpture. There is an easy off ramp to a parking area that looks out over both the Columbia River bridge and up to the sculpture.
“Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies” is over 200 feet in length, and includes 15 larger than life bronze mustangs. Created by David Govedare of Chewelah, Washington in 1989, it represents the Great Spirit setting free a herd of wild horses.
Originally planned to include 18 horses released from an overturned 36 foot tall basket, the sculpture is a popular spot, and can be seen for miles.
When I can, I try to stay at the Cave B Estate Winery. They offer not only excellent wine for tasting, but the Sagecliffe Resort and Spa. There are accommodations ranging from upscale yurts to luxury rooms with individual patios overlooking the Columbia.
Most recently, I stayed in one of the new Cave B Condos, each a stand-alone one bedroom / kitchen unit. The glass walls and patios provide stunning views. Dogs are welcome, so I had a chance to make friends with the basset hound, and its family, in the next condo.
Cave B’s property includes plenty of walking and hiking trails, each with fragrant sagebrush and stunning views down from the cliffs toward the river.
Sagebrush is a hardy plant, so it grows happily in these harsh conditions. It will also stand up to handling, so when I brush it with my hand, the plant’s oils release a fresh sage scent that is brighter and sweeter than the smell of dried sage used in cooking.
For photographers, there is abundant light, variations of forms, and opportunities to capture beautiful images at every turn. And for me, I always feel lighter having been out under the open skies for a few days before I head back west over the pass and into the forests.