Frenchman Coulee

Difficulty: Easy

Distance: 4 miles round trip

Venture into a small but impressive canyon located on a shelf above the Columbia River and see its imposing basalt walls, sculptured rocks, and a plummeting waterfall. Here in the Channeled Scablands of Central Washington, summer can be blistering hot and winter can be bone-chilling cold. But spring is divine with agreeable temperatures, ample sunshine, and a canyon floor alive with dazzling wildflowers.

The trail follows an old jeep track east into the canyon. Managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Frenchman Coulee is part of the multi-unit 192,000 acre Columbia Basin Wildlife Area consisting of outstanding shrub-steppe ecosystems. It's a popular hunting area in fall, but wildflower admirers and bird watchers flock here in the spring.

Bear right at a junction at 0.2 miles. The trail parallels the old highway for a short distance before the road starts climbing out of the coulee, then the old jeep track stays pretty level as canyon walls rise. At 0.8 mile, continue right at another junction and skirt the base of some steep basalt cliffs littered with rusting car parts and other debris. Look up at the old highway blasted into ledge and spanning deep chasms. Try to envision back the 1930s and '40s, when cars puttered up the highway under the hot sun and pulled over in distress, steam spouting from the radiator cap.

The tread now gets a little sandier and softer. Skirt big talus slopes that are home to reptiles and small mammals. Now well below the highway and away from popular climbing spots, engine and human sounds are replaced by wind, birdsong, and the water from the waterfall.

At 2.0 miles reach the base of the cascade near a big talus slope. The flow is regulated by runoff and irrigation, so it sometimes runs dry, but ravens and raptors still fly above it. Marvel too at the depth and scope of the coulee from here inside it.

Watch For: hedgehog cactus, increasingly rare here due to illegal collecting

Note: Discover Pass required

Getting There: From Seattle follow I-90 east to Exit 143, turning left (north) onto Silica Road. Proceed for 0.8 mile and turn left onto Vantage Road. Now follow this road—the old Highway 10—west 3.6 miles down into Frenchman Coulee to the trailhead located on your right.

Craig Romano is the author of nine Washington hiking books, including Day Hiking Eastern Washington.

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