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Originally published Wednesday, December 15, 2010 at 7:03 PM

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Hanford Reach and Ginkgo make good desert hikes in winter

When mountains are snowy and Puget Sound is soggy, the drier side of the Cascades offers refuge for hikers in need of a winter leg stretch. Veteran outdoorswoman Karen Sykes writes about Hanford Reach National Monument and Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park.

Special to The Seattle Times

More information

To learn more about these desert hikes and others refer to "Best Desert Hikes, Washington" by Alan L. Bauer and Dan A. Nelson (The Mountaineers Books).

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When it's snowy in the mountains and soggy around Puget Sound, Seattle-area hikers with a yen to stretch their legs might consider these two spots for winter hiking on the drier side of the Cascades.

HANFORD REACH

NATIONAL MONUMENT (Wahluke Unit)

It's a long drive for a short hike, but Hanford Reach National Monument is time well spent. When it's dreary in Seattle it's often sunny along Hanford Reach, the only free-running, non-tidal stretch of the Columbia River in the United States, extending from Priest Rapids Dam to McNary Dam.

In spring wildflowers carpet the landscape under a sky so vast you can't tell land from sky. But winter has its own cold beauty. Despite limited signage and no Green Trails maps for the area the open country invites one to wander at will in one of our state's newer federal preserves, established by presidential proclamation in 2000.

Park above the White Bluffs Boat Launch (closed to boaters in winter) and stroll down to the Columbia River. Across the river are mirage-like views of Hanford's outbuildings and dismantled reactors. That's as close as you'll get; the south and west sides of the river are off-limits and managed by the Department of Energy (DOE), one of three major players at Hanford Reach (the other two are the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife).

Just above the launch is a settler's cabin, later a blacksmith's shop. Note the tumbleweeds that have drifted into the barbed wire that protects it (a reminder it is against federal law to remove anything from the premises).

To explore the White Bluffs walk to the cottonwood grove above the boat landing, climb a short path to the bluffs; turn left (north). While the path is gentle, it ventured a little too close to the edge of the sandstone bluffs for our comfort; there is another path farther from the edge.

We stopped at overlooks above Locke Island, refuge to a swallow colony and the only inland egret nesting area. Your eyes do not deceive you; those are sand dunes farther out along the bluff, four miles from the trailhead, a good objective for hikers. Beyond is the Saddle Mountain Unit of the refuge, closed to the public.

Here everything is vast — the setting conducive to rambling, taking time to build a sand castle, to identify wildflowers, animal tracks and birds, follow the progress of white, galleon-shaped clouds sailing across the bluest sky one could imagine, find a place out of the breeze and settle into a Rip Van Winkle nap.

In late October we saw asters still blooming, sagebrush, tumbleweeds and the ghostly leaves of spent wildflowers. We saw birds including geese, pelicans, gulls and ducks. Scat provided evidence of abundant wildlife — coyote, elk and rabbit. Rocks of all shapes and sizes are scattered throughout the landscape; leave them.

Though humans left their mark here, as time passes the land "forgets" — settlements that sprang up to accommodate workers during World War II and the Cold War fall by time's wayside, the reactors silenced.

Today the soil nurtures flora that grows nowhere else and the river flows unfettered by human works or presence.

Getting there: Drive Interstate 90 east to Exit 137. Take Highway 243 along the river; continue 14.3 miles to Road 24 S.W. and go east through Mattawa. Continue 13.8 miles to state Highway 24; turn left. Just past Milepost 63 turn right onto a gated gravel road (the solar panel that used to be in place to open/close the gate at set hours is missing). There's a good map of the refuge at a roadside kiosk. Continue to a four-way intersection; turn right. Continue to a parking area above the boat launch, four miles from Highway 24.

Trail length: Up to 8 miles round-trip, with minimal elevation gain.

More information: For information on hunting/fishing contact the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at 509-575-2740 or www.fishhunt.wa.gov. Portions of the monument are closed to protect sensitive wildlife/plant habitats. Additional information: 509-546-8300 or www.fws.gov/HanfordReach.

Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park

Winter may be the best time to hike at Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park and discover why the desert is as special in winter as spring when wildflowers take center stage. Winter also provides opportunities to watch for wildlife (badgers, coyotes, elk) and birds too many to list, including doves, chukars and eagles.

Desert hiking is different. There are often no trail signs or designated trails — much of "hiking" consists of rambling through open country from one point of interest to another (take a compass). In winter we savor views at our feet as well as far-flung; desiccated wildflower leaves so artfully arranged they look like a display you'd buy at a flower shop.

While the state park's interpretive center is closed for winter, the day-use area is open weekends and holidays through Feb. 28. Hiking trails are suitable for all, the easiest a paved interpretive trail with displays of petrified trees (there is a longer loop around the park). A kiosk displays the trail system.

Ponder displays of fossilized spruce, ginkgos (one of the oldest trees in the world), Douglas fir, sugar gum trees, walnut trees and more. Displays are protected from theft and vandalism by concrete walls and steel rebar grates. The variety of trees unearthed in the 1930s and on display presents a remarkable, visual rendition of this "fossil forest" that covered the Vantage area during the Miocene Age.

Millions of years ago this shrub-steppe region was densely forested with a wide range of deciduous trees and conifers; today the land supports only grass, sagebrush and shrubs. Fire, floods, volcanoes and glaciers combined to transform these forests into the mineralized remnants on display.

Stroll the park's grounds for views of the Columbia River and the Vantage Bridge. Marvel at columnar basalt etched with petroglyphs on the river side of the interpretive center, and admire handiwork of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Visit the nearby Ginkgo Gem Shop to see displays of petrified wood and a dinosaur display no child should miss. Venture inside for additional exhibits; jewelry, fossils and more.

More trails can be found in the state park's backcountry.

Getting there: Take I-90 east to Exit 136 (Huntzinger Road); turn left at the end of the exit ramp. Continue 2-3 miles past Vantage on the old Vantage Highway to the Ginkgo Petrified Forest Interpretive Trails, about 140 miles from Seattle. No passes required. For Ginkgo Petrified Forest State Park backcountry trails proceed as above, drive one mile on the old Vantage Highway, turn right on Reservation Road (Old U.S. 10). Continue 0.8 miles, park on roadside where the road is gated. No permit required. As you explore, be mindful of private property.

Trail length: Paved interpretive loop, half-mile round-trip. Perimeter trail, three miles round-trip, 200 feet gain. Backcountry trails: up to 5 miles, 450 feet gain.

Camping: Wanapum Recreational Area is open to camping and day-use on weekends/holidays through late March.

More information: Washington State Parks, 509-856-2700 or www.parks.wa.gov.

Karen Sykes, of West Seattle, is a veteran Northwest outdoorswoman and leader of outings with The Mountaineers.

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