Beautiful seasonal waterfall near the mighty Columbia River in Central Washington
Distance: 4.0 miles round trip
Type: out and back
Best season: spring
The first day of spring typically falls on our anniversary. At about a week out, I start watching the weather forecast for the Pacific Northwest and select the nicest weather for a celebration adventure. For our 2017 celebration, I couldn’t find any location with spectacular weather, but at least conditions looked dry out in the Columbia Basin.
Our first hike of the weekend was to Frenchman Coulee not far from the town of George, Washington (yes, there is a town named George Washington). Central Washington is known for its coulees, towering basalt cliffs, waterfalls, and pothole lakes which were formed by great floods that scoured the area thousands of years ago. Frenchman Coulee is close to Ancient and Dusty Lakes, a fantastic 9.5 mile hike we had done two years earlier for our anniversary.
Between George and the Columbia River, we took the Silica Road exit off I-90 and drove the short distance to the head of Frenchman Coulee. The narrow paved road hugged impressive cliff walls dotted with rock climbers as it descended into the coulee. Once at the coulee floor, we saw the parking area for our trail. Out of curiosity, I continued down the road about a mile to a commanding view of Vantage and the might Columbia River Gorge.
We returned to the trailhead (elevation 856’) where a Discover Pass is required. The trailhead lot only holds a few cars, but there is room for many more alongside the road.
From the trailhead, we followed an old Jeep road down into the coulee. After a short distance, we were able to see up the length of the coulee to the waterfall.
At about a mile in, as the coulee walls began to tower above us, we started noticing a lot of garbage. First it was a mattress and box spring. Then a car that looked like it had dropped straight down off the cliff walls into the coulee. Then it was miscellaneous garbage like car seats, tires, and buckets. Too bad there was so much trash, but we kept our eyes on the impressive coulee walls to both sides and the massive waterfall in front of us.
At two miles in, we arrived at the base of the waterfall. There was quite a stream of water coming off the cliff walls, but the water all disappeared not far from the base. Perhaps it was going underground on its course to the Columbia? Standing at the base and staring up, the cascade that came off the basalt cliffs was impressive.
Shortly after beginning our return hike, the winds picked up. We could hear them approaching—like a freight train bearing down on us. They funneled up through the gorge and into the coulee hitting us with gusts over 50 mph and forcing us to shout to be heard over the howl. Fortunately, the dark grey clouds that had arrived did not produce any rain and the return hike was enjoyable despite hiking straight into the gusts.
This was a great little hike just minutes away from I-90 making it a nice pit stop for anyone traveling across Washington State. Despite the close proximity to the interstate, we had solitude on the trail, not seeing anyone until we were nearly back to the trailhead. I would like to do it again on a day with a little sun and blue skies.
Directions to trailhead: from Ellensburg, drive east on I-90 to exit 143. Turn left onto Silica Road and drive 0.8 miles. Turn left on Vantage Road and drive 2.7 miles to a small parking area on the right.