A day hike to the Columbia Basin is a perfect escape from Western Washington’s fickle spring weather.
Editor’s note: What goes better after a Northwest hike than a stop for a good craft beer? Watch for more installments in this series, “A Hike and a Happy Hour.” While not every brew stop may host an official Happy Hour, they will always be places you can spend a happy hour. (Remember to designate a driver.)
THE HIKE: Ancient Lakes, Columbia Basin Wildlife Area
Venture through a desert landscape unlike anything found west of the Cascades on this flat and easy trek. You’ll hike across a desert plain ringed with towering basalt cliffs formed by ancient lava flows and ice-age flooding. After two short miles, arrive at the head of a coulee dotted with three lakes and a small waterfall.
There are multiple ways to access this area; the description below begins in the Northwest corner of the coulee and is accessible to hikers of all ages and abilities. The wide path is also used by equestrians and mountain bikers — be aware of your surroundings and share the trail when needed.
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FACILITIES: There’s a portable toilet plus parking for about 25 vehicles at the trailhead. Be sure to bring plenty of water, as some of the lakes are fed by agricultural irrigation and may not be safe to drink, even after filtering.
THE ROUTE: We’re not in Western Washington anymore, Toto. The stark contrast between hiking in the mountains and the desert becomes apparent before you reach the trailhead for Ancient Lakes, as you drive alongside orchards and vineyards in rural Grant County.
Part of the Potholes Coulee area, the current landscape near Ancient Lakes was formed some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago by catastrophic flooding that stripped out billions of tons of basalt, leaving jagged cliffs and towers in its place. It might not be the American Alps, but the geological features in this part of Washington are sure to impress even the most ardent mountain enthusiast.
Set out from the parking area along a wide trail that cuts through sweet-smelling sagebrush. From the beginning, you’ll be treated to wide-open views that get more dramatic the farther you roam. About a half-mile in, look to your left to see the first small waterfall glistening down over a cliff high above.
Another sign you’re far from home? The sun. There’s almost no shade on this hike, and I found myself repeatedly applying sunscreen on a partly sunny afternoon that was cool and cloudy on the other side of the pass. Bring a hat if you’re sensitive to prolonged sunlight exposure (aren’t we all these days?).
The path splits and merges back together at a few points — it seemed like all the variations led to the same place, but I generally stayed left on what appeared to be the most-traveled path.
After about two miles, you’ll arrive at the first lake. Continue on any of the numerous side-trails to explore the other lakes and hillsides. The farthest lake, nestled under a picturesque waterfall, serves as a scenic spot to rest and refuel.
'A Hike and a Happy Hour': Find more
Fit and experienced hikers can access the waterfall via a narrow trail and boulder field along the northern shore of the lake. A short, steep bootpath connects the upper and lower sections of the falls. Don’t attempt this side trip unless you’re wearing sturdy footwear and are comfortable with loose dirt and rocks on the way back down.
RESTRICTIONS: A Discover Pass is required at the trailhead (purchase in advance online or at a nearby vendor). Camping is allowed at the lakes; practice Leave No Trace ethics and camp only in established sites.
DIRECTIONS: From Seattle, travel east on Interstate 90 for 149 miles. Cross the Columbia River and exit onto Highway 281 at the town of George. Head north to White Trail Road, then turn left and follow the rural road as it heads west and then north through agricultural fields and orchards. Turn left at Road 9 Northwest, and then left again at Ancient Lake Road Northwest, following it until the road turns to gravel and eventually ends at the trailhead. Travel time is about 2½ hours with light traffic.
A STOP ON THE WAY HOME
The Pub at Iron Horse Brewery, 412 N. Main St., Ellensburg; ironhorsebrewery.com/thepub
What: A pub located in the heart of historic Ellensburg, off Interstate 90 at Exit 109.
Why: It’s pretty rare to find a full-service restaurant within a small-town brewery, but after some recent upgrades, Iron Horse is now equipped to satisfy post-hiking hunger and thirst.
Nosh on sweet-and-savory appetizers such as roasted acorn squash wedges drizzled with coconut oil, cloves and molasses ($5) or “A Date With Kevin Bacon,” bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds and blue cheese ($9). Entrees include standard pub fare such as bratwurst sourced from nearby Cle Elum ($8), along with several nontraditional options such as Korean shortribs with kimchee ($16) and the vegetarian-friendly Oaxaca quinoa ($9).
Just here for the beer? Choose from widely-distributed Iron Horse favorites including the extra-potent Irish Death dark ale and seasonal brews like the Hop Lube Pale Ale, dry-hopped with El Dorado hop oil.
On a sunny day, grab a pint of the refreshing High Five Hefe, a wheat beer with ginger and honey, and head out to the patio for a game of cornhole.
When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 2 to 10 p.m. Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. No kids, dogs or outside food allowed
Corrected version: An earlier version of this story said the Ancient Lakes landscape was formed by flooding millions of years ago. Much of Central and Eastern Washington’s contemporary landscape is believed to have been carved by the Missoula Floods, catastrophic floods of water caused by the breaching of ice dams in the last ice age, some 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.